The allure of “extreme” exercise workouts like “Insanity,” P90X, Cross Fit and Core Fusion Extreme CFX makes sense. Today more than ever, people long for the chance to achieve extraordinary feats and to feel special. What better way to transcend being a cog in the crowded and pushy global gabfest we live in than to have a shot at being exceptional? Extreme workouts offer a straightforward chance to stand out, experience self-discovery, choose a new, excitingly noble community, and be rewarded with recognition, not to mention the possibility of an action hero’s body.
The issue with extreme workouts is, are they good for you? Greg Glassman, Founder and CEO of Cross Fit, says yes. His punishing exercise routines, he believes, enable students to reach their “genetic potential.” The hulk-like female winner of his Cross Fit Games, he says, “was meant to look like that or she would have been eaten.” If you think about Glassman’s statement however, it will occur to you that he has his facts backwards. It was gorillas that got the Cross Fit bodies. Humans evolved to be agile, quick and resilient. The truth is, Glassman’s stiff, slab-like, top-heavy, injured cavewomen is more likely to have made an easy meal for swifter Stone Age predators.
Evidence is growing that our bodies were not meant to endure the heavy pounding of extreme workouts. One study (from The Journal of Strength & Conditioning) found that for every 100 Cross Fit students, 73.5 of them are injured, a 73.5% injury rate! The military has been especially impacted. Enlisted personnel have sustained so many injuries from Cross Fit and P90X, including some deaths, that the Pentagon has convened a panel to issue restrictions on these workouts. To make matters worse, damage to bones and tissues isn’t the only adverse result of these brutalizing workouts. There are dangerous metabolic consequences as well. “Rhabdomyolsis” is a serious condition that can cause kidney failure, permanent disability and even death. It has become so common among Cross Fit and P90X students that it has a nickname, “rhabdo.” Glassman does not seem to be concerned by this problem. Last week on “60 Minutes,” he gleefully boasted that he employs “80 lawyers” to combat the hundreds of lawsuits against Cross Fit.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with extreme workouts. A similar trend has ridden in on its coattails in the form of after-hours strength contests such as squatting and “planking” held in mainstream gyms and exercise studios. These competitions might not cause “rhabdo,” but they are injuring unsuspecting students.
One casualty was Lisa Brinkworth. Lisa is a resident of Buckinghamshire, England and the mother of three small sons. Last year, she started taking Pilates at a local studio and was inspired by a fellow student to sign up for a twice weekly “planking” competition. Initially she was excited by the planking event and did her best to hold the pose longer and longer.
Around Christmas, Lisa began suffering what she describes as an “excruciating pain in the left side of my chest.” The pain was so bad that she feared she was having a heart attack or had developed breast cancer. Doctors finally diagnosed her condition as “costochondritis,” an inflammation of the cartilage that joins the ribs to the breastbone. “How many of us,” she wondered, “are putting ourselves at risk of such a painful unnecessary injury?”
The answer is lots of us, including men who considered themselves plenty fit to jump right in. Two years ago, Matt Lombardi, a young, athletic web entrepreneur, landed in the hospital for five days with rhabdo after taking his first P90X class.
The foolhardiness of this injury pileup is that extreme workouts don’t provide students with many basic components of fitness including posture, flexibility, agility, and balance (This last ability could possibly lend itself to some competitive challenges that would be fun and safe).
Add it up, and you can only conclude that extreme fitness is promoting a fallacy. It not only fails to build overall fitness. It falls short on delivering the most essential element in athletic training: namely, step-by step practice. Cross Fit and other extreme brands are fooling untrained students into thinking they can be athletes without practice.
Practice has been struck from the extreme fitness template because their extreme workouts are an easier sell without it. In reality, practice is the tough part of winning, and the best athletes are well aware of this. It takes a fierce inner strength and patience for them show up at the court to throw hoops every day, to work with a spotting partner at a bench press, rain or shine, or to practice a pirouette and fall hundreds of times before they get it.
Relentless practice is what can truly transform your body and ability into something amazing. Too bad it’s gone missing in the extreme workout.
A new malady is sweeping the world, one that mainly targets children and teenagers but does not spare any age group. If you become afflicted, you can suffer disc herniation, pinched nerves, metabolic problems, reduced lung capacity, vascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, chronic headaches, poor emotional health, and chronic pain, not to mention reduced good looks. In 2008, the medical community named this new disorder “text neck.”
“Text neck” occurs when you allow your head, a ten-pound weight, to fall significantly forward of your body as you gaze down at an electronic device for long periods of time. This posture becomes more stressful on your spine as your head tilts progressively downwards. According to experts, every inch your head moves forward puts ten more pounds of weight on your spine. If for example you hold your head six inches forward, you are putting a crushing 60 pounds of weight on your back and shoulders. Worst of all, this posture eventually becomes engrained in your body. What our mothers told us, it turns out, is true: Slump, and you will get stuck that way! No wonder that we have an epidemic of young people with neck and back pain!
How do you treat “text neck?” Some doctors tell their patients to text less and try calling people. Others suggest lying backwards on an exercise ball. Chiropractors, who are all over this issue, recommend neck stretches and adjustments, and the cosmetic industry has come out with lotions to smooth neck wrinkles caused by texting.
