76ers v Lakers
Harry How  /  Getty Images file
Professional athletes like Allen Iverson, right, of the Philadelphia 76ers, don't stay at the top of their game by doing the same workouts over and over — and neither should you. Iverson, shown dribbling past Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers in February, is heading to the Olympics next month.
By MSNBC contributor
msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2004 6:22:41 PM ET 2004-07-15T22:22:41

What's the best way to get out of an exercise rut? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To send an e-mail, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q:  I exercise several times a week but I'm not seeing the gains that I used to. Basically, I think I'm in a rut. Any advice?

A: If you're doing the same activities week in and week out — say cycling for 20 minutes at a certain pace and then hitting your usual weight-machine circuit — you're bound to eventually hit what fitness experts call a plateau.

Essentially, your body adapts to the type and frequency of physical activity that you're doing, so the exercise isn't as challenging as it used to be. And while you won't see major declines in your physical fitness, you won't see improvements either because you're not subjecting your body to enough stimulus for change.

So if your goal is to boost performance, you are, as you noted, in a rut.

Even people who are happy with their current fitness levels can suffer from a static exercise routine. Repeatedly working the same body parts in the same way can actually lead to overtraining injuries.

Another big risk: boredom.

"If your workout is stale, you get frustrated and you develop a negative attitude," says personal trainer Todd Durkin, owner of Durkin's Athlete Performance Center in San Diego and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. That makes you less likely to just do it.

Lessons from the pros
So how do you avoid hitting a plateau or break free of a rut if you're already in one?

Take some lessons from elite athletes. Sure, they're in top physical shape. But they don't stay that way by doing the same activities over and over like so many gym-goers do, emphasizes Durkin.

He works with many elite athletes but says his message is the same for all of his clients, whether they're training at the professional or recreational level: "Your body needs change."

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That means mixing up workouts to include a range of activities at different intensities. So rather than always using weight machines, for instance, also engage in other types of strengthening activities such as resistance training that uses elastic tubing or your body as the weight. And vary the number of repetitions and sets you do. All of this allows the body to recruit different muscle fibers, providing a more well-rounded workout.

On the cardio side, if you like to bike, for example, you can set the stationary cycle for varying intensities. And you might also pick a day or two a week to take a spinning class or bike outdoors on different types of terrain. Another good idea: mix in other activities like yoga, swimming or jogging.

In addition to cardio and strengthening exercises, don't overlook other areas of fitness like flexibility, balance, agility and coordination. These can boost overall performance and also play an important role in keeping people functioning independently as they enter into old age.

Speaking of age, it's no surprise that our performance declines as we get older. But there's a lot you can do to fight back. "Regardless of age, you will see improvements in health with physical exercise," Durkin says.

Keep in mind though, that if you're performing at the same level in your 40s as your 20s, you haven't necessarily hit a plateau, not in the negative sense anyway. In fact, you're probably doing quite well considering your body isn't the same machine it once was.

Listen to your body
Professional athletes know that aging takes a toll and they adjust their workouts to compensate, says sports medicine specialist Dr. Nicholas A. DiNubile, an orthopedic consultant to the Philadelphia 76ers and the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Take Allen Iverson of the 76ers, for instance. Approaching 30, Iverson's body now requires more training in the off-season to stay in the top form that has allowed him to play at the professional level and make the Olympic basketball team that will compete in Athens this summer, says DiNubile.

"He's putting the time in," he says.

Professional athletes with staying power not only clock quality time at the gym, they also stay tuned into what's happening with their performance, DiNubile says. "Athletes get very good about listening to their bodies," he says.

If something really hurts, don't do it. If you need rest, take a day off or engage in lighter exercise like walking. And if you feel like you're coasting during your workout, you probably need to kick things up a notch if you want to get greater results.

"It should never really be getting easier," DiNubile says.

If you need help getting out of a fitness rut, consider hiring a personal trainer, even for a few sessions to help you get your program on a new track.

The American Council on Exercise offers these additional tips for improving your workout:

  • Exercise at the right time for your body. Work out when you usually have the most energy, rather than putting your workout off until a time when you might not feel your best.

  • Get a workout buddy. Exercising with a partner makes you accountable to someone else for each workout and can improve adherence to a program. A partner also can inspire you to push yourself a little bit harder when your energy level is flagging.

  • Focus on your breathing. When strength training, take full breaths during each exercise, exhaling on the exertion and inhaling as you release. During cardio activities, full breaths will deliver as much oxygen as possible to the working muscles, making them more efficient.

  • Listen to music. Music can make a workout more fun and give you that extra burst of energy you need to work harder.

  • Incorporate mind-body training. Yoga and other types of mind-body fitness have been associated with improved muscular strength, flexibility, balance and coordination.

And for all the couch potatoes watching the Olympics who get inspired to get moving, good for you! Just remember to take things slowly at first to avoid injury, advises DiNubile.

"Exercise is medicine," he says. "If you overdose you can get into trouble just as you can if you underdose."

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