When it Comes to Exercise, More Isn’t Always Better

Train Smarter, Not Longer 

The other day, I posted a screenshot of my Oura ring data on social media. I do this sometimes to be transparent and show that as a fitness coach, I follow my own advice.

I’d had a reasonably active day, skateboarding, playing basketball, and running sprints, not to mention taking my dog on several walks. All in all, I’d averaged around 16 miles walking equivalency, 25,000 steps, and 2,800 calories burned by 8 pm. Not a bad day, activity-wise. I was tired, but in a good way — looking forward to sleep that night, but not that feel-like-I’ve-been-hit-by-a-truck type of tired. 

Soon after I posted, a follower responded, suggesting I get a Peloton. His reasoning: I could burn way more calories than that in a day with a sweaty spin session.

Now, I have nothing against Peleton or spin classes. I know many people who love using a Peleton to get in a quick at-home sweat session. I also fervently believe that any movement is good movement. If you enjoy what you’re doing — great. Keep doing it.

But indoor bike rides with twenty-somethings dancing and shouting motivational mantras are not my thing. And neither is making maximum calorie burn my main goal. 

This wasn’t always the case. When I first started exercising after college, I struggled with body image issues and disordered eating. I was firmly in the “more is better” camp — often, I wouldn’t let myself stop exercising for the day until my fitness tracker informed me I’d burned 4,000 calories (a lot for a 130-pound girl). Sometimes, this meant doing jumping jacks five minutes before midnight until I finally hit that magic number.

This obsession with exercise took over my life. At the time, I thought about little else other than exercise and food. I was always exhausted and constantly had nagging injuries.

I now know this unhealthy cycle was a form of exercise addiction, an unhealthy obsession with exercise to lose as much weight as possible. My constant focus on more-is-better put me at risk for behavior that did more harm than good. Unfortunately, I still see this mindset perpetuated by much of the fitness industry. The message often portrayed by gyms and fitness classes is that you should always go longer, push harder, and do more. But here’s why the focus on more exercise is a trap:

It puts the focus solely on appearance or weight loss

When your goal is to simply burn as many calories as possible during a workout, you’re likely focused on weight loss or appearance-related goals. This can be fine as a short term goal, or if you need to lose a significant amount of weight for health reasons — but for long-term health it isn’t sustainable.

Why? For two important reasons:

1. With the more-is-better mindset, there’s rarely an endpoint. It’s almost impossible to know when enough is enough.

When I fell into this way of thinking, I’d always leave a workout session thinking I should have done more. 4,000 calories a day? Why not 4,500? One workout class? Why not two? 

Not only does this put you in a never-enough cycle of guilt, it can also do more harm than good. For example: 

  • If your goal is weight loss, the more exercise you do, the hungrier you’ll get — and the harder it will be to stay lean (this happened to me when I was over-exercising).
  • The more exercise you do, the harder it is on your body. So if your goal is long-term athletic performance, you’re better off training less but more intentionally. If you want an example of this, just look at the training regimens of high level athletes like LeBron James and Roger Federer. They train smarter, not longer. 

Despite what the fitness industry says, more exercise is not always better. 

2. Research shows that appearance is the least motivating reason to work out — which is why people with appearance-related goals consistently experience yo-yo workout motivation. 

One reason this may be the case is that when you set an appearance-related goal, the pull between your future self (I want to fit in a smaller pair of jeans) and your current self (I want to eat this cookie right now) just isn’t strong enough to change your behavior in the moment. Without a deeper reason behind your decisions, it’s a lot easier to give in to what’s in front of you. Rather than focusing only on appearance-based goals, I encourage my clients to create goals based around performance, adventure, or learning new skills, sports, or activities. These types of goals add joy to your life while helping you stay more motivated long-term.

Cardio can be addictive 

One of my biggest gripes with group fitness classes, whether in person or online, is that they make the focus all about cardio, with the goal usually being to burn as many calories as possible. Some cardio is obviously healthy. Regularly getting your heart rate up does wonders for your body and mind, helping to ensure long-term health, increase energy levels, decrease depression and anxiety, and so much more. Research shows we should all be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity every week.

Cardio can also give us a euphoric feeling, or what’s known as runner’s high. Despite the name, it can occur with nearly any form of aerobic exercise. You may feel a runner’s high when your activity has caused chemical changes in the body and brain, similar to the changes that happen when people take opioid drugs.

The result is that we can actually get addicted to cardio — just like we can get addicted to drugs.

Psychologist and addiction specialist Elizabeth Hartney warns that this frequent high exposure to drug-like opioids due to excessive exercise can lead people to overexercise at the detriment of their health. Too much exercise can lead to overtraining syndrome, resulting in fatigue, sickness, injury, lack of motivation, and loss of performance. It can also become an unhealthy obsession, taking over everything else as the sole pleasure of life. 

Train smarter, not longer

Don’t just fall into the more-is-better trap. Making it your goal to burn as many calories as possible in every workout puts you at risk for an unhealthy mindset and even possible exercise addiction.

Instead, get to the root of why you’re exercising and aim to train smarter — not longer.

If you want to lose weight for health reasons or to feel better in your body, steady-state cardio isn’t everything. Other useful forms of exercise are high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and sprinting, which as a bonus, can help increase your metabolism so that your body burns more calories at rest. 

If your goal is to be healthy and fit and increase your healthspan, the number of years you’re healthy and able to do the things you love, cardio is an essential piece of that. But so are resistance training, flexibility, mobility work, and nutrition. Don’t put too much focus on one versus the other.

If you want to make exercise a part of your lifestyle, find something you actually enjoy doing. Think about those performance, adventure, or skill-based goals I mentioned above. If you’re not sure what your goals are, think about the things you loved doing as a kid, and do those. 

Also, make sure to enjoy life. If, as it did for me, exercise ever takes up too much of your life, you can be sure something is wrong. Peleton can be a part of that, but it doesn’t have to be. Aim for balance and never use exercise as a form of punishment. 

Ultimately, exercise should be a source of joy, meaning, and connection in your life.

“Movement offers us pleasure, identity, belonging and hope. It puts us in places that are good for us, whether that’s outdoors in nature, in an environment that challenges us, or with a supportive community. It allows us to redefine ourselves and reimagine what is possible. It makes social connection easier and self-transcendence possible.” — Kelly McGonigal