What's the best way to exercise?
That's a question that comes up again and again, and it can seem surprisingly complicated — what kind of workout should I do, and how long, and how hard, to lose weight or get fit or build muscle…?
For a straightforward answer I asked Michelle Bridges, Australian fitness icon and co-founder of online program the 12-Week Body Transformation.
Ahead of the next round of 12WBT, starting on February 4, Bridges explains how to find a way to exercise that's workable and meaningful to you. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Sam Downing, Coach editor: One question people always ask me, especially at this time of year, is "Am I better off doing this workout or that workout? This class or that class?" Everyone wants to know the perfect way to exercise — but I think the perfect exercise is whatever one you like best and you can do consistently.
Michelle Bridges, fitness queen: Absolutely. I always say "Any time, any how, anything as long as it gets done, and it gets done with some regularity."
But there are a few things that we can of set up to make that happen. So first of all, is [the type of exercise you choose to do, or fitness club you choose to join] near where you live? Is it near where you work? Do you have to walk past it on your way to work or on your way from home? Because if you've got to drive a million miles to get there, it probably isn't going to happen.
Next thing to ask yourself is, is this something you like? If it's an instructor or a class you just absolutely hate, you're not going to go back again with any sort of regularity. If you absolutely detest something 100 percent, then don't do it. If you hate running outside, train inside. If you hate training inside, go to the pool. If you hate swimming, get on a bike. Just find something that you like.
And the third step is about getting that consistency, as you said earlier. This all about planning and preparation — which sounds completely boring, but that's how you get stuff done. So, make training a regular part in your schedule. For the most successful exercisers, they know "On a Monday, I do Pilates. On a Tuesday, I go for a run. On a Wednesday, I do my evening yoga class. On a Thursday, I do my morning boxing class. That's just how I roll. That's my schedule. That's my blueprint. I don't even have to think about it."
I think planning is so important for people who are very busy at work, or are parents, or who are parents who are very busy at work — you have to plan, even though that doesn't sound very sexy.
Yeah, planning doesn't feel sexy. You want to be spontaneous. But honestly, the ones who are the most consistent at exercising, the ones who get the best success, are the ones who have got the groove and have got that plan.
That's something that I've known and been doing for over 20 years — over 30 years! That's my experience of working on the ground with so many people. I've seen everybody just scrambling. Everybody kind of knew what they had to do, but they just didn't know how to put all the nuts and bolts together and plan it.
That's really where the 12-Week Body Transformation came from, and that's why the online program has had such success over nine years — because we basically just walked everybody through those steps. We plan it out for you: your nutrition, your training. Then we top that up with I think what's probably the most fundamental piece, the piece that underpins the exercise and underpins the nutrition: mindset.
"Why is it that I self-sabotage? Why do I play these games with myself? Why do I set myself up for failure?" When you can start to understand it, it doesn't mean it'll go away. But once you've got the knowledge of why you do that, then you can start to make a plan around how to outmanoeuvre your weaknesses, or outmanoeuvre your pitfalls, or outmanoeuvre your personality type.
We're our own worst saboteur, so much of the time.
Yeah, we all are! We all do it. That's called being human. I do it too, and it's totally normal. We shouldn't beat up on ourselves about it. What we can do is, we can get smarter.
"I'm not a great morning person." All right, so if you're not a great morning person, then don't train in the morning. If you just signed up to 16 weeks of boxing classes at 5am, and you hate mornings, guess what? You'll probably get one of those 16 weeks done. It'll be a big waste of time. So it's got to work for you. Train in the evening, or train at lunchtime.
"If I go for Friday afternoon drinks, I'm never going to make it to the gym." So then you know you've got to start planning Friday lunchtime [exercise] before you even get to the drinks. That sort of stuff is really, really powerful — knowing yourself, knowing who you are, knowing your DNA, knowing what makes you tick, knowing what makes you go "blah".
Knowing yourself is not to say that that's going to make it all perfect. There will be still mornings you wake up and go, "ugh". But that's when you put some meaning into your training, and we do this a lot with 12WBT.
So for example, you're going to do a 10k run, and you're going to do it for charity. That brings meaning to your training. Now you wake up in the morning and go "ugh. I don't really feel like going for a run. But hang on. I'm running for the children's hospital, and I'm pretty sure that those kids laying in bed right now would give anything to get up and go for a run. So Michelle, get your butt out of bed, and go for a run for those kids." It's not just all about you.
I think that that point about finding meaning is really interesting, because for so long, weight loss has been the primary reason so many people to take up fitness, or start to diet. Weight loss is this "cultural obsession", is how an obesity researcher called Nick Fuller put it to me. But weight loss by itself isn't much of a motivator.
It's really not.
I think that's why trying to lose weight is so dispiriting. And why these so-called weight-neutral interventions are getting more popular, where rather than exercising or dieting just to lose fat, you do it to feel better about your body, or accomplish something, or for charity as you said, or as a way to spend more time with your family.
Absolutely to spend time with your family. I can tell you now that the memories that you have as a child, they will stick with you — like if you're a young boy going surfing with your dad. You'll never forget those memories. You don't remember sitting around with the TV or being online, but you remember that on a Saturday afternoon, your family would go down to the local park, and play a big game of cricket.
That's the kind of stuff that really builds bonds, and that's why I'm always banging on about training with someone — whether it be a family member, whether it's a friend. Because you'd be surprised what actually happens when that camaraderie occurs in a moment of training when things are getting a bit tough, things are getting a bit hot and heated, and you're having to come together as a team.