Exercise Non-responders

I’m learning a lot since I started blogging here on Word Press. For example, I started following a fitness blog called “Fit is a Feminist Issue” a few months ago, and from it I just found about a group of people called exercise non-responders. The “Fit” blogger calls these people “rational couch potatoes,” because they don’t get more fit or stronger with exercise. Some of them might even get worse, worn down and exhausted by fitness programs. She linked to an article by Gretchen Reynolds from earlier this year: Exploring Why Some People Get Fitter than Others.

This was an interesting and eye-opening article, although not because I am surprised that non-responders exist. After all, I’ve been living with the condition myself, or something related that I will call “low response” rather than “non response,” for almost 50 years. Mostly, I’m annoyed that in all this time, I had never read a serious NYT-level, or even Word Press Blogger-level, article about fitness from this angle before. I almost feel as if there’s been some massive gym teacher and fitness-enthusiast conspiracy targeted at me and my fellow low- or non-responders, aimed at dismissing us, excluding us, and making us feel crazy, lazy, and bad about ourselves.

For example, I’ve been telling people for more years than I’d like to remember that I don’t get “runner’s high.” If I didn’t have some good runner friends whom I consider trustworthy sources, I would say that “runner’s high” is a complete myth promulgated by fitness magazines and personal trainers. But as it is, I’ve come to view runners’ high as being like certain religious ecstatic experiences that I’ve never had either. It’s not that I disbelieve or discount that others are telling the truth when they say that they have had these experiences. But such experiences remain outside my personal ken. And I’m not going to fake it, or lie, until I “make it,” just to jump on the bandwagon and avoid whatever personal hell the enthusiasts seem to be so afraid of.

I need to sit with this idea of exercise non-response being a thing for a while and process all the ramifications. I don’t think the right response is to stop exercising altogether. The way I have been behaving, before this knowledge, has been as follows. I keep exercise very light and moderate. I walk instead of run, I bike slowly and without toe clips.

I have been trying to follow a push-up app called 100 pushups for the past 3 years. This app claims to be able to get you from zero to 100 in 6 weeks. There is a graph function for your progress, but the x-axis is not proportional to time spent:




The beginning of the graph shows me, during the first several months that I tried, progressing for a little while, repeatedly hitting a wall, and going back to the beginning. That one ridiculously high peak that got up to 200 reps a day came when I switched to doing pushups from my knees rather than doing full-body pushups, because I just couldn’t keep up with the program doing the full-body ones.

The graph does not show the long, sometimes months-long, gaps between crashing and burning, and starting over again, over the course of 2 years.

About midway through the graph is what I started doing this year, in 2015. I started slow and just kept repeating levels over and over again. I didn’t move on to the next set of reps until I really felt like I could do the level I was at. This usually took 5-10 repetitions of the same level. I found it absurd that these levels were called “days” and that some people spent only one day at a particular level and then felt able to move on two days later. Again, I still wonder what mythical people the app was written for. Bodybuilders, maybe? Or maybe just high responders?

In any case, I’ve actually stopped doing the app again recently in favor of doing sets of 10 full-body pushups at random times of day. I do 10 when I get up and I do 10 before I go to bed, every day. I sometimes do 10 in the middle of the day at lunch too.

What I like about this method is that I have, after 3 years of doing pushups, gotten to the point that 10 quick full body pushups is, literally, no sweat. I can do them anywhere, anytime, no matter what I am wearing. They are like brushing my teeth. This is absolutely progress from when I started and could barely do even one. I even like the way my arms look, no middle-aged lady flabbiness. And I’m getting more core strength, which in my case was an even bigger problem than lack of arm strength. So, I can’t say that I’m a non-responder to this type of exercise. I do respond, but apparently not on the time scale that people seem to expect.

I’m assuming this research was rarely reported or written about in the past because it was assumed that people would use it as an excuse to give up and stop exercising. That makes me angry. I appreciate this research because I could really do without the shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and feelings of being defective and doing it wrong, that have accompanied exercise for me in the past. This knowledge makes me more likely to keep exercising (exercising my way), not less.

