One question that people in the ancestral health community frequently ask is what kind of exercise they should do to optimize their health and fitness. A lot of people new to the Paleo/Primal lifestyle assume that high intensity exercise like CrossFit is the best type of workout, no matter what your current health state is. But is this true? And if CrossFit isn’t the best exercise for you, what is?
There are a lot of variables that should be taken into account when deciding on what kind of exercise routine to follow. Chris Kresser wrote a great article about the dangers of overtraining, which is something I think is under-recognized in the Paleo community. Chris explains that while short, intense workouts can be great for inducing fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, excessively intense exercise can cause a variety of health problems, especially for those dealing with other concurrent stressors such as autoimmune disease, gut dysbiosis, or adrenal fatigue.
The problem with excessive or overly intense training is that these workouts stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses, which can be a serious problem for people who are already under a lot of stress, or have high inflammation from another disease process. Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.In addition, high cortisol is bad news for people with hypothyroidism, since cortisol reduces the conversion of T4 to T3 and increases the conversion to inactive reverse T3, which makes hypothyroid symptoms worse. Excessive training with inadequate rest leads to too much muscle breakdown without time to fully recover, increasing inflammation and fat storage due to high levels of stress hormones. So all that training can actually be counter productive for people trying to lose fat.
Another thing that’s important to point out is that a workout like CrossFit should really be adapted to the person’s current fitness and lifestyle. I’ve noticed before that poorly run gyms do not always pay attention to a person’s limitations, and try to push everyone to go harder than many of them should be pushing. There are exceptions to this, and a good Crossfit gym will tailor the workout to the client’s needs and abilities, and will not coerce their members to work out more often or more intensely than they should be. Some of this is the client’s responsibility to know their own circumstances and not allow the intense environment to push them into going past their limits, but it’s important to find a good coach who will recognize each individual’s unique circumstances.
I don’t think strength training has to be high intensity. You can go to the gym and do squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and other strength moves without doing the reps as quickly as possible. I’m not an exercise physiologist but from what I’ve read, controlled strength training can be even more beneficial for strength gains, muscle building, and fat loss. I think it’s good to throw in some sprint intervals into walks or runs, and an interval can even be a fast walk, as long as you’re pushing yourself. And doing exercises that work your balance and flexibility are important too, I think everyone should be doing yoga at least once a week if not more!
The most important thing is finding an exercise you enjoy. If you love CrossFit, but are dealing with a stressful life situation or illness that makes it challenging for you to handle the workouts, talk to your coach and explain your situation to them. Any good coach will understand that you’ll need modifications to the workout, and they’ll make appropriate changes to your WOD. If you don’t enjoy Crossfit, don’t do it! There’s no reason to get involved in an exercise routine that you don’t enjoy since you won’t maintain it over time.
Personally, I generally try to do some type of cardio 2-3 times per week, yoga 1-2 times per week, and strength training 1-2 times per week. This changes based on the climate, since I really only like running outside. I’ve been enjoying training for the Tarheel 10 miler coming up in a few weeks, but running more than 5-6 miles per day is pretty unusual for me. I usually base my workout routine on how I’m feeling, since lately I’ve been pretty stressed with the end of my program approaching, and I don’t want to overdo the training while I’m in this high-stress state. But I’m hoping once my program ends in May that I can get back into a more consistent training schedule. I really enjoyed training at FitBootCamp in Randolph, New Jersey, because the coaches were always making sure that people were using proper form and not sacrificing safety for speed. I also enjoyed getting my Level 1 certification last year, so I do hope to get back into CrossFit eventually. I’m just aware that my current level of stress and grad-student exhaustion is not conducive to adding a high intensity workout on top of it all, whether I enjoy it or not.
In conclusion, the most important thing is to find exercise you like that improves both your cardiovascular fitness and your overall strength. If that’s Crossfit, then great, but if not, there’s plenty of other types of exercise available to meet your fitness needs! Try a few different activities and stick with the ones you enjoy and will continue doing throughout your life.
What’s your favorite way to stay fit? Share in the comments below!