How to Know When You’ve Gotten “Enough” Exercise

by | Jan 11, 2017
Photo by SnoShuu

Photo by SnoShuu

Recently I was having a conversation about exercise with a friend who is trying to lose weight. He had just hired a super hardcore trainer who wanted him to workout 2 hours a day, four days a week, for the next several months. This was paired with a strict diet of chicken breasts, broccoli and brown rice.

“Are you sure that’s realistic?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

I’m pretty fit, but such a training schedule would be difficult for me if for no other reason than it is a huge time commitment and I would have to sacrifice other things I care about in my life to make it work. My friend has been sedentary for most of his adult life, and is constantly complaining about being too tired and too busy to take care of himself. There was no way this would last.

My friend went on to explain that he knew it would be challenging, but it was something he needed to do. His doctor recently told him that he had to lose 40 lbs to clear up his sleep apnea and control his cholesterol and blood pressure. And drastic situations call for drastic measures.

I could see my friend’s logic on the surface, and he took an impressive step by deciding to take more control of his health. But I could also see that he had fallen into what I call the Not Enough Fallacy.

The Not Enough Fallacy is when you believe that small steps “don’t count” toward a larger goal, because they feel futile or insignificant. When you believe that small actions aren’t substantial enough to result in real change, you’re required to commit to something much more demanding in order for it to “count” toward your goal.

Some examples of the Not Enough Fallacy include:

  • Going on a restrictive diet instead of gently reducing portion sizes
  • Signing up for a half marathon instead of being more active by taking walks after dinner
  • Doing a juice cleanse instead of simply eating more vegetables and limiting processed foods

Of course much more demanding goals also mean a much higher failure rate. For one thing, harder activities are less fun and you’re more likely to view them as a punishment, rather than a reward. This mentality almost never leads to long-term habit formation.

Another problem with setting more difficult goals is that they take more time and energy, which means they will likely be taking essential resources from other things in your life that you care about like family, work or leisure.

If you were already struggling to commit to your health goal, pitting it against time with your family is not an effective way to make it more appealing.

A third problem with difficult goals is that once you do realize it isn’t realistic for you, you are more likely to give up completely and decide that getting healthy is impossibly difficult, or only possible for people stronger and more determined than you.

Psychologically this spurs behaviors like the what-the-hell-effect and binge eating, taking you back to square one or worse. Setbacks like this can become debilitating, crushing your confidence and self-worth.

Odds are that if you’re setting overly ambitious health goals, a large part of your motivation is that you don’t have confidence that you’ll succeed unless there’s some strong external force pushing you forward. Ironically, in this situation it is even more important that you choose achievable goals.

To build confidence you need to start by building momentum. You can always ramp up when you have some wins under your belt and are feeling capable of taking on more. When you’re just getting started you’re better off focusing on your first step, not the finish line.

Don’t compare yourself to others when trying to change behaviors. Instead take a look at your own habits and choose achievable and enjoyable upgrades that don’t feel too overwhelming.

It’s true that results don’t appear as quickly when your changes are slower and more moderate, but unlike the one-two punch of huge efforts and epic failures, small changes don’t backfire and leave you worse off than when you started. And if you stick with them they do eventually result in dramatic change.

With your health you want to be the tortoise, not the hare.

Have you ever fallen prey to the Not Enough Fallacy?

Originally published Oct 13, 2015.

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25 Responses to “How to Know When You’ve Gotten “Enough” Exercise”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I found your blog 2 months ago and it has changed my life!

    I’ve spent most of my life thinking that exercise doesn’t count unless I burn 600 or 700 calories per workout session.

    I’ve lost a lot of weight this way but as soon as I lose motivation (and a little comfortable at my new weight), I drop the routine and gain back all the weight plus some.

    Since reading your book and picking up “No Sweat” by Michelle Segar,. Phd (yay for good sources and a solid bibliography!) I’ve experienced a major shift in the way I approach physical activity. Now I now have a block of time every day for “self-care” and I do whatever physical movement I am in the mood for. Most of the time it’s walking, sometimes it’s going to the gym, but it’s always something that I am doing for myself. No time minimum required.

    I’ve lost a surprising amount of weight doing this but for the first time I’m not thinking about it in terms of calorie-burn or achieving a weight goal. I’m learning to enjoy the process and improve my quality of life as I can each day.

    So thank you!!

  2. Rabia says:

    Funnily enough, I was just talking about this fallacy with a friend. I fall prey to it often, and there is a deep seated feeling of “not enough” and low self confidence that I’m working on undoing. There are times when I’ll do well with eating good, nourishing, healthy food for a week or two, then some switch will flip, and I’ll go into “I don’t give a F***!!” mode. For example, I started the Whole30 thing a couple of weeks ago, and about a week in, I gave up. And, like your friend, I tend to sign up for rigorous training programs to help keep me accountable, but it doesn’t always work. I’m not sure what to do to keep me going, but your article does help highlight some of the whys, so thank you.

