“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
I am a fair-weather cyclist through and through. This makes me proud, because I love to have high standards, but it also means that from about November to April, I don’t really bike except to get around. Then the trees bloom again, and I get a craving to really bike on a ride that requires commitment. Something that goes for at least 30 miles and past good views. Recently, on my first super hilly ride in four months, I felt the distinct, lung-clearing lurch of getting back into shape. It felt like my heart was both trying to exit straight through my breastbone and also out through the throat. This sensation is familiar. In general, I’d say my life is always a cycle of getting into shape, falling out of shape, and then getting back into shape. And I wonder: What does my body think of this?
Posing this question to experts — physiologists, doctors, trainers, and physical therapists — I learn the obvious: Maintaining a consistent, stable homeostasis of fitness would be ideal. But also, no experts expect anyone to do this. “It’s more about trying to surf the wave instead of trying to stay on top,” says Dr. Nicole Haas, who in addition to being a clinician, researcher, and yoga teacher, is also a physical therapist and owner of Boulder Physiolab in Colorado. “You’re not going to stay on top, even if it’s the best wave. The better we maintain our mental and physical ability to react and respond, the better off we are in general.”
If you have a relatively stable baseline of fitness, it’s really peaceful for your body to have “off-seasons,” just like you are a professional athlete (or a flower, or a ski resort). Fallow periods are restorative. “The body senses when it gets too far tipped one way that often drives us back,” says Haas — and, she adds, often this aligns with seasons: A restful winter can lead to a bouncy summer. “I think it’s natural,” agrees Dr. M. Brennan Harris, associate professor of kinesiology and health sciences at William & Mary College. “It’s not really out there in the literature; there’s no long, longitudinal study about the ebb and flow of getting into shape and falling out of shape. But I think it’s a good thing. We need those periodic rests.” He thinks of highly competitive, professional athletes, whose yearly training plan involves taking months off every year. During these off months, these athletes still move quite a bit (relatively), but they still need to work themselves back into their peak. “The highest levels of being in shape, in their competitive season, that’s a physiologic state that’s hard to sustain. You do have to back off.”
However, big swings — from total inertia to running six days a week and then back again, every six months — are likely to be a shock to the system. “This is the week people are getting back into shape,” Dr. Haas laughs. People have been calling her practice for a check-in about how to get started again. “If you’re swinging really hard one way or the other, then it’s harder to find that homeostasis,” says Dr. Haas. This can be particularly rough on the body’s cardiovascular system as it increases the risk for musculoskeletal “nagging injuries” that keep coming back, says Dr. Haas.
While it may be tempting, you can’t let the memory of your peak capability trick you. You can’t just pop back in to that experience. “People push a little too hard because they know what they were capable of doing. That can be dangerous,” says Dr. Harris. “It took you time to get into shape before, it’s going to take time again. Enjoy the process.” I mean, tell that to my heart, but all right.
The heart, meanwhile, wants to go slow. “We want to try to find where your body feels good,” says Professor Kelsey Holland, a weight lifter and the director for the Center for Fitness and Wellness at Pennsylvania State University. She suggests using slightly sideways approaches to assess where you are. “Look at your whole life. How is your energy throughout the day? How is your mental health? How are you sleeping? In our whole body and mind: Does it feel comfortable?” This is a way of considering getting in shape as something that fits into your life, but doesn’t turn your life upside down.
Pretend your body is a person you’re working with and living with literally all the time: Ask it questions. Ask better questions. Dr. Haas wonders why we don’t treat the body as well as we treat our gear. After all, your body also deserves a seasonal tune-up. “You get a new pair of running shoes, you check the gears on your bike, you get air in the tires. But people don’t check their own self. How’s my ankle mobility? Are my quads strong? Scan through to make sure I don’t have an injury.” You can assess your stability, your lung capacity, your agility, your strength. And if there are shortcomings, if the gears of your body need some greasing, if a calf muscle is getting particularly tight, you can take a little more time to ease into it.
So, what does my body think of all this? It thinks: Um, go slowly please. Also just, like, check in with me. I know me best. And also, the body wants to remind you that it’s never heard of the concept of “being in shape.”
“I like to challenge myself and other people to reconsider this idea of ‘being in shape,’” says Chrissy King, a fitness and strength coach and powerlifter. There was a time when King competitively lifted weights for two hours four or five days a week. Now, she says, she maybe spends two hours a week on her fitness. She can’t deadlift 400 pounds anymore. “My priorities have just changed. But it’s still a version of fitness,” she says. “This will always be ebbing and flowing. What I’d encourage everyone to do is to appreciate whatever the body can do, whatever its capability is.” The body, like everyone else, would love to be thanked!