Updated: Sep 1, 2021
“Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty.” We could delve into the deep philosophical depths of this Theodore Roosevelt quote, but we’ll aim to remain focused on physical fitness, at least for now.
Can exercise be easy? Of course, it can be. But should it be? Would an easy training session or approach be worthwhile for anyone in any circumstance? I guess it depends on how we are defining “easy” and “exercise”. In our below debate looking at both ends of the argument, “easy” will refer to the absence of effort, discomfort and difficulty (mental and/or physical). Meanwhile, “exercise” will cover intentional and structured physical activity.
With that said, let’s ask ourselves: should exercise be easy?
For a beginner (or anyone delving into a new style of fitness their body and mind are unconditioned to), physical adaptation is inevitable. The body makes specific adaptations to imposed demands, whether that’s the heart muscles becoming more efficient at pumping blood around the body when we do cardiovascular training, muscles getting bigger and stronger from resistance training, or regaining stability and range of motion following an injury with a rehabilitation programme.
However, once the body’s mental and physical networks become comfortable with certain demands, repeating the same movements at the same intensity will eventually become too easy for us. It’s at this point we begin to experience plateaus (a state of no change/progress). Failing to give appropriate effort contradicts the progressive overload principle. This principle states that we will develop in our physical fitness when we make timely changes to our structured exercise regimes. These changes (such as tweaking frequency or time of sessions, amount of weight used, complexity of movement and more), are what provide a continuous training stimulus. Progressively overloading isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to challenge the mind and body beyond what it is used to.
No matter the type of fitness you are focusing on (strength, endurance, hypertrophy, flexibility, mobility, cardiovascular fitness, SAQ, balance, motor skill development etc…), improvements can only begin outside of your comfort zone. So, should exercise be easy? If your aim is to gain tangible results and keep pushing yourself to your mental and physical potential, then absolutely not. It’d be like reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for an English degree and expecting to improve your vocabulary.
For those serious about their training development, having deload weeks and recovery sessions are essential. Deload and recovery workouts are not necessarily always “easy”, but easier than the demands the body and mind have adapted to in previous days/weeks. Having these easier doses of exercise can be hugely beneficial for overall long-term progress, and ensuring overtraining doesn’t damage results or lead to potential injuries.
Exercising with an easy intensity or training approach may also allow for social and mental benefits to be fully explored. Some of us aren’t particularly bothered about achieving our physical potential. The social experience of group exercises classes, the gym or sport and fitness communities may take higher priority than the activity itself. In this case, exercise is merely the means to an end, the end being staying connected to social circles or meeting new people.
Importantly too, regardless of ease or difficulty, exercise releases endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin within the brain which positively affect our mood and can boost our mental health. In this context, exercise can just be enjoyed without the worry of training variables, intensity and structure. Not everyone likes feeling sore for days on end after a gym session, or being pushed to their limit. So if exercise is physically easy but mentally beneficial for you, then there’s huge value to that which shouldn’t be dismissed.
Once more we ask, should exercise be easy? Ultimately, it depends on what you want to get out of your training. If you have specific goals to reach, passively coasting through training sessions while having a chat with friends isn’t going to help you get there. You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Working at a relevant and disciplined intensity outside of your comfort zone will
produce substantial physical and performance results in the long-term.
On the other hand, if results are low down on the list of priorities when training (if on the list at all), then easy exercise can be worthwhile. It’s important to enjoy exercise, so if pushing yourself to your physical limits comes at the expense of mental and social value, then easier methods have a place in fitness if these latter values are the priority.
Here, it is important to highlight that exercise can of course be physically challenging, social,
mentally beneficial and enjoyable all at once. We appreciate things are not always as black and white as they may appear here.
Regardless of the easy or hard approach to exercise, it’s important to have an awareness of what an appropriate intensity is for what you want. In the easy approach, the mental benefits may begin to dwindle if exercise becomes too repetitive and zero improvements are seen or felt - so ensure that mental engagement remains. And for those training harder, overtraining and/or training and a lower or higher intensity than needed will impact results. The process of finding that fine balance of comfort and discomfort when it comes to intensity is part of the ongoing training journey. And guess what? That process isn’t going to be easy.
MSE Sports & Remedial Massage Content Creator