You know there's no magic bullet for getting in shape. You simply have to put in the time. But what if you didn't have to put in as much time?
It may sound too good to be true, but fitness gurus say that longer isn't necessarily better when it comes to physical activity.
That's because people don't always work out in the most efficient ways for reaching their fitness goals.
“People do waste their time at the gym, unknowingly of course,” says Karyn Gallivan, a personal trainer in Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesperson for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Here are five ways that well-intentioned exercisers go wrong:
Time-waster #1: Socializing instead of sweating.
Sure, you can make friends — even love connections — at the gym. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as it's not preventing you from your main mission. Los Angeles personal trainer Rob Parr says he sees people who spend upwards of an hour and a half at the gym, yet they may only clock 15 minutes exercising.
Fitness fix: Stay focused.
When you get distracted by a long conversation, you may not move as much or lift the weights as hard as you would otherwise. So save the socializing for before or after your workout, or during breaks. "If you do something you might as well maximize your efficiency,” says Parr.
Time-waster #2: Following the same old routine.
You hit the gym on autopilot, spending 45 minutes on your favorite cardio machine followed by a quick circuit on the weights. While you're doing enough activity to keep your heart healthy (public health experts recommend half an hour of moderate physical activity a day), you won't see big boosts in your overall cardiovascular performance or strength.
The problem: You're too comfortable. "Your body has adapted and you're doing a lot of movement but you're not doing enough intensity to get a training effect,” says Gallivan. Even just two weeks of the same routine is enough to get in a workout rut, she says.
Fitness fix: Shake things up.
Some people could cut their workout time in half and still get better results, says Gallivan.
One way is to challenge your body with different types of cardio, incorporating various machines and classes into your regimen. Gallivan notes that the stationary bike is generally the easiest machine, followed by the elliptical trainer, the treadmill and the stair-climber. Of course, intensity matters; a tough recumbent bike routine will get better results than a slow stroll on the treadmill. If you tend to favor one machine over another, try mixing things up by following the different training programs on the monitor.
People get stale with their strength programs as well. It's best to use both free weights and machines, and to vary the repetitions and sets. “Different muscle fibers respond to different weights,” says Gallivan.
Time-waster #3: Cheating.
Leaning on the handrails of the stair-climber or elliptical machine counters your efforts by offsetting some of the burden of the activity. "You're really reducing the overall effect of the workout,” says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. Draping yourself over a machine can reduce the number of calories you burn by as much as 20 percent, Bryant says.
Additionally, leaning on the rails puts you at risk for injuries of the wrist and low back because of the poor posture at the machine, he says. You can also increase your odds of overuse injuries if you are trying to work out faster and harder than you should — and relying on the rails to help you to do so.
Fitness fix: Stand tall.
The rails are meant to help with balance only, as a safety measure. If you feel stable on the machine, try going arms-free for a greater challenge. You'll increase how many calories you burn, especially if you also pump your arms, and get better all-around conditioning.
Time-waster #4: Too many long breaks.
Resting a couple of minutes between sets of resistance activities helps your body recover and gear up for the next challenge. But too much downtime is a waste of time.
Fitness fix: If you're in a hurry, keep your heart pumping.
Fitness chains like Curves are popular because they offer a circuit workout that allows a person to go from one fitness station to the next, incorporating resistance training and cardio into a quickie half-hour workout. While such a short program probably won't yield dramatic results, the concept can be applied to longer workouts.
Trainers such as Parr advise clients to periodically skip the breaks between resistance activities and instead go straight from one strength move to another. This works best when alternating between activities for the lower body and upper body. Parr calls it "super-setting" and says it's a good option when you're pressed for time or when you just want to mix up your workout routine. You'll be more tired during the workout, so you may not be able to push yourself as hard, but your body will benefit from the change of pace.
Time-waster #5: Not hitting the weights hard enough.
Afraid to "bulk up," many women lift light weights that yield little results, says Jay Hoffman, professor and chair of the department of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. In his research, women who strength-train get much more toned when they have a personal trainer pushing them than when they go it alone. “Those who train on their own don’t train at an intensity that has an effect,” he says.
Fitness fix: Push your muscles "to failure."
What this means is that you use a weight that is heavy enough that you can't do even one more repetition by the end of your set. Sets generally involve eight to 20 repetitions, and it can be good to vary the reps, as mentioned above. Just pick a weight that gets the job done by the last rep.
And stop worrying about bulking up. “The vast majority of women don’t have to worry about developing unsightly muscles from resistance training,” says Bryant. Most women simply don't have the biology to build bulging muscles.
Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.