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Can You Stay In Shape If You Hate Hard Workouts?

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Hey there, it’s me! The girl in the back row of bikes, hiding from the instructor. The girl picked last in kickball. The girl who enjoys wearing exercise leggings, but only because they’re super comfortable and often stylish.

I do feel great when I’m working out, but my preferred workout is yoga. Yoga every day. I’m signed up for ClassPass, which means I have hundreds of New York City classes at my disposal, but I just keep taking different variations of namaste. Friends regularly invite me along to grueling classes—boot camps, rowing, running, spinning—but I always reject.

I hate feeling like I can’t breathe. I hate feeling like my heart is going to take leave of my ribcage. I hate that my pale skin turns eggplant purple within four minutes of cardio and stays that way for hours afterwards, like I’ve just gone through labor. (FYI: Post-Workout Muscle Soreness Hits People at Different Times.)

Am I wasting my time, though, by only going to yoga? Yes, I get the zen benefits of stress relief and deep breathing, but it’s possible I’m doing jack squat for my body. So I reached out to discuss the matter with a few experts: Daniel V. Vigil, MD, a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, and Felicia Stoler, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist.

Right off the bat, both doctors were careful to say I shouldn’t knock yoga. Studies show It's OK to Work Out at a Lower Intensity. And scientifically, yoga has some pretty clear perks. Some are easy to measure—losing weight, increasing strength—"but then there’s better energy, confidence, and other clear mental benefits,” Vigil says. (Ahem, like these 6 Health Benefits of Yoga.)

Also, it’s not quite fair to suggest that all cardio lovers are automatically paragons of health. It depends on your body, the type of cardio, how hard you're working, and so on. "The fact is, you can do few hours of exercise a week, but if you spend the rest of the time on your rear end, that's as detrimental as smoking,” Stoler points out.

Okay, point taken. Practicing yoga is certainly better than not doing anything at all. But by skipping intense workouts, my heart isn’t getting any healthier. “You’re not working on your cardiorespiratory system,” Stoler explains, and the benefits of cardio are obvious. “Lower heart rate, better blood glucose levels, lower cholesterol, stronger bone density, and the maintenance of muscle mass,” she rattles off. And those are just a few. (Worth noting: You Don't Have to Run Far to Reap the Benefits of Running.)

I know cardio is necessary. I know it’s essential for a healthy body and longer life. So why is it so rough on my body, and why does it make me hate my life (for those forty-five minutes, at least)? Seems counter-intuitive.

Vigil blames “metabolic pain.” “What that means is, when you're working really hard, you hit your lactate threshold, or the the point when the lactic acid in your muscles starts to burn.” Of course, it’s also a sign that you’re getting a solid workout in, because your muscles are changing. “When it builds to a high level, it’s unpleasant,” Vigil admits. “You definitely know the feeling.” Indeed. (But You Can—and Should—Push Through the Pain During Your Workout.)

The key is typically to learn to love—or at least tolerate—that burn. “Some people just feel so uncomfortable, so out of breath, because they’re so unconditioned,” Stoler says. Luckily, that can change. “The most morbidly obese person can still learn to run. The wonderful thing about the human body is that it can adapt. It can learn,” she says. To up your endurance, you should be logging three to four and a half hours at the gym per week. 

I set out to learn how to love it, by forcing myself to do a whole bunch of activities that I loathed. Loathed. My internal monologue at a Pure Barre class was something like this: I hate this. Why do women do this to themselves? This is everything that’s wrong with the female experience. Why do we torture ourselves like this? Barre is not for me. 

Spinning still isn’t, either—I gave it a whirl (sorry) for the first time since 2011, when I almost puked in a class. The subsequent Soul-ification of the sport (think pulsing music and strobe lights) isn't any less nauseating, at least not for me. 

Of course, Beyoncé is for me. I took a dance class where we learned the choreography to Queen B’s “Countdown.” Then I went to a Bollywood situation where we banged batons in rhythm on the ground. Then a hybrid class that was thirty minutes of aerobic moves like jumping jacks, followed by thirty minutes of yoga-style stretches. Can this much fun actually have an impact on my health?

“You should be working so hard that you can’t keep a conversation with your workout partner, but easy enough you can contribute short sentences,” Vigil explains. You’re working too hard if you can’t speak, get lightheaded, or feel like your heart is going to explode out of your chest. Luckily, none of my new classes made me feel that way—but I could certainly tell I was getting a workout with that talking test. It also made me realize why instructors keep asking, "HOW ARE WE DOING?" They want to make sure you are still able to reply!

After trying these new methods, I didn’t suddenly become obsessed with sweating my hair out. I'm not converted, not yet. My new routine is 80 percent yoga and 20 percent dancing, and it’s completely guilt-free. I'm just proud of myself for moving. (Can you relate? Check out Why the Gym Isn't Just for Skinny People.)

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