As a self-proclaimed wellness girlie, I’ve tried almost every type of workout out there. I’ve done whatever fad exercise class just to say that I’ve tried it. I was confident that as long as I was working out, I was being healthy. So, when I took a body composition scan, I was in for the shock of my life. While a decade of working out had greatly improved my mental health, my confidence, and my relationship with my body, it hadn’t really made a difference in my body composition. I still had very little muscle mass—something I had been working to improve—despite spending a good chunk of my time at the gym.
It was almost like the more I worked out, the less fit I actually felt. I decided to listen to my body and take another look at my routine. If working out all the time wasn’t the answer, then maybe taking it down a notch would. So, for the past quarter, I gave my workout routine the soft life touch. Spoiler: After a couple of months of sticking to my five new habits, I already feel so much more confident in my body and have gained a bit of lean muscle, too, all while spending less time in the gym. It took a bit of trial and error, but by tuning in to what my body needed, I feel like I’ve finally found a lasting routine that’s made me more comfortable in my body. Read on for the five changes I made to my workout routine that got me the results I’ve always wanted.
1. I traded running for walking.
As a cardio junkie, I was once running 5Ks almost every day with hardly any rest in between. While I enjoyed the runner’s high, running usually left me extremely tired and ravenous. All the stress on my knees eventually resulted in extreme pain that led me to a visit to the physical therapist. I learned the hard way that your body can’t (and shouldn’t) handle running every day without cross-training (more on that later). My running habit was great for stress relief, so I found myself craving the challenge element of breaking my own speed and distance records. While running is a solid form of exercise in moderation, overdoing it can overwork the body, causing inflammation levels to spike and increase the risk of injury. I felt inflamed, in pain, and swollen often. While running is an amazing workout, the sheer intensity of it usually left me depleted.
Enter walking. Walking is an effective and healthy cardiovascular activity that doesn’t put as much stress on your body as running. It also can do wonders for your mental health. You can habit stack it with a guided meditation or put on your favorite podcast and go on a hot girl walk. If you live in a city that isn’t walking-friendly, hit the gym for a treadmill sweat session or invest in a walking pad. My go-to alternative? A 30-minute incline walk on the treadmill while catching up on my Netflix backlog. It’s great for unwinding after work, and the low intensity means I can do it every day without feeling fatigued or inflamed. I typically walk at a speed of 3.7-4.2 mph and change up the speed every five minutes. After doing this for almost three months, I’ve started seeing some muscle definition that I never had.
2. I incorporated intentional resistance training.
I started really strength training when my physical therapist told me that I couldn’t keep running every day without strengthening the supporting muscles of my legs. I would do a few strength exercises if the group class I was attending that day incorporated them, but I usually never chose to do them on my own. Sporadic weight training meant I did random exercises on any given day, so I had no progression and didn’t see any changes in my body. Plus, I was mostly a cardio girl—I found weight training to be intimidating and not my thing. But doing just that for most of my 20s didn’t give me the results that I wanted because while doing cardio is so important for our endurance and cardiovascular health, it’s resistance training that helps us strengthen our muscles so that we can continue to function optimally and avoid injury. It also increases metabolism and preserves bone density, which is especially important for women.
I tried downloading a workout tracker app to track my strength training progress, which proved to be a game-changer. Part of the reason I was averse to weight training was because I felt that if I wasn’t lifting heavy enough, my workout wasn’t effective. But resistance training doesn’t always mean having to lift heavy. There are many ways to progress that don’t involve increasing weights: proper form, time under tension, or range of motion, just to name a few. When I dialed back to lighter weights but increased the reps to 15 for each exercise, I started putting on lean muscle because my movements were slower and more controlled. The best part? Feeling stronger in my daily life and no longer having trouble lifting heavy grocery bags.
3. I only do workouts that support my goals.
Cycling, boot camp, HIIT—you name it, I’ve done it. While any activity is better than none at all, I now know that finding a workout you enjoy and will stick with is what matters most. When you’re consistent with your movement(s) of choice and doing them to feel more confident or be more energized instead of trying whichever workout is “in,” you’ll reap the benefits. I simply choose a few exercises that work for my goals, like rowing for improving back strength, yoga for arm strength, and Pilates for posture. Variety has its own merits, but if you’re looking to gain a specific benefit, consistency and patience are what will get you there.
4. I implemented low-impact workouts.
In my HIIT era, I did a lot of Barry’s, F45, and other high-impact classes. I neglected my yoga practice for these high-intensity workouts because my mentality was that the more intense the class, the faster the results would come. Needless to say, that’s not always the case. High-intensity exercises can increase cortisol without proper recovery. Now, I focus on being gentler to my body by doing more low-impact bodyweight exercises like yoga and Pilates.
Whether it’s starting the day with some sun salutations, chair yoga for stress relief over my lunch break, some after-work breathwork, or Wall Pilates for active recovery, I find that it’s easy to fit in movement in my day since I find joy in doing them and they can be done without any equipment. These types of exercise also put a lot of emphasis on the mind-muscle connection, which makes me more mindful of fully controlling my movement and breath to reap the full benefits of the workout. After getting back into Pilates, I’m reminded that a workout doesn’t have to be grueling to be effective.
5. I dialed in my nutrition.
When I used to work out as intensely as I did, I thought it was an excuse to eat whatever I wanted. I spent hours at the gym so “I deserved it.” That was part of the reason why I worked out for a decade without ever seeing the results that I wanted. The old adage is true: You can never out-train your diet. The other missing puzzle piece to my workout routine was my nutrition. So, I followed the same gentle philosophy I applied to my workouts and focused on adding more protein and fiber to my diet. I made sure to always start my day with protein, whether it was including eggs or Greek yogurt in my breakfast. To up my fiber intake, I tried to have vegetables with every meal, but I found snacking on fruit or having it for dessert was an easier fix. My gentle nutrition approach, combined with my less intense workout routine, decreased my cravings for processed foods and sugar while increasing my energy so I could get more out of my workouts.