The January Gym Syndrome is not just limited to January. It is just when it is most pronounced, unlike ILS or TTSCAAPBOIP Syndromes*, which are more of a warm weather problem. The January Gym Syndrome is a concept I explain to my clients/ patients (depending on your preference for the word) and it is my contribution to the over-medicalisation of our world. Please bear in mind when you read this that:
- it is more of a ‘common sense’ opinion piece rather than a researched, fully referenced piece of work (they’re in the pipeline. Somewhere).
- I am an osteopath with an interest in exercise both personally and professionally, not a personal trainer or strength coach (there go half the readers).
- it is a post about general exercise, NOT rehabilitation.
- it is aimed at new or ‘casual’ exercisers rather than people with a longer training history and/ or those who are happy with what they are doing.
- for many it will be a case of stating the-bleeding-obvious, if so, please forward it to someone who may benefit from it.
The January Gym Syndrome
Person X has renewed their annual New Year Resolutions and is determined to get fit. Again. This person goes into the gym on Jan 2nd, still partially hung-over and picks up every weight they can see, even the dusty ones usually reserved for some kind of weird shrugging variation (that is more of a gurning exercise filmed for their mates rather than anything else). As a result they hurt themselves, or are sore for days, or find that they get to mid-February and things aren’t going the way they thought they should. They have stopped losing weight (though numbers on the scales aren’t everything), their deadlift has stalled, their run times aren’t changing, they keep falling off the bosu as they bicep curl in the squat rack and the skinny kid in the baggy t-shirt and mismatched training gear is still warming up with a weight way over their maximum. Slowly but surely the doubt sets in, the injuries mount up or mutate into something more persistent, the enthusiasm wanes and person X quits.
“I tried. It didn’t work. Anyway, I’m too busy with work/ kids/ family and there’s a new film out tonight.”
That is understandable up to a point (see below). Sometimes there is so much going on that something has to give and exercise is often the first to go. We all have different priorities and only you can make that call. I get a little annoyed by the it-only-takes-20-minutes-a-day type posts that swagger around the net which pay no attention to what may be going on in that person’s life. Some people are running at full capacity anyway and don’t have another only-20-minutes, parents in particular. The smug posts of buff people posing in yoga pants and tight muscle vests droning on about the stuff on the inside being the most important don’t help things either.
However, if you replace the word ‘exercise’ with ‘movement’, things may become easier to achieve. I hope to talk more about this at a later date but there are simple ways of moving more;
- using the stairs
- standing more
All of these can be hugely beneficial and more easy to fit into your day than a ‘formal’, scheduled session. It’s also worth bearing in mind the long-term benefits. Physical activity is well documented as one of the fundamentals of health, including prevention and treatment of more ‘medical’ conditions.e.g.:
- cognitive function
- inflammation and DM
- a potential role in reducing pain perception
- reducing anxiety – the article also links to papers on better mood and cognition.
- Also sedentary behaviour is now associated with a greater risk of death than obesity
- And strength and proprioceptive training have been linked to both injury prevention and the former to performance benefits in endurance exercise when done well (more on these at a later date).
Popularity is sometimes confused with efficacy.
It makes sense to try and do something but how do you get started? The obvious thing is to talk to someone;
- a reputable trainer/ coach (read this and this first)
- a physical therapist
- a knowledgeable friend/ colleague
- join a decent club
- pick a plan off the internet.
The last option has its own potential problems; not every expert hiding behind a keyboard is what they seem (the irony of that last statement). Popularity is sometimes confused with efficacy and not every opinion is a fact, a problem rampant in manual therapy. I strongly recommend the above options first if you are new to exercise/ activity but if none of the above appeal to you, aren’t possible or you want to do it alone, then you may want to bear the following in mind.
- Clear things with your doctor (that’s the disclaimer).
- Pick a goal; you can have help with this but only YOU can choose this goal.
- Make it enjoyable.
- Plan; work out how many times a week you can REALISTICALLY train/ exercise and how long for (be brutally honest about this to avoid letting yourself down). Then consider dropping one session and shaving a few minutes off the time.
