I Hit A Fitness Plateau and Tried Working Out Less — And I’ve Never Felt Better

How I rediscovered the fun in fitness after completely burning myself out.

Ever since my childhood, fitness has been a big part of both my routine and my identity, long before I realized that what I was doing was even considered fitness.

As a kid, I was very active in sports, participating in soccer in the spring, swimming and tennis in the summer, and dance and horseback riding all year round.

In high school, I was on two different cheerleading teams, which meant two-to-three hours a day for practice and competitions, six days a week. I never stopped moving.

Once I went off to college, I admittedly wasn’t “collegiate level” for any of those aforementioned athletic endeavors, but I knew I needed to find a way to stay active; after all those years of physical activity, I always looked and felt strong and in shape, which was something I took pride in.

So, I forwent team sports and in the name of staying sweaty, I started hitting my college gym — and I hit it hard and often.

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Running toward burnout

In my twenties, I was a self-proclaimed “gym rat.” I always found a way to squeeze in a sweat session in between classes and on weekends.

As a young professional, I would set my alarm for 5:50 am every day so I could get my cardio, lifting, and ab work done before I was due at my desk. Rest days were rare.

There were so many things I enjoyed about my daily workout. I loved the feeling of the endorphins kicking in when sprinting on the treadmill. I lived for the moment when my favorite song came on shuffle, sending me into beast mode in the middle of a lifting set.

Woman on treadmill

I reveled in the “me time” and stress relief I found at the gym, having a place to show up to every day and feeling so accomplished after each workout. And let’s be honest: I also liked the glory of having strong muscles and abs to show for my hard work.

But then, I entered my 30s. And after over a decade of this routine, I hit both a physical and mental plateau.

I was putting in almost 14 hours a week at the gym, yet I wasn’t gaining any more muscle, shedding seconds off my mile, or seeing better results.

I was also in pain. My muscles were perpetually sore, I pinched a nerve in my shoulder swinging a kettlebell, and my joints ached from too much treadmill pounding.

It got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying my workouts anymore; they became more of a chore than a release. My morning gym alarm would be met with a groan, and I’d think to myself, I’d rather get a root canal than get on the elliptical right now.

I knew that something needed to change.

My first effort to get out of my workout rut (and give my knees a break from running), I’m embarrassed to admit… involved more working out.

I swapped one day a week of machine cardio for a kickboxing class. One day after class, I asked the trainer for advice and insight into my stagnant physical results, aching joints, and waning motivation.

He had me verbally walk him through my typical weekly workout routine and immediately stopped me mid-sentence and replied, “Brooke, you need to work out less.”

More pain is less gain

As it turns out, this “less is more” approach to fitness is rooted in science. Cortisol, our stress hormone which comes into play during a fight-or-flight response, is also raised for a short period during a workout but lowers shortly afterward. It’s one of the most significant benefits of exercising.

However, studies show that excessive and intense exercise can have the opposite effect, causing you to store more fat, become injured, and stop seeing results.

The experts agree. “If you get into a phase of rigorous overtraining, this will elevate your cortisol levels long-term,” echoes Holly Roser, certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness studios in San Francisco, California. “Plus, overtraining causes injuries as your muscles aren’t given time to repair the microfiber tears created when working out.”

I thought back to my youth, when being active used to be fun: nailing my cheer routine, running down the soccer field, winning the blue ribbon for my jumping performance at a horse show.

While 33-year-old me no longer had the resilient joints of my former adolescent athlete self, I realized there was still a chance for me to rediscover my childhood love for staying in motion.

For the sake of both my body and mind, I knew I needed to rethink my fitness routine before I got hurt and burned myself out for good.

Girl sitting on pier

Less is more (effective and enjoyable)

I started by taking my kickboxing trainer’s advice and scaled back. I trimmed my daily workouts down to 30 or 45 minutes and added in much-needed rest days.

Admittedly, this transition was not easy for me out of the gate—I felt “lazy” and guilty after years of regularly pushing myself to the limit.

But, almost immediately, my aching joints and muscles felt sweet relief, which I quickly realized was well worth it if I wanted to keep moving and avoid injury in the long run.

I also shook up my routine with new types of fitness classes and I finally began to look forward to my workouts again. Instead of hopping on cardio machines by rote, I added barre, Pilates, cycling, HIIT, and hot yoga to the rotation to target different muscles in new ways and keep things fresh.

Plus, the community aspect of classes was reminiscent of everything I loved about playing on sports teams as a kid.

I’ve also since retired my vigorous running schedule, as I’ve found that walking my dog around my neighborhood with a podcast is a more effective stress-relief method (not to mention, a great form of low-impact cardio).

Now in my mid-thirties, I both look and feel better than I did in my twenties.

I attribute this to me listening more to my body and mind.

If I’m stressed out, I do yoga or go for a walk instead of sprints to decompress; if my body hurts, I rest or stretch; if I’m craving a solid sweat session, I keep it short and leave the guilt at home.

Every workout, I try to channel that inner child who was all smiles, panting on the soccer field and cheer mat. My fitness “routine,” I realized, is now far more effective and enjoyable because it really isn’t a routine at all.

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