The Value of Just One Workout

Recently a member of my club confessed to me that he’d stopped coming to Koko regularly. Don owns a small retail business, and he explained to me that he had lost the manager of his store and had been covering all the duties himself. There was no way he could get into the gym three times per week, as we generally prescribe, so he figured there was no point. Right?

WRONG! I’ve heard this lament from too many people over the years, and it’s time to set the record straight.

When I was in my twenties, I worked in television production, an industry that can be just as demanding as small business ownership. My work days were long and the job was at times physically demanding. Staying fit helped me keep my edge.

At one point, we were shooting 6 days per week down in Long Beach. Rush hour starts early in L.A., so even if I left my home in Santa Monica by 6AM, I’d just make it for the 7AM start. Some nights we didn’t wrap until 10PM, or even later. Fitting the gym into a day like that was not an option, and really would not have been beneficial. But I did have one day off per week, and I made sure that I spent a good chunk of that day at the gym. Unfortunately it did not have a Koko Smartrainer, which would have helped me keep my workouts efficient. But using dumbbells and barbells, along with a few old school strength machines, I’d manage to get a decent full-body workout in, along with some cardio, in about two hours.

I certainly didn’t increase my strength during that time, but that one day a week helped me to maintain what I already had. If had not stuck to that once-a-week schedule, I certainly would have seen my strength decline. Of equal importance to maintaining my strength was that I maintained the habit of exercise. I never had to “get back on the wagon” cause I never really got off.

My story is anecdotal, but scientists have been confirming the many positive effects of just one workout:

  • Mental Pick-Me-Up. When I got Don working out again, the most visible immediate effect was how much his mood improved. He came into the gym looking tired and stressed out. After just about 30 minutes of strength training and 15 of cardio, he walked out smiling and looking like a new man. Why? “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” writes Dr. Michael Otto, PhD, professor of psychology at Boston University, and author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety.  “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”
  • Get Better Sleep. Experience tells us that exercise improves sleep quality, but it was documented for the first time in a randomized controlled trial published in the Sleep Journal in 1997. Exercise helped study participants get higher quality sleep than those in a control group. Even those who were classified as “poor” sleepers experienced improvements in the quality of sleep.  And since sleep is very good for you, all the more reason to squeeze it in when you can.
  • Increase Energy & Focus. I always feel better when I start my day with a workout. I have more energy and am more focused and productive at work. A 2012 research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows why. The researchers found that physical exercise enhances mental function, even in an exercise bout as short as 10 minutes. Try a 15-minute Koko Cardio session with Michael Wood and see how much sharper you feel when you’re done.

When you make exercise a habit, it becomes part of your regular routine so you don’t have to think about it any more. As you build a habit, “the brain starts working less and less,” writes Charles Duhigg, author of the NY Times bestseller, The Power of Habit. In fact, habit-making behaviors are processed in a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. Decisions are processed in the prefrontal cortex. When you maintain the exercise habit, you aren’t forced to access that sector of the brain to make a decision about it. It just happens. However, once the habit is broken, you will be forced to make a decision to start it up again.

Of course maintaining a habit of exercising 3 or 4 days a week is better than just one day a week. But the important thing is that the habit still exists in some form. In my example above, it was pretty easy for me to increase the frequency of my gym habit once life settled down a bit. I know it would have been more difficult to start over from scratch. “We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

We all go through crazy-busy, stressful periods of life when it can be hard to fit in the workouts. I’m no exception. There are times when I don’t workout as frequently, or as intensely as I’d like. But it’s always a good idea to squeeze in a single workout before too much time has passed since the last one. It may not be the best workout, but the point is, it’s a workout.

Johnny Kelley ran the Boston Marathon over 50 times in his life. At age 70 he was still running around 50 miles per week and participating in 15 races per year. When someone asked why he did it, his answer was simple. “I’m afraid to stop running, “ Kelley said. “I feel too good. I want to stay alive.” He ran his final Boston Marathon at age 84.

The same approach can work for you. Even if your habit is only one day per week, or even once every two weeks, it’s well worth doing. With exercise, something is always better than nothing.

Paul Romeo
Fitness Life Correspondent

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