If you've followed MAC Fitness in the last year or so, you’ve probably noticed that I enjoy logging my workouts.
Not only is it a great way to measure any progress you're making, it’s also a great way to identify any weak links and develop a plan to combat them over time.
‘Hello. My name is Mike Mackey, and I’m a self-proclaimed statistics geek.’
Long before wearable activity trackers and smartphones made it easier, I used to write out each and every workout I did.
I meticulously tracked every exercise, every repetition and every mile, caring way more about the quantity of work I was doing, than I did about the quality.
In hindsight, I probably cared far more about keeping them neat and organized than I did about improving my performance. I spent so much time focusing on the presentation, that I rarely took the time to take note of my progression - or lack thereof - in the gym.
Like so many other health professionals, my late teens and early 20s were purely about misguided attempts at getting ‘ripped.’ I felt like as long as I was hitting the gym every day, it didn’t matter what I ate, what I drank or when I slept.
The only thing I was measuring was how fast, how far, how much and how often.
This is what’s known as “training for fitness.”
While it doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, it can be if you start neglecting your health at the expense of looking “fit.”
In my university years, I never considered the quality of food I was eating, let alone understand what my body needed to complement the amount of activity I was doing.
The only thing I thought I knew, was that you should burn more calories than you eat.
I thought I was getting enough sleep.
I mean, sleeping until noon after a night out on George Street must be enough, right?
Stress management wasn’t even on my radar. Come to think of it, does any 20-year old know the importance of managing stress?
All of this info begs the question - what exactly does it mean to “train for health”?
Tons of attention goes toward exercise and movement.
Plenty - yet not quite as much - goes to nutrition.
Overall well-being is starting to come to the forefront of health and wellness, but it is still often misunderstood in the context of exercise, and how much is "enough" to reap the benefits.
This is all very closely related to rest and recovery - likely the single-most misunderstood and neglected aspect of health.
You've heard of "no pain, no gain"?
Yeah. I hate that saying.
I've been in the industry for half of my life, I've played tons of sports, and upon entering my mid-
30s, I was starting to feel pain. And I certainly wasn't making gains.
So in October of 2020, curious to find out more about my own personal health and fitness, I purchased a Polar Fitness Chest Strap HR Monitor and Ignite Smart Watch to go along with it.
First off - I'm not sponsored by Polar or anything - although that would be pretty sweet.
I just really like their products.
I also want to illustrate that I used the chest strap monitor to track the intensity of my workouts. This tends to be a little more accurate than wrist-based monitors when it comes to intensity.
I primarily used my watch to track overall activity levels (ex. Steps, Distance), and sleep/recovery. Its waterproof, so virtually the only time I wasn't wearing it was during a quick recharge.
The most important part of my research, was simply being a guinea pig for those who entrusted me with their fitness goals.
I wanted to see how my personal workouts compared to the those I was creating for my clients. I wanted to learn more about the intensity levels, making sure that I had enough variety to offer classes for all skill levels - regardless of experience.
I had no idea what I was in for, and a full year later I'm excited to share what I've learned.
I was very diligent - I didn't miss a day for the entire year.
I have 365 days of data spread out over a variety of locations and situations.
As a health professional, I always advocate for a balanced lifestyle, but I've found that the elements that are easy to measure (exercise and nutritional intake) are incredibly influenced by the ones that aren’t (sleep quality and stress levels).
The real key to long-term success is to see how they interact with each other, and make the necessary adjustments along the way.
Read on to see what I learned - it may help you too!
1. Training in paradise vs. Training in a pandemic
Personally, the past 12 months have been split down the middle in terms of my ability to be active.
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend 6 months living and working in Costa Rica, Mexico and the southwest United States.
In addition to the warm weather, I had a gym and plenty of other forms of physical activity at my disposal, pretty much every day. The food was great, stress was low and I’d likely never been at a better point in my life.
The other six months? Well, that’s another story.
Stop me if you've heard this - a global pandemic separated me from my family and friends, I lost my job, and I started the slow process of packing up my life in Halifax and moving back home.
Before I could do that, moving and travelling resulted in a total of 6 weeks of self-isolation, double vaccination in Texas (ironic, right?), plenty of COVID-19 tests and, to this day, a lot of unknown about how things will work in the future.
Throw in a couple lockdowns and... you get the picture.
What's the point?
My environment had a major impact on my physical activity - and it had a profound impact on my overall health.
When I couldn't move my body the way I wanted to, my mindset suffered.
I was moodier, and more prone to feel "stressed out" about things that would otherwise just motivate me.
I had more bodily aches and pains.
It affected how I ate, and how well I slept.
Movement is medicine, so don't take for granted the benefits of doing it regularly, and don't underestimate the negative impacts of not doing enough.
2. It’s a lot easier to overtrain than you think it is.
With movement freshly in our minds, let us not forget that it is very possible to have too much of a good thing.
‘Overdoing it’ is easy to understand.
Overtraining? Not so much.
In some capacity, overtraining is a long-term problem - but not in the way that most people think.
Overtraining isn’t the result of training too hard, for too long - it’s actually the result of doing too much, too soon, after not doing enough, for too long.
The peaks and valleys of training are normal, but they certainly aren’t ideal when considering progress - or sticking to it long enough to see said progress.
This is why legitimate health and fitness professionals advocate for consistent and sustainable habits before changing too much. Personally, I challenge clients to achieve 10-12 workouts in their first month, so I can closely monitor how their body and their mind responds.
In this industry, you will constantly come across people who have gone through fad diets and workout programs, likely with weeks, months or even years between consistent active periods.