These treatments might provide short term relief, but they fall short when it comes to providing a long term solution, one that would guard against getting “text neck” in the first place. Such a remedy could reset people’s posture physically and mentally so that they maintain relatively good posture throughout the day, even when they text. In my view, this solution would need to address “text neck” on three fronts: 1. Strengthen weak back and core muscles, 2. Increase poor body awareness and 3. Train in habitual good posture. You probably have already guessed where I’m going with this: the remedy is exercise.
Now that we’ve gotten this far, we still need to determine what kind of exercise best accomplishes these goals. For back strengthening, I’d like to suggest that barre workouts are an excellent choice. All barre classes, whether dance or exercise, compel your back muscles to work harder than usual over gravity as your muscles contract and extend, and many barre workouts include intense back strengthening intervals as well. In contrast, some ways of working out such as doing Nautilus circuits have you leaning on equipment much of the time. Second, an exercise-based remedy must teach you good posture, and last but not least it must increase body awareness by keeping you aware of your body alignment throughout the class. Without these last two features, a barre class could allow you to do the workout with your shoulders slumped, your back arched, and your head dropped forward, putting the 60 pounds on your spine that you’re trying to avoid!
All this considered, my recommendation for a long term solution to “text neck” is a barre workout that puts special emphasis on both improving posture and increasing body awareness. I know from personal experience that one such workout is The Bar Method. In a Bar Method class, teachers mention the posture benefit of each exercise, then help you as you work on your individual posture goals. If your shoulders go up, they will remind you by name to draw them down. If your head drops forward, they will encourage you to keep it lifted. They may also give you gentle hands-on adjustments to give you a deep awareness of your alignment.
Over the past decade, countless students have told me that The Bar Method’s focus on body awareness has transformed their posture. Hear it from a student named Amy, who wrote us this testimonial after one month of classes:
“I am becoming convinced that improved posture is now within my reach. I still have a ways to go, but that daily awareness is there, which is huge. An additional benefit is that in “standing tall” (versus slumping) I feel more energized and balanced. I’m sure I’m breathing deeper too. As I learn how to integrate all my muscles into good posture, I have a picture in my mind of what that looks and feels like now. I don’t want to go back!”
One last word on posture (see below): As the saying goes, if you don’t stand up straight, you could get stuck that way…forever
Last month, I read an article in The New York Times on some surprising new research about “mindfulness” and exercise. The story went a bit viral with health bloggers who rushed to post these findings, and it swept me along accordingly. (Translate the word “mindfulness” as used in this study not as a kind of spirituality but simply as the act of paying attention to what you’re doing.)
The article reported on the results of a research study on whether or not “mindfulness” plays a role helping people stick with exercise. I was so intrigued by this question that I looked up and read the original study, authored by a group of Dutch scientists at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. It turned out that the team’s report, unlike typical research papers, grabbed me like a chapter out of “Freakonomics” with its novel insights. Here in brief are the study’s three main conclusions:
- Being mindful during exercise makes it a more positive experience, even if you basically don’t like exercise, so you’re more likely keep doing it.
Switching to mindful exercise has less of an impact on people who already exercise regularly than on exercise beginners, who are significantly more likely to stick with an exercise routine if it engages them mentally.
- But here’s the twist! Once exercise becomes a habit, it’s by nature less mindful since habits are acts you do without having to think about them. Even at this stage, the researchers found, continued mindfulness has an impact. The subjects of the study who managed to stay mindful after they’d acquired the exercise habit were even more likely not to fall off the wagon than those who’d begun to zone out during their workouts.
These findings gave me an “aha” moment. Students have told me for years that the Bar Method is the only workout they’ve ever stuck with, and I’ve always suspected that the reason is that the workout demands a high degree of mindfulness. The Dutch study finally connected the dots for me between the many testimonials I get about how addicting The Bar Method is and the workout’s focus on keeping students mentally engaged.
Look at this idea – that there is a connection between mindfulness and stick-to-itiveness – as if you were taking a Bar Method class, and you’ll see how the mental component of the workout motivates you to want to repeat the experience. First, you know that your teacher and fellow students do not allow for slacking off (unless you’re modifying due to a medical condition), so you must collect your wits about you in order not to let up when your muscles start to burn. On top of that, the class demands that you stay in the exercise in good posture. Lose focus and drop your head, slump, or ease up on a move a few times, and your teacher will gently remind you by name to get back in form, then later compliment you on maintaining that form. You also hear the reminders and compliments that your teacher gives to your fellow students, and these too help you to keep your attention on your performance. These frequent prompts make the class a learning experience that you’re motivated to do again.
Once you become a regular student, the class continues to engross you because you’ve now seen and felt changes, and you’re excited to be progressing towards your personal goals. The methodical nature of the class has allowed you to improve step by step, and you increasingly enjoy the support of your teachers and your classmates along the way. A goal, for example, might be to increase your stamina during thigh-work or to heal after an injury. Possibly you want better posture, and you feel the workout both strengthening your back and mentally training you to carry yourself more upright. If your goal is to be more flexible, you take satisfaction in gradually weaning yourself off of straps and stall-bars. Finally, there are all the changes in your body and self-confidence that the Bar Method delivers like a gift with every class. These changes snowball into a feedback loop that spurs you to focus more and more on the details of the form, which you’ve learned are key for continuing body change. Ultimately, doing a mindful workout gives you a whole new reason for exercising: It becomes an experience you simply enjoy for its own sake.
Let me know your thoughts about mindful exercise.