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Can You Only Do One Kind of Exercise?

Can You Only Do One Kind of Exercise?

In today’s Fact or Fiction post, I’m going to be answering another question from my “Everything You Always Wanted to Know” Google Form.

An anonymous poster asked:

Would it be bad to only do exercise you like even if it’s not a balance of cardio/strength/different modes of moving? Like would doing just yoga or only running be a bad way to be an active person?

Anonymous

Let’s leave out the fact that the person used the word “bad” twice in their question. I don’t think this says anything about the questioner – I think it says a lot, however, about how we culturally frame our mental approach to exercise, weight, and health. Let’s just quickly reaffirm the fact that there is no bad way to be active, and move on.

What they’re really asking is: “Is it possible to yield good physical and mental returns if your exercise portfolio is all invested in one stock?”

This is a great question!

As usual, my answer has some caveats attached. Let’s explore!

First of all, yes, it is possible to be healthy and to be active and really, really focus in one domain of exercise, like yoga or running. In fact, most people who exercise will have an inclination toward one specific activity.

For me, it’s running. I absolutely love to both walk and run. In fact, if I had to choose that I could either never weight train or never run again, I would definitely pick running as my forever exercise.

But the problem with doing only one kind of exercise over and over is that it limits you in three ways:

  • Repetitive, unvarying exercise tends to create a “perfect storm” for nagging overuse injuries and discomforts.
  • It stops being as effective – your body will quickly adapt to a specific activity and you will not see the same results from the same amount of exercise.
  • Depending on the type of exercise you favor, you will have major blind spots in terms of strength, flexibility, or cardiovascular health.

Let’s dive into the solutions for these three problems!

Preventing Overuse Injuries

First, to really enjoy being active, injury prevention is incredibly important. The best approach to injury prevention is what I (and many other fitness professionals) call “pre-hab” – doing the kinds of exercises you might have to do in physical therapy if you actually injured yourself, but in a preventative fashion instead of as a treatment.

The key is targeted training. In other words, you know what areas are under-developed by your favorite activity, and you actively target those weak spots with your additional workouts.

Runners, for example, tend to overdevelop the fronts of their legs and under-develop the backs of their legs (including the glutes) and the core. This sets up many runners for lower back pain, hip pain, knee pain, and more. It great benefits runners to strength train their glutes, hamstrings, and core every single week.

Preventing Unwanted Adaptation

Sometimes, adaptation is good. Otherwise, our preferred activity would never get easier. Every run would feel just as hard as the first one, accomplishing increasingly difficult yoga poses would be impossible, and we would never make any progress in lifting weights.

But to some degree, adaptation is also a negative, because it means we stop making progress (or it dramatically slows down) if we don’t intentionally switch things up, even within our preferred type of exercise.

For example, if your preferred type of exercise is HIIT strength classes, those classes may be fun, but you’re not going to keep getting stronger and fitter unless you swap out of some of your HIIT classes for occasional restorative exercise (i.e., yoga or pilates) and more moderate exercise sessions (slower-paced but heavier weightlifting sessions, for example).

Even within our favorite “sport,” shuffling up the types of workouts within that sport can really help you make faster, easier progress. When I coach runners, for example, I always make sure that we approach running from many different angles – long runs, fast runs, hard runs, easy runs, sprints, and speed play. This helps runners continue to make progress without stalling out at a particular speed or distance.

There is also a weight loss component to adaptation – when our bodies become too “adapted” to a particular level of the same kind of exercise over and over, the exercise stops being as effective for weight maintenance. It truly helps weight loss efforts to have a robust, varied program in terms of both types of exercise and levels of intensity.

Using “Minimum Effective Dose”

Finally, for people who particularly enjoy one type of exercise, I recommend that they adopt a “minimum effective dose” mindset. In other words, if running is your pleasure, then only do strength training and yoga as much as is needed to benefit your primary exercise (running).

Maybe you want to run every day. What I would suggest is running 3-4 times a week instead, and doing a very little bit of targeted strength training on other days – maybe just 20 minutes twice a week.

If your preferred type of exercise is weightlifting or yoga or Pilates and you absolutely hate cardio, then I recommend only doing as much cardio as you need to be maintain your cardiovascular health and endurance – maybe a moderately challenging session twice per week.

Diversifying your exercise portfolio doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours and hours doing a type of exercise you don’t enjoy. Think of it more as taking a pill – if you’re a runner, taking your weekly “prescription” of a glute strength training session will make you a better runner. You don’t need to do that much of it, but it does need to happen.

Exercise should be enjoyable and rewarding – otherwise we won’t stick with it. Find the types of activity you enjoy and go hard in that direction, but use the tips from this blog post to include balance, as well. By including little bits of your non-favorite types of training, you will be even better at the activity you really enjoy, and will be a fitter, healthier person overall.