There's always more to learn

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Q: Is it better to work out every day or to alternate between harder days and recovery days?

A: It depends on your goals. If you are trying to build exercise into your daily routine, I think it's better to do a moderate amount on a regular basis than to jump in with hard or long workouts that necessitate recovery days.


I encourage people to figure out a time in their day when exercise makes the most sense and to commit to exercise of some form every day at that time. For example, maybe your lunch hour is the most predictable time of your day. Usually you spend the hour eating your lunch and scrolling around on the web. To make the most of this time with your new routine, you'll spend the first half of your lunch break going for a brisk walk around the neighborhood and then eating your lunch afterward. Or, if you have a fitness facility nearby, go and lift weights for 25 minutes before you eat. This routine takes some pre-planning and may seem like a hassle at times, but the benefits, both physical and mental, are many.


When you are already in a regular exercise routine and feel like you have hit a plateau in your progress, or are training for an event, my advice is quite different. In these situations, you need to step it up to see progress, and that means going harder or longer a couple of times per week. And these harder workouts will require that you give your body a recovery day. This recovery day doesn't necessarily mean complete rest, but it does mean very low impact and low heart rate. Swimming, walking, yoga, or easy biking are wonderful recovery day exercises.


If we are sensible, it's not usually too difficult to recognize when our body needs a rest day: We wake up tired, we are chronically achy and sore, or our mood is suspiciously low. When these things happen, a rest day is usually in order. When we honor those messages, we feel better pretty quickly. But It's the brain that gets in the way of paying attention and respecting what the body is telling us. All kinds of emotions bubble up and lead to irrational thinking that causes us to push ourselves unnecessarily. Guilt, FOMO, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and fear are just some feelings that cause us to override body signals and logical reason.


Exercise habits provide daily opportunities to practice skills that are used in other areas of life. If you're a runner, you pay attention to your breathing, how your muscles are feeling, the time you have for your workout, and your goals to determine how hard to push each day. If you're lifting weights, you consider what muscles feel energized versus sore, how your body is responding to the different movements and resistance, and factor in your goals when deciding how much to rest between sets. During these workouts, you are practicing mindfulness. If you are operating simply on autopilot or ignoring cues from your body, you're more likely to either hurt yourself or stagnate. Mindfulness during workouts lets you make intentional choices so you can be effective as you work on improving your fitness.


Mindfulness is more than just a serene way of moving through the world. Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening right in front of you and making intentional decisions about the most effective course of action in whatever it is you are doing. Being mindful at work can help you pay closer attention to details and make fewer mistakes. Being mindful in relationships can help you grow closer and avoid unnecessary conflict. Being mindful while eating can help you make healthier choices and build confidence in yourself, if this is an area in which you've struggled.


So much growth and learning happen in these moments.


Try this: Notice when you're pushing hard in a workout - notice that your brain is telling you to quit - scan your body for pain signals - you may very well realize that your body can handle it. You choose to continue pushing and get to the end feeling exhausted and exhilarated and proud of yourself. Notice this. Relish this. Your brain will remember that feeling and be able call on the experience when you're in a difficult situation in another area of your life.


Everyone has situations that bring up uncomfortable emotions and irrational thoughts. Interacting with certain people or seeing certain things on social media can cause us to feel familiar urges to run or to fight. When you've practiced noticing emotions and thoughts during your workouts and then choosing what to do with that information, it becomes a bit easier to stay present and focused in those situations when relationships or self-esteem or your career are on the line.