- Prepare; do any research you need to do BEFORE you get going, so when you arrive you are not looking around the gym/ park/ beach/ pool thinking “and now what?” It’s a variation on the military expression of ‘proper preparation prevents poor performance’ (there may actually be more words in their version).
- Start easy; whatever your maximum is or was (weight, distance, speed etc), or whatever you think it is, start at around 50% of that, 25% if you want to be really careful, especially if you are coming back from a lay-off for any reason. It is an arbitrary number, I know, and sounds fairly low (I’m sure there are more accurate ways of gauging this level) but I’m not particularly gung ho with other people’s bodies. What it does achieve is getting round the problem of starting at 75% and when you get carried away you possibly over-stretch yourself.
- A slow, sensible progression; increase the exercise load SLOWLY; reps, sets, load, %RM, distance, speed, laps, lengths etc. And don’t increase too many variables at the same time.
I appreciate that none of these points are unique or new. The last two have been made much more eloquently by many people, such as Jim Wendler in his strength training manuals 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1, who talks about starting light and making slow progress. Tom Goom (@tomgoom) aka The Running Physio has a very good, detailed post relating to running here. Lifting or running may not be your thing, these are just examples to illustrate my point.
Consider getting some coaching before you start. It doesn’t need to be three times a week for ever (similarly you should question a physical therapist if their treatment plan appears to have you coming back once a week or month until the next New Year). It is better to try to learn how to do something right from the outset, rather than wasting time further down the line.
It may also be possible to apply these principles to other areas that often seem to crop up in NY resolutions lists;
- getting up earlier
- dietary changes
- postural changes (though the reasons to do that need to be questioned, poor posture is not the same as pain.)
- moving more (standing, walking, stairs)
- I am not going to mention smoking (I don’t) and drinking (much less than before, having young kids has drastically reduced my weekly intake) other than refer you to this.
A sensible progression appropriate for you.
Some people appear to be able to do the shock tactic and get away with it, others seem to struggle, go cold-turkey and quit. The idea of a slow, sensible progression appropriate for the individual is not new but seems to be lost in a have-every-thing now approach. If you finish frustrated, thinking that you could have done more, the next time you train you can do more. If you finish so sore and beaten up that you can’t sit down for a week, you have blisters, ‘a joint in your neck is in the wrong position and needs putting back**’ or your ‘ribus maximus is playing up because of an imbalance in your upper plantaris sling’ (more on therapeutic doublespeak at a later date), you may be a little more reluctant to go back and may have also stalled your progress. Hurting yourself or someone else is easy; getting healthier, fitter, stronger or quicker isn’t if you have no idea of what to do other than stretch, stroll on a treadmill, curl, pose and refuel on liquid sugar. Unfortunately, the reams and reams of virtual paper of conflicting advice on the internet don’t make it any easier.
Slow progress is still progress.
Start light, short or slow depending on your activity, take small steps and you can keep going forwards. Surely it is a better mindset to be in – a cycle of positive reinforcement, success breeding success – rather than a boom and bust approach that may only reinforce the idea that you can’t do it. Common sense? Definitely, but sometimes the obvious things need repeating. It is NOT a guaranteed way of avoiding injury; you do stuff, things can happen, but at least it goes someway towards minimising that risk. The alternative of not doing anything is not really a long-term option.
As for what type of exercise you do; that’s a whole other, never-ending post and something that is out of my area (though foolishly, I may attempt it). An important factor to remember is that it has to be fun, or at the very least you don’t mind doing it, something I feel is often overlooked. You can have the best, most expensive program/ plan in the world but if it just sits in your gym bag taunting you from under your shiny new shoes, then it is doing nothing for you except possibly adding another layer of ‘I failed’ to your attitude towards exercise.
I realise that this post leaves out many important issues such as motivation, goals, resources, money, time and has only touched on others e.g. a suitable exercise/ activity for you, how you go about it and the crucial factor of progression. However, what I have attempted to show is one possible solution to a common problem, the January Gym Syndrome.
Moderation is not always a bad thing.
* Tight-t-shirt-cross-arms-and-push-biceps-out-in-photo Syndrome
** It isn’t and doesn’t. Ever. If a joint in your neck is ‘out’ or ‘in the wrong position’ you go to a hospital or a morgue, not a physical therapist.