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How to know what exercises to do in your gym workouts

Exercise smart, not hard, and match your exercise to your energy levels.
Exercise smart, not hard, and match your exercise to your energy levels.

Working as a personal fitness trainer in an Atlanta gym, I see many people doing the same exercises each week for months. Rarely do they look happy when working out, and during my 12 years in the industry, I’m unable to recall a time where I’ve seen someone running on a treadmill or using an elliptical or stepper with a smile on their face.

My point: If you’re going to exercise, then enjoy it!

1. Match your workout to your energy level

You are free from slavishly having to follow the same boring regime each time you go to the gym; cut yourself some slack and get some variety if it makes you happier. Just look online for exercise videos for ideas. I highly recommend visiting Atlanta's very own Total Fitness workout ideas videos. 

It has a wide selection of exercises, stretches, yoga, and qi-gong activities.

Let’s get concrete here: If you feel tired, yet want to do some physical activity, you will benefit by doing a restorative form of exercise for just one workout. This will be an activity that is close in intensity to how you’re feeling, and gently raises your energy levels. At the next workout, your energy levels may be higher and you can choose to stick to your regular class or programif that makes you happy.

Low energy, but want to workout
Let’s look at a scenario where you’ve had a hard day, you’re physically or emotionally tired, and your energy level is low. A high-intensity boot camp, spin, or step aerobics class would be a poor match on these days. Why? Because the physical intensity of the class is so much higher than the amount of energy you have left to give out. When you are tired, your parasympathetic nervous system is more active, and it deliberately reduces your physical energy levels to encourage you to slow down, rest, and repair.

Therefore if you’re tired, the energy level required for a high-intensity activity is not even a close match to your (temporarily low) energy level. Doing the class will adrenalize you, quickly drain you of energy, and you won't be listening to your body's own natural intelligence.

Exercise smart, not hard

Draining you of more energy when you’re already tired is not going to be enjoyable and won’t put a smile on your face. Be smart and make another choice because you have lots of choices when it comes to working out. Just tune into your energy levels and then decide what you want to do. Be both flexible and compassionate with yourself and your body. Listen to what it's directing you to do.

To make it crystal clear, when you’re feeling tired, your workout must gently raise your energy levels and energize you. This will help you feel happier, healthier, and ensure you get the best results from that workout. If your workouts are adrenalizing, and you’re tired and worn out afterwards, you’re exercising at too high an intensity. Drop the intensity.

Energize, not adrenalize

Working out too hard will lead to you feeling awake, slightly overstimulated, and adrenalized. These states are correlated with high levels of physiological stress known as the fight or flight response. 

Exercising in the fight or flight state slows your metabolism by destroying muscle tissue, makes your fat cells burn less fat every minute, and produces lots of the belly fat stimulating hormone named cortisol. 

Do you now realize that exercising at too a high intensity (for your energy level) leads to you storing MORE fat? Is that what you go to the gym for - to gain fat? If your workouts are not getting you results, you’ll benefit from rethinking your strategy and exercising according to your energy levels. Also look at your nutrition, sleep, hydration, and stress levels.

Depressed or anxious?

To hit the point home, a person with depression who has low energy levels and lowered motivation is not going to instantly jump at the chance of doing a high-intensity exercise activity. The idea of it will be aversive to them because it is out of sync with their energy levels. 

They will benefit mentally, physically, and emotionally from activity that is of a lower intensity, and yet gently raises their energy levels, such as a moderate to brisk walk, slow bicycle ride, tai chi, yoga, or qi-gong. Research supports this conclusion.

On the other hand, people with anxiety, whose minds are racing, are less likely to benefit from high-intensity cardiovascular exercise, and will do better from moderate intensity weights workouts and yoga, which slightly lowers the activity in their sympathetic nervous system, making them calmer and happier.

High energy and want to workout?

Let’s say you have boundless energy. You are in the delightful position of being able to choose a class or workout that is energetic, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, or something that is lower intensity, depending on what you want to get out of the session.

Be smart, tune into your body before and during each workout, and give it what it needs to get optimal results.


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