Extreme exercise is out – it’s all about slow fitness

slow exercise3

Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz and published 8 September 2017

The primary belief within the fitness industry seems to be that if something is good, then more of it is better.  More weight, more reps, more often.  And it’s not just the fitness industry that has this ‘go hard or go home’ attitude, at some stage we all get caught up in this race to be better or work harder – better houses, better jobs, better bodies – to the point that it overwhelms.

Striving to better is not necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary, doing things to improve ourselves, our lives and our bodies is really kind of the point. But how do you know what you’re doing is actually getting you to your end goal, especially where health and fitness is concerned?

Extreme exercise – for example CrossFit, HIIT, powerlifting, ultra-endurance – have all had their time in the sun over the last few years.  Each of these has captured people’s imagination, appealed to a need to feel a sense of accomplishment, empowerment or control and built fitness communities where people have found connection with others in a time when we are more disconnected than ever.

But we’re now starting to see an increase in the popularity of slow fitness.  Much like how the fast and convenience food culture has given rise to a made-from-scratch, nourishing, slow food philosophy, slow exercise is gaining more momentum.

More people are realising that going hard all the time isn’t always better, and that the quality of how we move and live in daily life is becoming more important than how hard we smashed a workout.  Especially if you find you can’t walk very well for the next week.

This evolution in the fitness industry could be down to several things:

  • the effects of extreme exercise on the body – a rise in cortisol levels affecting sleep, digestion and libido; or injury, exhaustion, sore muscles and compromised immune function from overtraining.
  • there’s only so much pain an individual can put themselves through before they decide it’s enough.
  • or it could just be that the fitness industry evolves and cycles through trends.

Either way, the slow fitness thing is on the increase.

Slow fitness like yoga, qigong, and tai chi focus on breathing and quality of movement and is the perfect antidote for our sedentary lifestyle which is making it harder and harder for people to move with ease.

While extreme exercise may be appealing for some, when it’s hard getting up and down from the floor, CrossFit might not be the best choice straight off your couch. The priority should be on gaining and maintaining mobility, improving the body’s ability to move in different directions more effortlessly and gradually building up – and people are starting to realise this.

The ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality that’s been predominant in the fitness industry for so long and perpetuated by reality television shows like The Biggest Loser is starting to be reconsidered as its long-term effectiveness and sustainability is brought into question.

Slow fitness moves away from the ‘exercise as punishment’ idea and encourages us to listen to our bodies’ innate intelligence, incorporating more mindful practices as opposed to ‘pushing through’ and fighting with our bodies.

The mental/emotional component of slow fitness also helps to lower stress hormone output and stimulates production of serotonin, a calming, feel-good hormone.  The bottom line is we just feel better when we’re not causing ourselves pain.

I’m not saying that extreme fitness is bad, or is going to die out – it’s always going to be an option to do CrossFit, or a HIIT workout and testing your limits is how you get stronger, faster or bigger (if that’s your goal).  What I am saying is that this idea of moderation or balance in exercise or physical activity is becoming more widespread and its benefits are being acknowledged.

We’re recognising that we can’t go hard all the time, and that we need to also make room to recover, rebuild and restore energy.