Thursday, October 7, 2010

The fine art of the Nudge - optimizing exercise to support body comp change - the more of less

Have you heard this one or perhaps felt this way "I work out and then i feel so sore the next day, i just don't feel like doing it again." I've heard this response frequently this past week when putting together some research strategies with tech experts on the subject of wellbeing.

It's interesting to explore why most of us who don't currently work out or do so infrequently feel we have to work until we need a bucket for the experience to have value. The weird thing is that when asked, we don't necessarily have a reply. Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Turn on the TV and see ads for 6 or 12 week programs where the goal is by the end of the workout to collapse in a puddle, one might think that that was indeed the case (i've written before about some issues with these approaches).

All we need is (a) Nudge Dan John talks about just needing to "nudge" our workouts to get exceptional returns in strength . I'd suggest that we see value in applying that approach across the board for well being. Why? It turns out that the way we're wired, nudging our progress may be more effective and beneficial for the long haul that anything else - body comp changes included.  So let's look a little bit at this exercise myth of working out "hard" vs working out "well"

UnFit Myth #1 for Body Comp Change: Non Stop Intensity

1) Have to work out "really hard" - to the point of collapse from fatigue to get results (but i hate how i feel the next day).

Let's assume results mean burning fat, dropping fat mass. What does all this frenetic activity mean? If we're just getting into working out, fatigue comes from a lot of places. First of all, our bodies haven't adapted to the demands of working out. We get "gassed"  or "winded" No kidding. We just don't have the capacity in our bodies - yet - to work out either long or hard.  We run out of available energy.  Literally.

A Nudge is All that's Required
SO what's the point of exercise? It's to engage and extend a process of change; it's all the words ending in  "-er." Like go fast-er, lift strong-er, run long-er, jump high-er. Exercise is literally *changing* us as our bodies adapt to the new loads. Let's consider a few of the changes that occur

Breathing For instance, when we're out for a light run and our hearts are at about 60% of whatever their 100% capacity to beat in a minute is, but we still feel initially like that's pretty taxing - we can only do it for a few minutes at a time - here's part of what our bodies are doing: they're creating MORE of a particular part of our cell - the mitochondria - that chews fat and turns it into energy. More mitochondria means that we can take more fat in and convert it into energy so we can keep going. That's great.

Muscle Likewise when we lift weights - also really great for body comp - if the load is even a bit of a challenge for us - we do even a few reps, regularly, our very muscles change. The theory (sliding filament) goes that they have components that almost like a tug of war that grab onto each other and pull to contract or the muscle. This growth is part of why, over time, we get stronger; the once heavy weight feels lighter.

Learning/Nervous system One more really critical change is in our wiring. When we do anything physically, we are learning how to do it; our muscles are likewise learning how to perform a particular technique. When we feel ourselves shaking when we hold a new posture that's usually our nervous system rapidly trying to figure out in this new move what muscles need to fire when to support this movement. Repetitions are really important for that.

Enter the Nudge
What Do We Need For Adaptation?
Some of us think we exercise to lose weight. Fair enough. That's almost another myth though. Exercise isn't really about weight loss. It's actually a secondary component to diet - how much that component contributes to  fat burning really depends on how much we do, and somewhat on what kind of work we do when we're doing it.

The primary effect of exercise is to help us become more robust, and, as i've pointed to before, become smarter (another "-er) as well. Seriously. This bullet proofing occurs by pushing our system to adapt, to make those changes described above, to support what we're doing while being less taxing.

That's an important point for us to get: we need to do something in such a way that our bodies need to change to support that demand physiologically and neurologically.

Just Enough.
So our bodies can only change so much physiologically at once. Figuring out that amount is part of an ongoing debate, but one of the toughest things for many people to get is that usually what we actually need to do to promote an adaptation is a lot less than we think. A. Lot. Less.

But what does less mean? Less can happen over
  • time: how long an action is carried out - like the length of a workout
  • volume how much work is done within that time - volume of something
  • intensity how much effort the work takes, or how heavy a load is relative to how much one can lift once
So we can vary any of these components. Some programs have folks working  for long workouts (over an hour), for medium to high effort (intensity) for many sets (volume).

Some workouts focus on taking a long time to lift heavy loads (intensity) 2 or 3 times (volume), taking a long time (5 minutes or more) between doing maybe five sets (volume) .

Each of these approaches does different things to the body and each has particular costs. From the long, intense, multi-set workout, people feel fatigued and also often sore. Intriguingly the heavy workouts with few reps, few sets and long rest breaks can have very similar effects without inducing fatigue.

