Before you join a gym this January consider the following points...
About 75% of memberships are taken out in January. This is fundamental to the economics and financial success of any Gym or Health club.
4 percent of new gym users don’t even make it past the end of January and 14 percent drop out in February.
80 percent of people who joined a gym in January 2012 quit within five months
According to the 2017 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report 1 in every 7 people are members of a gym.
However, if you are currently considering a lifestyle change to improve your health, loose weight or beat social isolation while improving your physical resilience – guess what? Taking a walk in the woods might be far more more appropriate for you than blasting yourself in a gym or a loud high intensity exercise class for many metabolic, neurological and psychological reasons. Especially if you are emerging from a stressful period in your life and wanting to get back onto a healthier track. Briefly, lets look at these three main areas:
We have excellent stress coping mechanisms. Notably our adrenal glands which produce many hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. The body does not necessarily discriminate between physical, emotional or chemical stress. It all may elicit the same response – fight or flight mechanisms and the release of stress hormones for very good reason.
If you have had a day of hard physical exercise its fairly obvious that you are unlikely to train in the gym that night. You are already physically tired in a tangible way. The physiological effects of stress are less obvious if you have just had an emotionally intense day at work or maybe an emotionally stressful last 2 years! Then it may be less clear that the body is already too taxed to cope with additional high intensity physical stress.
Adrenaline is responsible for raising your heart rate. It may not be obvious, but if work or any aspect of your life has been emotionally draining or you’ve been exposed to significant chemical or dietary stressors, especially for an extended period, the adrenaline and cortisol has already been pumping all day! All year! On a chemical level you’ve just been chased by a lion for the last 12hrs+ or more.
For many people the ‘go to’ strategy to cope with a stressful day/month/year is frequently blasting it out with a hard gym session or class. Raising the heart rate excessively in that evenings ‘Body Destruction‘ class effectively compounds the issue, creating the same stress responses over again and expecting more out of an already taxed system. No lion, not even a wolf pack, is going to have pursued you for over 12 hrs and certainly not over a period of years. This is a 21st century chronic stress syndrome to quote Dr Wilson (try the questionnaire!). Far out of context from the natural threats these systems evolved to cope with.
Ultimately it may lead to a cycle of general fatigue, lethargy or chronic exhaustion, poor musculoskeletal performance, a proneness to injury coupled with an inability to recover well. Emotional issues and mood irregularities, weight gain, poor blood sugar regulation and so on. It becomes a little bit like a drug addiction, only the drugs are your own stress hormones.
Unless you’ve already hit the frustrating ‘burn out’ phase with all its inexplicable and numerous injuries and discomforts – the feeling of having lost a certain amount of physical and emotional resilience or structural integrity, you’re unlikely to have read this far! The notion of stopping the cycle may just be too scary as yet! Under these conditions the first thing a new patient may say to me in the clinic will often be “I’m not stopping exercise!”. Roughly translated this often turns out to mean “I’m so stressed or exhausted I really need a reason to stop exercising inappropriately”!.
Sadly the ‘fitness’ industry is unlikely to screen you for these sub clinical issues prior to inducting you into their gym or classes.
Exercise is essential. However, lower heart rate, relaxing exercise in environments more conducive to recovery and health development may be more appropriate. This brings us to the points covered in psychology and neurology below…
To read more on this subject we recommend Philip Maffetone as a great starting point – particularly chapter 19 Stress & Hormones.
Read it before you commit to the gym. Arm yourself with some background knowledge and you may find that you can still make the gym work for you OR decide on a totally different course of action.
Exercise is good for you. As we suggested above the type of exercise must be appropriate to you as an individual at this time. You are not a subscription and you are not just another body in a studio pumping weights in the latest franchised ‘Total Body Apocalypse‘ class. A recent study demonstrated how “if animals are forced to run it can induce a detrimental stress response” such as we touched upon previously. “Physical exercise is known to be a beneficial factor by increasing cellular stress tolerance”. But NOT, it seems, if taken under duress. In this study one group of mice were forced to exercise every time another group of mice choose to exercise of their own volition. “forced treadmill running induced a stress response with increased anxiety in the Open Field test and increased levels of corticosterone” (there’s our adrenal hormones again).
