The Fitness Guru: Focus on How Fast You Recover, Not How Much You Do

The Fitness Guru Speaks

I’ve seen a recent uptick in e-mails asking how my strategic approach to academic advice might apply to health goals; most notably, avoiding those inevitable college pounds. As always when it comes to such issues, I turned for guidance to Study Hack’s resident fitness guru, Adam Gilbert of the exceptional My Body Tutor service.

Adam, there’s no real “secret” to staying fit, you need to eat well and exercise. Yet I keep getting e-mails from students who struggle. What’s the issue lurking behind the scenes here?

We turn exercise into an all or nothing game.  When we’re on, we’re on — and we feel like we’re making things happen.

But when we mess up and miss some days — which is inevitable — things snowball. Our short-term self argues with our long-term self that because we’ve messed up a little bit, it’s game over, and we can now default to eating poorly and stop exercising altogether.

Dieters are notorious for thinking like this. “Well, I had a small cookie. So why bother eating healthfully now?”, they rationalize. They then eat poorly for the rest of the month.

In other words, an all or nothing mindset will inevitably slide into nothing.

How does one avoid this?

The real magic happens when you focus on recovering as quickly as possible from a missed workout. Is it going to take you a day, three days, a week, or three weeks to get back to exercising?

How quickly you can recover is what you should focus on — not the details of your over-complicated, reverse pyramid supersets.

For example, for quick reboots after missed exercise, I recommend the 20-20-20 workout: do 20 jumping jacks, 20 push ups, and then 20 crunches. Do that in a circuit 2 to 4 times. It won’t take more than 12 minutes, but it will certainly exert you.

This is an incredibly simple thing to do when time is short and you’ve missed a few workouts. In a dozen minutes you’re back in the game.

I can’t stress enough the importance of fast recovery of the exercise habit; even if the workout you return to is light. Falling off the exercise wagon generates a double-whammy of badness. First, you miss the health advantages of exercise. But second, and much more important, once you shift out of a healthy mindset, you start overeating crappy food, and this is where the real damage to your waistline is done.

So you would recommend having an variety of workouts at your disposal, from standard gym routines, to quick body weight circuits — like the 20-20-20 — that you can do in your dorm. The idea being that you can adapt to time constraints without having your whole system stall.


12 thoughts on “The Fitness Guru: Focus on How Fast You Recover, Not How Much You Do”

  1. Adam was able to articulate my “cookie monster” mantra perfectly! If I allow even a modicum of a crumb to enter my mouth, I cry “Uncle” and I am off my routine.

    The same with exercising – if I allow more than 2 days to go by without my gym routine, it is sooooooooooo hard to reboot!

    I really like to 20-20-20 routine – I can do that in my dorm room, which nullifies my excuse of not being able to get to the gym . . . thanks, Adam!

  2. But is the point to have a light workout before returning to more onerous exercise, or otherwise?

    My impression from chatting with Adam (and he can correct me here if I’m off), is that the lighter options are good for both downshifting and upshifting. That is, as your schedule gets busier — say, around exams — you might keep switching to a lighter and lighter workout, then, as time becomes free again, you might ladder back up to something more specialized to avoid the pain of jumping straight back into the deep end.

  3. Cal, absolutely right.

    If you insist on, say, only running 10 miles each time you exercise that can be very intimidating when you’re totally out of the groove or are extremely busy/stressed.

    Instead, do the 20-20-20 workout, build momentum (or at least, keep the momentum by doing this instead of nothing) which is extremely powerful and you’ll find yourself back in the ‘groove’ wanting to challenge yourself more.

    Hope that makes sense!

  4. Indeed. Exercise is not only crucial to one’s physical health, but also very crucial for staying sharp mentally! Stay in shape everyone!

  5. This 20-20-20 thing is super helpful. I feel like this is a good tip that I can immediately bring into my super-crazy schedule. I’d love to see more tips from Adam!

  6. This gets to the heart of how my perfectionistic tendencies have jeopardized my classroom excellence. I’d be extremely meticulous about making and sticking to a detailed schedule and do ALL of my assigned work so that they exceed expectations by a lot. Then I’d have a period of a few days where I wouldn’t get much done academically due to a social engagement or a temporary existential crisis, then tell myself, “Too late to make this semester anything close to a success!” I think this is why despite being conventionally gifted (good SAT, good IQ), I will be a fifth year senior next year and have never made above a 2.4 at college level. Cal or Adam, will you suggest an academic version of the 20-20-20 workout? I could really use it right now.

  7. This article provides some excellent advice on how to burn fat:

    One of my favorite fat-burning workouts is any form of interval training. Four or five cycles of 3:00h/2:00e takes up less than a half an hour every other day, and it works your body very well. One large advantage of interval workouts is the increased metabolic rate for up to 36 hours after the workout is over (largely contributed by EPOC)

  8. Great advice! It’s so easy to throw in the towel after one minor slip-up. I find myself rationalizing after each mistake by saying “I’ll start the diet again on Monday/next month/the new year…” Adam is so right – why waste that time making poor choice after poor choice when you can turn it around right NOW? The 20/20/20 is a great idea – thanks 🙂

  9. al or Adam, will you suggest an academic version of the 20-20-20 workout? I could really use it right now.

    Use an autopilot schedule for your regularly occurring work, and force yourself to stick to that time.

  10. This article is so helpful, I have such a tendency to follow the all or nothing approach, I will def take Adam’s advice… thanks!


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