• Nathan Riley, MD

What Do Exercise and Nickelback Have in Common?

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

Our obsession with exercise needs to go the way of Nickelback. It’s been fun, but it’s time to move on. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely brushing off its obvious health benefits. But at some point, the law of diminishing return rears its head, and the gains decline.

Note: If you choose to dive deeper, here’s a disclaimer: Exercise might be a reasonable top priority if you’re a professional athlete or if you are rehabilitating after an injury. Otherwise, you’re probably doing too much. This article should not be seen as justification for poor lifestyle choices.

The other day, I was at the gym, and I was observing my co-exercisers slogging away for hours, clearly unhappy with the task of exercise.

Physicians like me have been telling you for decades that regular exercise is the path to enlightenment and well-being, and now here I am pitying my people as they count down the hours of their life in a sweaty gym. In retrospect, I think my advice has been misguided.

Before you head to Home Depot to stock up on Tiki torches and run me out of town, remember that I’m one of you. I’m an Ironman. I’ve coached at several different CrossFit gyms since I discovered the sport of fitness in 2009. I’ve been known to do pushups at rest stops on road trips. I’m that guy.

But now I’m rethinking things. After years of proselytizing the benefits of high intensity, high volume workouts, I’m now wondering: how much exercise is enough?

Look at this wheel:

Each of these elements contributes to your happiness and well-being. There’s no answer to the question of “how much is enough exercise to be optimally happy and well”, but if you are dedicating all of your free time to cable machines and barbells, you are naturally neglecting other pieces of the pie that contribute to a well-balanced, happy life, things like your social network or sleep.

Taking this one step further, I also find that the relationship between exercise volume

(hours of exercises per week) and the benefits reaped is best described by an inverted U-shaped curve like this.

Don’t get caught up in the details. This curve simply suggests that there’s a benefit to some exercise, but additional volume beyond a certain point is detrimental.

Even the most “fit” individual will face injury if the stress overwhelms her body’s ability to recover. This curve, by the way, is used to describe our body’s resistance to cortisol. It thus describes the influence of stress on a biological system. Endocrine issues abound when women are hell bent on exercise in their reproductive years. Here’s another schematic if you are still perturbed by my insistence that there’s such a thing as too much exercise.

Photo credit to @Bobbymaximum on Instagram

I digress.

From a practical standpoint, I realize that your social network may also be tied in with your gym experience, and I think that’s great. Let the wheel above guide your indecision. It can be helpful to plot your personal lifestyle choices on the wheel to see quite clearly which areas you are neglecting. It won’t be a perfect circle, but nothing is. An alternative to chugging away at the gym might look like a weekly ultimate frisbee game, taking up bouldering, or going out for a night of dancing, any of which improves your health in innumerable ways while simultaneously stimulating your social network at relatively low cost. Plus you’ll actually have fun.

The reality is that nobody cares how much you exercise. Nobody cares if you have abs. And, truthfully, there’s always going to be somebody out there who is faster or stronger than you. When you hit your fifties, your 100-yard dash time will only elicit sympathy: “Wow! That’s a great time for a fifty-year-old”. Nobody cares but you, and that’s OK.

If you do the majority of the maintenance on your house, car, and yard, ask yourself if that’s enough. The way I see it, if you can contribute in a useful way to helping a friend move without hurting yourself and if you walk or ride a bicycle to get around most of the time, then you are already getting enough exercise. If you think excessive focus on “health and fitness” is going to help you live longer, you’re being misled.

Now go sleep, meditate, have sex, make dinner for your wife, play with your kids, plant a garden, stare at the stars, read a book, or learn a card trick. Those things will serve you better than more exercise if you are already strong enough and coordinated enough to live your every day life.

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