“In accordance, mice subjected to forced exercise developed larger neuronal damage in the hippocampus (brain!) and showed higher cytokine levels in the brain and blood compared to non-exercised mice. The extent of neuronal damage correlated with increased corticosterone levels” That’s brain damage caused by excessive circulation of adrenal stress hormones! In contrast the autonomously exercising mice presumably gained all the benefits of the exercise without the the stress responses and brain damage.
This is only one interesting study with all its own limitations as all studies have. For the purpose of this article it once again highlights that all exercise is not created equal. In clinical practice I have seen elderly ladies who’s gym and class based weekly exercise regimes amount to more time spent training than some of my professional and world champion athletes. I have had elite athletes change coach and exclaim to me “I can’t believe how much rest is on my program!” They went on to see far greater gains than previously. Appropriateness is key.
To come back to those poor mice – are you thinking about joining the gym because it seems to be a socially expected post Christmas norm that you now have to work off the Christmas dinner and make a new years resolution for a healthier lifestyle?
Do you actually WANT to go to the gym or does it fill you with dread and a sense of obligation “oh I really should”. Your resolution for a new healthier lifestyle is admirable and should be cultivated. So see the bottom of this article for a list of some slightly more unusual ideas for exercising in environments more conducive to developing more healthy interests that also happen to be physically active AND better for your emotional and psychological health. These kinds of activities, many of them now well researched, command a greater likelihood that you will stick with them and ultimately make your lifestyle change a success.
Logically, it must be better to have interests that excite and enthrall you that happen to be physically active, than to force exercise in an air conditioned, crowded, smelly, bacteria breeding room because you know it must be good for you. We’ve already seen, that may not actually be the case.
Perhaps the polar opposite to a stress perpetuating gym driven life style change would be eco-therapy or walking for health based interventions. Road blocks to good health and active lifestyles tend not to be limited to problems with finding a time or place to exercise. 10 years ago I was reading exercise physiology research that highlighted the top two main excuses for a lack of exercise as being time and money. However, social issues, isolation and poor mental health can be significant limiting factors also. This could explain the incredible impact and success of group based physical activity in natural environments as detailed in the now widely reported study into “Group Walks in Nature” published in the Journal of Ecopsychology which highlighted that “Group walks in nature were associated with significantly lower depression, perceived stress, and negative affect, as well as enhanced positive affect and mental well-being. Nature-based group walks appear to mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affect while synergising with physical activity to improve positive affect and mental well-being”.
In other words putting the human animal back into its rightful environment and context has significant psychological and physiological benefits. So exercising in a beautiful woodland makes you happier, more connected and achieves potentially greater physical benefit and more than likely greater continued engagement than being shouted at in a stuffy room with pounding trance music blowing out your ear drums! The peaceful, constantly changing and dynamic landscape that is our amazing countryside has everything you need to improve your physical and mental health long term and it doesn’t have to cost you a penny.
Which brings us to our final point – the neurology of exercising in natural environments vs the gym machine.
Most neuroscience research points out that cardiovascular exercise at only 50% max oxygen uptake literally builds brain volume in the hippocampus and frontal corticies with study participants showing enhanced cognitive performance in response to the exercise prescription irrespective of age.
The Academy of Applied Movement Neurology define certain forms of exercise as being more key to health due to the unique way that they challenge and enhance the body’s main governing system – the brain. Several studies have shown enhanced brain function via increased synaptogenisis between the cerebellum and frontal cortex in response to complex movement tasks. This highlights primarily skills based tasks involving complex movement patterns such as might be encountered in martial arts, gymnastics and acrobatic style pursuits that drive positive adaptations in balance, coordination, speed, power and motor control as being more beneficial for overall health.