  3. dee says:

    Darya … I think in the beginning to lose 40lbs you need to be extreme and do it as quick as possible to see results and be motivated… The habit formation, healthstyle (as you put it) will come in for maintenance/balance……

  4. Jacob says:

    So you did not answer the question you posed at all, going on a tangent about not setting goals that are too difficult. That is important sure, but it still doesn’t help one figure out just how much exercise is optimal for their health, what exactly constitutes too much, or how to tell if an exercise goal is too difficult in first place.

    • Karla says:

      I would like to repeat what Jacob said – you did not answer the question posed in your title at all. Would be very interested to hear some info about the amount of exercise needed for optimal health…

    • Hi Jacob and Karla

      For what it’s worth, here’s what I feel about this. We’re so uncomfortable with uncertainly of any kind. We want those specific answers that say: “do x amount of exercise at x rate for x long.” Done and dusted! And i can’t help wondering if it’s time to ask ‘why’ we need these kinds of answers. Because frankly if you look at the research, what you need and what kind of exercise you need, is an ever-moving goalpost so there really is no one definitive answer. But I can tell you that exercise bulimia and bigorexia are both on the increase – in other words our obsession with doing too much exercise is increasing.

      We’re all so individual, with very unique lifestyles and surely if we tune into our bodies we’ll know what ‘enough’ for our particular body is on any particular day. After all our bodies aren’t the same every day, or every week or every year and so what they need changes. When we were small children, it never crossed our minds to ask: ‘What is enough active play?” We didn’t go to gyms, our environment was our gym. We didn’t wear FitBits, we just played until we were tired and slept like a bomb.

      Our bodies are incredible self-regulating mechanisms and I honestly don’t believe we need external ‘experts’ out there to tell us what our bodies need. If your body feeling stiff – stretch as much and as long as it feels good to do so. If your balance is weak, do balance exercises every day so that you can feel comfortable with your balance. If you puff when you climb up stairs, increase your exercise until you don’t puff anymore, or until you can (let’s say) run with a friend and still talk. If you’re feeling lethargic and you know a run would give you more energy, put on your running shoes, and enjoy your run. What ‘exercise’ makes you feel good, gives you flexibility, strength and works your heart in a way that leaves you feel glowing?

      Your body knows, which means that at a deep level YOU are the best person to answer this question for yourself.

  5. Varun Arora says:

    Hi Darya Rose,

    You are right, people often think that when they tried they have done enough exercise.

  6. Lindsay H says:

    Darya,

    I feel I often find myself in these cycles of being fed-up with how I look and feel, mentally committing to an overly-rigorous and stringent set of diet and exercise rules, trying for a time, and then feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and ashamed that I couldn’t make it work. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. It’s an awful cycle and can do some serious damage to my self-esteem and my confidence in what I can achieve. But, you’re absolutely right! I set myself up for a loss at the very beginning. Starting small, committing to tiny changes, like parking farther away; taking the stairs; avoiding the chips and salsa after work, just for today; walking my dog in the morning; setting a goal to drink wine just once this week and truly indulging in it; going for a quick run instead of the long one I feel I “should” do; and allowing myself to walk that day instead of run because I truly am tired. Those are more manageable and achievable, and because they are, I don’t fall victim to the shame that comes with not being able to stick to strict rules.

    I started being better about this, but over the last several weeks I’ve been incredibly busy and have let things slip. Over the weekend I got fed-up again and started mentally planning my next round of diet restrictions and long-work out routines, so this is exactly what I needed to hear today! Thanks for reminding us that slow and steady wins the race and that we don’t have to beat ourselves up for it!

    – Lindsay

    • Agata says:

      Lindsay,

      You describe my mindset to a tee. I also set lofty mental goals and the get frustrated and ashamed when I don’t meet them. This coupled with the fact that a few years ago I did successfully lose weight with Weight Watchers, gained it back bc I let go of habits, and then have been struggling to repeat this feat ever since. I will aim to adopt small goals/activities, coupled with mindfulness in eating. I also don’t have a routine now as I am moving, and it’s hard. Keep at it and I am rooting for you!

  7. Cherry says:

    I strive for 30 minutes a day of active exercise – brisk walking, fast dancing, etc. After that just keeping active and moving, aiming for 10,000 steps.

    I don’t always get it all done as things get in the way. I don’t always do the 30 minutes all at once. Sometimes it is 5 or 10 minutes at a time. I want to try to get some strength training in there too. So far that is a work in progress.