They expect that it’s reasonable to go from zero to a hundred percent effort, and then wonder why they burn out (eventually).
The answer is called overreaching - essentially, a noticeable uptick in activity levels, based on what you had been doing in the days and weeks prior.
While it is perfectly fine to "overdo it" on occasion, doing it for too long increases your risk for injury because you aren’t allowing the body to recover in the way that it needs.
I train for a living, and it’s taken years of consistency to reach a point that I can effectively (and progressively) train 5 days per week, balancing strength training, cardiovascular training and the other physical activities I enjoy.
Depending on the season, three days a week is sufficient.
Its pretty simple - you can't train when you're hurt or exhausted, so you need to gradually build up your activity levels. If you start at 100%, you literally have nowhere to go but down.
If you have been inactive or inconsistent for more than a month, a program that exceeds 3-4 moderate intensity workouts per week isn’t for you.
3. Measure and manage your sleep - You’ll be amazed
I have a ton of friends, colleagues and clients who have young children, and I probably know even more who are shift workers, first responders and healthcare workers.
I don't have children and I work for myself. It’s easy for me to say “you should be getting eight hours of sleep every night”, but the unfortunate truth is that it just isn’t realistic for many people.
Not everyone has the same 24 hours in a day.
Instead, I have learned to become an advocate for sleep quality.
Eating earlier is still advice used for avoiding weight-gain. I don’t really play that game, so I’ll advocate for the sleep benefits of avoiding late night snacks instead.
Same can be said for screen time.
And alcohol! Even just a little bit!
I have always struggled with sleep quality, because I tend to fall asleep on my stomach, and then I toss and turn throughout the night.
It's something that I've worked on a long time, but especially the past year.
If you take a great 8-hour sleep on a Tuesday night, and compare it to a weekend night where you had a handful of drinks (or more), you'd probably be shocked at how much it effects you.
Heart rate is elevated.
Sleep quality sucks.
It effects you for days afterwards, so getting a daily update really makes you want to keep it in check.
Once you start to document how a good night sleep - and in turn, a shitty sleep - effects your mental and physical performance, you'll become an advocate for your own sleep quality too.
I guarantee it.
4. Everyone should be doing full-body resistance training.
The research is clear, and the reasons are numerous.
Time efficiency. Strength adaptation. Workout variety. Injury resistance. Movement quality and longevity. Enjoyment. Adherence.
This list goes on and on and on.
Still, some people think that it is best to break their workouts up into muscle groups. It seems to work fine for some people, but honestly, the majority would benefit more from training movement patterns instead of individual muscle groups.
Because many people who split their routine into muscle groups tend to miss out on the desired intensity level, especially when training smaller muscle groups, like the arms and shoulders.
So what do they do? Add some cardio at the end of the workout.
Although the intention is good, what this usually does is tax the muscular and cardiorespiratory system. If they train a larger muscle group the following day, their performance is likely suffering in some way, shape or form.
Grip strength. Dehydration. Range of motion. Fatigue.
There are any number of reasons for a “poor workout,” even if you aren’t fully aware of it.
Since October 2020, I have completed 206 training sessions. Of those, strength training made up almost 70 percent (141), while cardiovascular training made up about 25 percent (48).
The remaining of my training was made up of walking, swimming and various recreational sports.
It goes without saying that doing a variety of movement is essential to developing a well-rounded strength and endurance base, but full body training works better for two major reasons:
1. Time is a luxury that a lot of people don't have
2. We all have weaknesses to work on
Doing 2-3 full body workouts allows the majority of people to build strength and endurance into their routine in less time. In doing so, they get more opportunities to work on the things that give them trouble (ex. Aches and pains of the lower back, hip, knee)
At the age of 34, I've never felt better, and I'm stronger and more active than I've ever been.
It can work for you too!
5. Listen to your heart
Your heart rate may tell you more than you realize.
Plenty of people have trouble recognizing when they are stressed, but by monitoring your resting heart rate - specifically during sleep - you may discover something about yourself that you never knew.
Last year, I went through several stressful situations related to professional and personal life. During these times, I noticed that my resting heart rate was 10-20bpm higher than it normally was.
It was still within a healthy range (65 beats/min versus 45), but eye opening nonetheless.
I’m happy that I was able to note these physical changes that would otherwise be difficult to assess, because it made me aware that I should do something about it.
So I did, and it usually involved going for a walk.
Many people go years without realizing something may be wrong, and so it goes untreated. For example, people with elevated blood pressure often feel no symptoms until the issue becomes more serious.
The reasons for self-monitoring are different depending on the goal, but no matter what you decide to measure, it should always come back to one thing - personal health.
Fitness training certainly helps one become healthy, but excessive stress on the body will eventually have a negative impact, no matter what kind it is.
Have just as much - if not, more - respect for recovery and well-being as you do for the workout.
After 15 years in this industry, I still consider myself a lifelong student. I continuously want to learn about anything that can help my clients succeed.
It didn't occur to me that I could learn so much about myself.
I thought I knew how to listen to my body. I thought I had it all figured out.
I've often said that doing so is very similar to learning a new language, and very few people ever become fluent. Understanding the ups and downs, the aches and pains and the intricacies of exercise and health is a lifelong journey, because the field is always evolving.
New research is constantly emerging about the balance between health and fitness.
How far should one go when losing weight? What does it even mean to be have a "healthy bodyweight"?
How often does a person really need to lift weights to get the health benefits? How much is too much?
Do people care more about how they feel or how they look? How much does one impact the other?
The questions are endless, which is why it always helps to work with a qualified coach to help you navigate your individual path.
So with all that said - are you training for health... or for fitness?