15 thoughts on “Exercise Non-responders”

  1. Yes! Thank you for the post. It’s good to hear from other low-responders and accept that, it’s not that we are not trying, it’s that our bodies are different! (& As someone who can only do 3 pushups on a good day, 10 sounds pretty awesome to me!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very interesting article. I actually have a negative response to exercise. I always end up not feeling well afterward. I’m not diabetic, although I wondered about that after years of seeing how exertion (including exercise) gets to me. I can’t recall having a ‘runner’s’ high, but I do remember briefly that I felt calmer after swimming at a spa back in the 80s. I think it so much depends on the other things going on in our bodies. I did read a book which I appreciated a lot about G-Force helping us to get in needed ‘exercise’ through simple ADL movement.

    I’d like to thank you for coming over the Quantum Hermit and visiting, and following, as well. I look forward to reading more from your realm here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Quantum Hermit is actually the name my husband and I came up with when we were Letterboxing (a fun hobby). So, he’s Mr. Quantum – a physicist, and I’m the esoteric part, Hermit referring to a favorite Tarot card of mine – thought there are really so many great cards in my decks. 🙂

        ADL is ‘Activities of Daily Living’ which learned about during my training as an Occupational Therapist.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Do you still do letterboxing? My husband and I do quite a bit of geocaching, which is related, but with a GPS. We occasionally find geocaches that are letterbox hybrids, and those are fun. That’s where the name of this blog comes from. I launched it on the occasion of my 1000th geocaching find.

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      3. You asked if we still go letterboxing. At the moment no, because of other things we’re having to take care of. That’s so interesting that we both are using names we have used in other realms. 🙂
        I saw about the geocaching last year, and thought it sounded very interesting, except, we don’t have a GPS. Perhaps someday. We just got a digital camera, mainly because I join a weekly event, Mundane Monday, which is about finding beauty in the mundane – using photos.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Ugh, gyms. I did a light bike ride this morning, just to my son’s school and back, where I was volunteering for “Anything But a Car Day.” I went at a very moderate pace and feel pretty good now. I think that’s the key, know your limits, and when it doesn’t feel good anymore (or, ideally, before that happens), stop.

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  3. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years – from basic training in the Army to sparring in the martial arts to working with a personal trainer in middle age, is that adaptability is more important than reps and structure. I think the new catchphrase is “functional fitness” – doing things that support overall health and movement.

    Working with your own temperament, finding ways to move that you enjoy (some days it’s just yard work for me) and learning when to rest are more important. I’ve experienced a “runner’s medium” – I just get a little happier with the extra endorphins, but then the sweat drips into my eyes, making them feel like they’re on fire. I imagine it all evens out in the end!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with Michelle. We all have unique potentials and while it is possible for most people to do most things with enough effort, there are things we simple have little talent for. It is a like a poet trying to write novels. Some do it very well, others would simply do better staying with poetry. The secret, as always, is trying a lot of things and discovering what works for us.

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      1. When I’m just exercising by myself for fitness, I can do what works for me and it’s fine. But the main issue that I’m struggling with, and that I’ve struggled with before, is other people. When it comes to physical activity, I don’t “play well with others”. Yes, I have some baggage leftover from school gym class, where I was the smallest and slowest. But that was a long time ago, and it’s not the main problem anymore.

        My husband and I theoretically like to go geocaching together, but I find geocaching with him to be physically stressful, to the point that it’s often not much fun for me. The bike rides and hikes he wants to take are too long and grueling for me to find enjoyable. And one time he came home from a geocaching trip that involved kayaking with a buddy that sounded really dangerous, like they could have drowned. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how much danger they were actually in, but it didn’t sound fun at all to me whereas when he was telling me about it, he was clearly elated, and in the throes of some endorphin rush.

        I can’t find exercise buddies in general for this reason–a mismatch between expectations and abilities, with me on the low end of both. The introvert in me doesn’t mind exercising alone most of the time, but I see that other people use exercise as a time to be social and bond, and I wish I could do that.

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  4. I spent several years as an addicted runner — 50 to 70 miles a week. I ran three marathons in 1979 and ’80, with times just a little less than 4 hours. During that time, I thought that exercise — especially running — with proper stretching, etc. could overcome almost anything. Inwardly, I thought that, if I could do it, anyone could, so I privately blamed others for not being as “healthy” as I was. Turns out, though, that I have the wrong joints for all that exercise. I’ve had four hip-replacement surgeries and now have intense arthritic pain in both shoulders, with my only reasonable option being shoulder replacement, which I dread. I could probably do a couple of push-ups but won’t because of the shoulder pain. What bugs me is that I know what all the exercise fanatics are thinking, because I used to think that way.

    Liked by 2 people

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