What's going on?  Muscle Fibers and Oxidative capacity
Without going into a lot of detai, there's two things at least at play in getting body comp change without killing oneself
- aerobic adaptation - more mitochondria
- muscle fiber type - hitting the sweet spot for muscle response

Aerobic Adaptation By doing ANYTHING that will elevate our hearts above 60% of max - the classic working hard but can still carry on a conversation - we are causing a performance related adapatation to take place in our bodies - we are causing more mitochondria to get built so that more fat can be utilized to produce more energy to keep us going longer and harder without putting us in the ground.

Muscular Adaptation The main thing about adaptation is that we need to keep nudging our current state. That may mean one day if out for a run, going a few seconds longer or a wee bit harder for a little bit, a few times throughout the run. That means in lifting we might use waves of loads so that in a week we have a lighter, medium and heavy day with what we're doing - doing the same lifts each day. As long as there's a *bit* of a challenge, and adaptation occurs. There are many ways to do this kind of waving of loads, but the main thing is that by waving the loads we challenge our muscle fibers to have to respond to get stronger so that we can do more - and doing more also requires more energy, which means more fuel gets burned.

Recovery - the Sweet Spot of Adaptation. If we are fatigued and can't rest, our efforts can go for not because our recovery sucks. So, one way to ensure great adapatation is to go just to the place of getting that adaptation demand - the nudge on our current level - and getting good rest since it's in the recovery that the adaptation occurs - while our bodies figure out what they need to do to support loads like we've given them

Food - optimizing fuel intake
Another aspect of suppoprting exercise is fuel. Just because we have fat to burn for fuel, doesn't mean that we don't need to eat. There's stuff we need every day in our bodies to be efficient. In fact it's sometimes harder to burn fuel without the presence of food. But again what we need is usually less than we think - but less of the right stuff. Precision Nutrition makes figuring out what when very easy with its habits based approaches. Here's a free overview.

Take Away: Less of the Right Work =  More of the Right results
So the point of exercise is to create an adaptation in the body: to help it become progressively more robust, and a better burner of fuel (fat in particular) to become that lean mean machine.

The main thing is - and this is what's really hard to get - is that adaptation can be, to use Dan John's phrasing "nudged" - in fact it's better for us to nudge the adaptation than to try to crush ourselves. Why? our nervous system can get really stressed if every workout is super intense. Ironically, working out like that can make us sick.

This doesn't mean we can't work out hard. It means we don't have to workout THAT hard ALL the time. That means deliberately backing off in order to gain more strength, gain more adapatation.

We'll come back another time to examples of such approaches, but the point is that gains will happen consistently effectively and too easily for anyone to believe in terms of strength and aerobic capacity.

DIET: Combine this nudging approach with good nutrition practices, like Precision Nutrition, and you're away.

One thing that seems to have the best effect is daily practice: find a way to do something every day.

The people who are most happy with their body comp it seems, seem to be doing something that is causing an adaptation for at least 5 hours a week. This 5 hour approache includes anything that is getting the heart rate up for five hours a week.

We can Play frisbee or five a side football (rated most effective for ex-coach potatoes) with our pals for a couple hours a week; lift some weights (go ligher than you think - half the load you can lift once); push some weights; pull some weights; swing some weights pretty much every day when it's something that's not going to kill us.  THere are loads of great programs available. Sources i trust and have written about here are by Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John because on the weights side, they are masters of the Nudge. Indeed take a look at the record setting results Dan got with Pavel's 40 day way less is way more approach. Look as well at how Asha Wagner got tremendous strength PR's practicing with half the loads she would use in competition.

On the cardio/endurance side, i like a mix of steady state, play, and intervals. There's nice research on how to optimize fat burning outside intervals and within intervals.But again, these can all be achieved in a huge variety of ways that enhance well being, sense of joy and more robust us-ness.

Summing Up
Adaptation. That's what exercise is about. So we really do need to be kind to ourselves. We adapt readily; it's how we're wired. We adapt to change best and for the long haul it seems by Nudging. So do something that gets the heart up more of the time; super intensity being valuable, but less of the time. This way we can always urge the nudge on. Last month the nudge meant i lifted X; this month it's X+y. THat y might be more sets; more load; more time.

Killing ourselves to feel better? Not on. In fact, it's counter productive. Sure we can do it for three months but the cost on day 91 isn't often pretty. And then what on day 92?

Good Exercise Practice is about sustained adaptation towards a better, stronger, leaner us. That better is better when it's a Nudge: progressive, allows for excellent recovery and is accompanied by good nutrition habits.


Unknown said...

Hey MC,

Long time (like a year and a half or so) reader of your blog. I've been using it to great effect in my life and want you to know how much I've valued all the information you put up here.

Unknown said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention that this last post was fantastic enough to get me to finally comment. =)

Gary Horn said...

Agreed, Nate. Thinking "nudge" feels achievable and less discouraging.

dr. m.c. said...

thank you, Nate for taking the time to write. That's much appreciated. Glad some stuff has been useful to you here.

Gary you keep trucking, dude.



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