  8. Kerstin says:

    Darya, I have yet to come across a post of yours that I don’t like and that doesn’t resonate deeply. I have had a troubled relationship with exercise for decades, mostly because of heart palpitations and in recent years arthritis in one of my ankles which makes walking difficult. I have 80+ lbs to lose and when I embarked on my latest attempt to do so (4 mths ago) I decided to incorporate physical activity from the beginning. It was very tempting to go on a strict exercise regime for faster results but I knew that it had to be realistic if I want to make movement a lasting habit. And since I started reading your blog I’m all about habits! I love cycling so I did a lot of that during the summer and now that winter is approaching I’m switching to walking, I bought a sturdy pair of boots that support my ankle and a fitness tracker and I’m doing 7,000-12,000 steps a day. I also watch my portions carefully and between that and the physical activity I’ve lost 30lbs. And because I’m looking at this from the viewpoint of creating good habits that are in support of my health goals I am – for the first time ever – feeling more confident about continuing on this journey. Everything you say in this post makes so much sense to me and makes me feel good about what I am doing. Thank you! Oh, and all the best for your retreat, I would find that difficult and daunting but I hope it’s an amazing experience for you! xo

  9. Kaileigh says:

    Darya –

    I am surrounded by so many of these people at work! My coworkers are constantly coming in with these grandiose ideas that they are going to work out two times a day and only eat chicken until they get to the right weight. And like clockwork, I’ll find them huddled over a bowl of Chipotle in the middle of the week. I try so hard to just try to walk more and cut down on my portions, but I usually end up in the same boat as my coworkers — I fall back into old, bad habits.
    There has to be a middle ground, right?
    I’ll be sharing this article with them and try to work on my own failings too.

  10. Suzie says:

    When I was in my 20’s and 30’s I exercised 3 days a week, spending up to 3 hours at a time at the gym. This was not hard because I worked out with my boyfriend. Once we broke up I gradually stopped. My husband is the exact opposite so when we started dating I stopped completely. Until we got engaged, then of course I had to get back in shape for the wedding! Last year my husband had gall bladder issues which forced us to go on a super low fat diet. It was a bit of a challenge but once we got the hang of it not bad. My husband lost 40 lbs in 4 months; I lost about 30 (I cheated a little!). We have kept most of it off over a year later by continuing to keep an eye on fat content and how we cook. It is funny how quickly you can get motivated when your health is truly on the line.

  11. duncan f says:

    good article – after googling and getting a second opinion, you are right! makes me realise I’m not pushing myself as hard as I could in the gym. I go by time spent in there and realise I should be leaving half dead! not bouncing off the walls.

  12. John Fawkes says:

    I ran into the what the hell effect pretty hard with my first few clients- I gave them all a laundry list of changes to make up front, only to see them start strong and then give up within 2 months.

    What I’ve started doing now is giving clients two small changes to make when I first start working with them, and then adding one more small change every week or two. This seems to be the sweet spot- 2-4 small habit changes (such as drinking a glass of water before every meal, or taking a photo of every meal) implemented per month.

    The shift I made was from wondering if they were doing enough, to wondering if they were doing too much and would be liable to get burnt out. People start off slower this way, but they stick with it and their progress only accelerates over time. And best of all, it feels easy.

  13. Hanro says:

    Hi Darya,

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

    It’s almost is if we want to cheat our way to the top instead of enjoying the journey. Like you said, detoxes won’t help you make sustainable lifestyle changes.

    Funny thing is, the journey never ends. You’ll set new goals after reaching the old. So get comfortable enjoying the ride.

    Definitely sharing your post!

    Regards
    Hanro

  14. Hi Darya, I love how you motivates people to do what they are capable of doing. I believe that if we have enough confidence we can achieve whatever goal we set. And I agree to not compare ourselves to others, because each of us has our own unique abilities. Great post very inspiring!

  15. Catherine says:

    Darya,

    Happy New Year! I have to agree that developing habits is the way to go. It makes everything so much easier.

    For me, it seems I get into a good groove with my habits and then there is a major change that derails me. Even though the habits are enjoyable, it’s hard to get the momentum going in the right direction once I do get off track. Right now I’m finding the tracking apps helpful. Using them adds a bit of awareness that helps me to be more mindful.

  16. Krupa Parekh says:

    Hi Darya, your case here illustrates a very common fallacy among most people who will let their weight balloon up to a point from where they suddenly want to drop down and shed weight in the shortest possible time! This is not only unhealthy but also downright dangerous. The problem with such yo-yo weight loss regimens is that the weight tends to come back on after you stop the fad diet and workout routine and you are back to square 1! Personally as a Nutrition Counselor from Mumbai, I know my job is to ensure that my clients understand that staying fit and healthy is a marathon and not a sprint.

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