“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
A few years ago, a friend dragged me to a pricey, pretty workout studio in Los Angeles that involved all sorts of weights. I’d never really worked out that way before, because it seemed boring. Of course, after the class I was soaring. I was first in line at the front desk, signing a covenant vow to hand over, monthly, a sum equal to an ocean-front mortgage for the honor of returning. They could have charged me anything. In that sweaty moment, all I wanted was to feel that way all the time. I returned and I returned and it felt fine. It felt all right. Then, it felt normal. And I realized that the rush from the first time was never going to come back. It felt that way — thrilling, challenging, engaging, alive — because it was the first time.
Turns out, this is a known phenomenon: Even if you’re in great shape, moving your body in a new way will always be challenging. When you approach a certain exercise as a neophyte, that practice won’t just ignite new muscles — it will affect all sorts of body systems. “When you switch to a new activity it’s always a new stressor,” says Dr. M. Brennan Harris, associate professor of kinesiology and health sciences at William & Mary College. “Even if you’re better able to handle it, even if you’ve got a really high baseline, when the body sees new stress, you will have higher heart rate as a result.”
Dr. Harris explains that, because the body adapts to patterns, when you change the pattern even slightly, it has a lot of catching up to do. If you repeat an activity, it will feel easier and more natural the more you do it. The 50th time you go on a two-mile run will feel less demanding than the very first two-mile run. But if the motion is different — like legs kicking in a pool versus legs running or cycling on a bike — “the muscle feels that strain. The neurological feedback to the brain says, ‘That’s hard.’ That’s a stress response and an increase in stress responses and stress hormones increases heart rate,” says Dr. Harris.
Additionally, when you’re really accustomed to an exercise, your vascular system has developed in the parts of your body you engage in that exercise. “Doing something like running, you turn on extra pumps in the circulatory system. The running leg muscles squeeze the veins and act as a secondary pump. The body gets used to that dynamic.” When you change the muscles activated, “the secondary pump” isn’t as strong, and you feel like you have to work a lot harder.
The fact of the novelty increases perceived work of exercise in the brain. Kelsey Holland, a weight lifter and the director for the Center for Fitness and Wellness at Pennsylvania State University, says that learning a new activity engages you more mentally than repeated exercise does. “Your brain is extremely active when learning these motor pathways,” Holland says. “Your brain is working on overdrive in addition to your muscles.”
Plus, if you’ve already got a decently fit baseline, you could benefit from the high of fast returns in this first stage of switching exercises. When we’re focusing on new skills and new muscles, as Holland puts it, “our body is soft and brand-new.” Starting out feels hard and rewarding, and if you’re looking for results, they come in quickly. In her weight-lifting crew, Holland says, they call all the beginners to the gym “new gains.” “We make jokes about when people come in. You progress really fast early on, because you’re coming off of nothing. You hit personal best after personal best for the first few months.” And then the next steps require slower, more diligent and patient work.
However, if you try something new and like it, and want to keep its novelty buzz, Dr. Harris says you can probably revisit it a bit. If you repeat a workout routine once a week, he estimates, you might start to get accustomed to it, but spacing it out a little longer could keep it feeling like a treat. In his estimation, Dr. Harris says, “it’s still going to feel hard once a month.” Hard in the engaging, challenging new way!
The law of diminishing returns sucks. Plateauing is so boring. But if you want this engaging, activating, new sensation again, you can try something else. Lucky for us, there are thousands of ways to move! There’s always something that’s going to be new.