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.