For some reason healthy habits are hard to keep, so there should be no shame in falling off the workout wagon, for a spell. And now science has found one reason why it’s so difficult to get back into an exercise regime – spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with your willpower (but more on that later).
Despite the obstacles, the short-term performance gains and life-long benefits of regular exercise that involves more than just going out for a stroll, are now well proven. In fact, even doing one weight lifting or strength-based workout a week will make you 20% less likely to die from any cause, as this RSNG article explains.
So, why is it so tough to return to exercise, what can you do to make it easier, and how will this help your new healthy habit stick? Read on to find out…
It’s Not Your Willpower, It’s Your Proteins A groundbreaking new study from researchers at the University of Leeds, England has found that rather than any perceived lack of drive, or willpower holding you back, the culprit is a particular protein related to blood flow, called Piezo1.
The Leeds researchers found that this Piezo1 protein actually gets shut down when you stop exercising regularly. Perhaps work has got intense, or you’ve been injured, but if you spend more time than usual sitting down and inactive, Piezo1 is deactivated and this then compromises your blood flow, making any return to an active lifestyle feel unduly strenuous.
“Although many responses to exercise are known, how the benefits of exercise are initially triggered at a molecular level is mysterious. Our study highlights the crucial link between physical activity and physical performance made at this level by Piezo1,” says Leeds researcher Fiona Bartoli. “Keeping our Piezo1’s active by exercising may be crucial in our physical performance and health.”
This creates a downward spiral where the less exercise you do the harder it feels, and the weaker your muscles feel, because they are not getting the blood flow
The Blood Flow Benefit The study looked at mice, but it is relevant to humans because we share mammalian muscle and blood flow characteristics. The researchers found that the Piezo1 protein acts as a sensor for blood flow and directs blood to muscles where it can deliver vital oxygen and nutrients.
They saw that the inactive mice in the study were not any less willing to exercise, but their bodies were simply less capable. This creates what the researchers call a “downward spiral” where the less you exercise the harder it feels and the weaker your muscles feel, because they are just not getting the blood flow that they need to perform. It’s an example of your body adapting to the lack of exercise, which it does as readily as adapting to the addition of exercise.
“Our work sheds light on how Piezo1’s role in blood vessels is connected to physical activity,” says researcher David Beech. “A lot was already known about its role in blood vessel development, but far less was known about its contribution to vessel maintenance in adults.”
What This Means For Your Return To Form OK, enough with the science, how can you use this knowledge to help you work back to fighting form, and realize your potential whether you’re out on the golf course, or setting personal body goals?
First things first, stop beating yourself up about being lazy, or lacking willpower. Psychologists have known for years that willpower is a finite resource, and if even completing a single workout objectively feels harder than before, then you will burn that resource faster than before too.
Starting small and gradually building up is also the safest way to start exercising, because smaller muscles supporting your joints will have time to strengthen
The name of the game here has to be building a new healthy habit, which becomes easier to stick to the more you do it, and the more you do it consistently. This is most successfully done in small stages, rather than massive leaps that totally upend your life and will likely demand too much of your finite reserve of willpower.
Starting small and gradually building up is also the safest way to start exercising again, because those smaller muscles and ligaments supporting your joints will have time to strengthen, making you more resilient for the heavier challenges to come.
Start An Activity Log When willpower is in short supply, it’s too easy to fall back into sedentary habits, so keep yourself honest by keeping an activity log, and recording your efforts every time you manage to complete a workout, set time aside for a longer walk, or play a round of golf.
This will also help you to compare your activity with your caloric intake, as golfing fitness coach Dr Zacharia Gould told RSNG. “In my experience, people underestimate how much they eat and overestimate how much they move. Sugary drinks and snacks can suddenly put you way over your allowance and you might have walked to work, but you’ve then sat down for nine hours.”
Gould recommends using apps like My Fitness Pal and trackers like Fitbit to keep a log of your activity and your calorie intake, because this helps to hold yourself accountable. “If you're not holding yourself accountable to yourself to someone, then ultimately, you're not going to last,” he says, and he practices what he preaches by posting all of his workouts to his social fitness community.
Choose Workouts That Challenge Your Brain One of the hardest workouts to slog through is the one you already know how to do. This goes double for the workouts you used to do when you were exercising regularly. Even though you will still have the muscle memory from doing that training, your muscles will feel weaker (because Piezo1 has been deactivated), and your body will not have the aerobic and anaerobic capacity that it used to.
Depressingly, a study by Elizabeth Ready and Arthur Quinney found that in their first three weeks of detraining, cyclist’s anaerobic threshold dropped by 20%. And you can expect to lose muscle strength within 2-3 weeks of stopping training entirely.
The good news is that it’s easier to regain fitness if you’ve had it in the first place. But avoid going back into your comfort zone, because for now it won’t even feel comfortable! Instead, look for a new challenge. This can still be in the same ballpark, though. Used to bench press barbells? Then hire a strength coach and learn some barbell Olympic lifts.
You’ll gain a new skill while hitting multiple muscle groups with a functional movement pattern that will directly cross over to making explosive sporting movements (such as the golf swing) more powerful and effective. And you’ll be focussing so hard on learning the technique (and often obtaining the necessary mobility), using an unloaded bar, that you won’t have time to notice how comparatively difficult the exercise feels.
You can also try cross training with a new sport, or an activity that really engages the mind, such as rock climbing, where you have to work out the solution to a bio-mechanical puzzle as you move.
Add The Social Element We’ve already seen how involving others can help to hold yourself to account, and follow through on exercise plans. But even something as simple as training with a partner, or in a group exercise environment (such as a class) can really boost individual motivation.
And this effect is true even if your training partner isn’t physically present. A 2012 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that doing an endurance workout with a virtually present partner helped the participants to exercise for significantly longer than when they were on their own. This goes doubly true if you can inject a bit of healthy competition, which may explain the worldwide phenomenon of Zwift, the online cycling platform where you can even race the pros.
Whatever your exercise goals, make sure you regularly check back at RSNG.com for weekly inspirational and practical guides to working out better, more consistently and for superior gains!
WHAT NEXT? To help you navigate the world of golf performance read the RSNG article on the biggest fitness and strength myths in the game.
Dr Zachariah Gould sets bespoke golf fitness training plans whatever your level – visit his website for more.
Photos: Adobe Stock