This doesn’t mean we should all go out and take up gymnastics of course, but it does highlight yet again that certain types of exercise may be more useful and effective for you than the accepted mass-pushed norms.
NASA researcher Dr Joan Vernikos PhD notes the detrimental effects of sedentary life and sitting based lifestyles and further highlights that traditional strenuous gym workouts are ineffective at offsetting the ill effects of sitting – “Medical studies on astronauts show that gravity-challenging, all day movement is more essential to good health than traditional exercise”. This led Dr Vernikos to state that….
…”the best thing we can do to offset our modern lifestyle is to move from sitting to standing!”
Interacting with gravity is essential to health. The less we move the less we interact with gravity.
Gravity drives the development of our feedback based nervous system via what we call our neurological constants. That is the information we constantly gather from sensory receptors in the muscles, joints and inner ear due to gravity acting upon us – the need for balance and posture in stance as a reference point for all other movements.
So even just standing up and moving more frequently throughout your day may be enough to start changing your health for the better. It should be clear by now that attending a high-street gym where you might find yourself sitting on a comfy seat while operating the quads machine or pushing a plate away from you using only the lower body whilst semi-reclined simply does not meet the human animals requirement for complex movement patterns that oppose gravity in a real sense. Thinking logically standing on your own two feet has just got to be better!
Complex movements that require your focused attention are also extremely powerful at driving new neural connections and building brain volume. This is why novelty is so important in the field of applied neurology. While cranking out the hamstring curls or sitting statically on the shoulder press machine may raise your heart rate and make you feel locally exercised the reality is that your cerebellum simply does not need to be overly involved with these movements, basic and non-stimulating as they are. Once learned the cerebellum can kind of just.. go to sleep!
We can go much deeper into the pointlessness of gym equipment but lets summarise the point by bringing it back around to exercise in the FREE outdoors – keeping in mind our principle requirements of complex, novel, gravity opposing stimulus at lower heart rates in health giving environments.
Lets return to our walk in the woods. You are already up and moving, that’s a great start! You are in a dynamic mind stimulating environment with new smells, sights and sounds – your brain is interested. Every step you take is a new experience on an uneven surface with unique irregularities. Every footfall requires your cerebellum to pay attention, correct errors and make fine adjustments to keep you upright and moving safely and efficiently. Every joint in your body now has to be involved in a complex 3D experience that must be orchestrated and managed by all muscles in all planes at once. The exercise may seem very simple, but already what we are describing is lighting up your brain like a Christmas tree and promoting health over and above perceived fitness or the ability to push a heavier weight away from you while sat on an arm chair.
This is the context that’s missing, what you were built for. This is what the nervous system desperately wants to experience. Where the brain goes, the body follows.
Moral: Invest more wisely and make greater gains!
Invest that substantial gym membership fee on a movement and motor control screen or person-sensitive ongoing physical support with RESTORE or a decent pair of walking boots and a Patagonia waterproof from High Sports, a good honest independent outdoor shop that will advise you some of the best out of the way magical places to get outside and feel healthier AND fitter in!
You have everything you need already to improve your situation. Not to mention a massive outdoor playground on your doorstep! Hiring experts as and when to support the process may be far more useful than paying the lighting and heating bills for a high street ‘health club’ franchise.
- Join an eco-therapy course or volunteer for the Small Woods Association
- Walking for health Shrewsbury
- Shrewsbury Ramblers
- Volunteering for wildlife trusts
- Walking a dog for a re-homing charity
- Cani-cross – running events with your dog!
- Park runs
- Outdoor swimming
- Hill walking, trail running, fell running – see the Shropshire events listings
- Rock climbing, walking and scrambling with Shrewsbury MC
- Indoor climbing
- Learn to ethically source your own wild meat and engage with your environment in a more sustainable and natural way with The Mindful Hunter courses
- Learn Mindfulness in the mountains with Wilderness Minds
- Try some outdoor courses or volunteering at Acton Scott historic working farm
- Fly fishing – one days fishing is equivalent to going for a run!