How to Scale Down Exercise (Instead of Skipping It) When You Feel “Low”

How to Scale Down Exercise (Instead of Skipping It) When You Feel “Low”

Have you ever felt a little “off” or unmotivated, and skipped a workout… and then it turned into a week… and then into two weeks?

I know I have! I’ve definitely been there myself.

As a personal trainer, I’m all about seeing people build foolproof systems into their lifestyles that create more exercise, more often, more easily.

But, as a human, I also know that repetition and consistency can be threatened by stressful life periods.

We can get run down and fatigued by a combination of life and stress. We can have flare-ups of chronic conditions we’re managing. We can get injured, and certain movements become off-limits. Finally, there’s the expected curve ball that most women encounter every month – the fatigue of PMS.

During times like this, it’s important that we get past the superficial qualities of habit formation – rigidly doing the exact same thing every day – and dive into the heart of what consistency really is.

Consistency isn’t about buckling down, or muscling through obstacles with sheer willpower. It’s certainly not about pushing through a tough workout even though you’re running on fumes.

Instead, the core of consistency is getting into the habit of showing up for yourself.

In that spirit, I often encourage clients to modify – or to “scale down” – exercise, instead of completely skipping it and waiting for things to change.

The net result of taking this approach is that you continue improving even when you don’t feel great. When you invest in yourself by learning to scale down (and around) situations when you feel “down,” you not only come out physically stronger, but also mentally stronger, with more confidence in your capabilities.

As the saying goes, “The hardest exercise is one rep of walking through the gym doors.”

This truism holds even if you work out at home. In other words, while it does matter what you do for workouts (for both health and physique), what matters more is that you do it at all and keep your momentum moving forward. 

Even when you’re not feeling your best, there are many ways to walk through the proverbial gym doors and give your body exactly what it needs, whether or not it’s what you would consider a workout.

So, here are five ways that you can scale down your exercise to respond to feeling sick, overworked, stressed, or fatigued:

Include more rest time between sets.

Instead of dragging yourself into the next set while your heart is still pounding and you’re still out of breath, give yourself time to completely recover. This will help you enjoy your workout more, as well as decrease the physical stress that the workout creates for your endocrine system.

Take a walk.

Instead of feeling like you have to kill it at the gym every time you walk through the doors (whether literal or figurative), give yourself permission to just walk when you feel overdrawn. Walking is very calming to the nervous system, and sometimes, by strategically replacing a planned workout with a walk, you can make the next day’s workout even more impactful. Bonus points if it’s outside, soaking up some sun!

Do heavier weight for fewer reps.

Sometimes, part of the exhaustion of a workout is simply the mental fatigue. Knowing that you have to do 8, 15, or 20 reps of something (for two more rounds!!!) can be discouraging. This is partly why I encourage all women to have some heavier weightlifting as part of their overall plan. This way, on days when you’re just not “feeling it,” all you have to do is a few reps at a time. For example, if you were going to do three sets of eight Romanian deadlifts at 95 pounds, maybe you could do four sets of three at 135 pounds. The heaviness of the weight will get your heart pounding, but you don’t have to endure the stress of the repetition and endurance.

Don’t do HIIT all the time.

As a general programming tip, let’s collectively ditch the idea that we have to be exhausted messes at the end of a workout for that to have been “effective.” In fact, one of the most crucial mistake that I see women make (holding them back from what they actually want to accomplish) is to plan too many HIIT sessions per week. I see women do this especially when they’re stressed – they want to “lean in” to make up for whatever else is going on. Do this instead: make sure HIIT is only 1-2 times per week for best results, and you’ll be amazed at how much more de-stressed and energized you feel.

Make workouts shorter.

I often advise clients during times of stress not to make exercise part of the problem. When time management becomes challenging, simply make the workout shorter. In fact, can you make it shorter and possibly do it from home? By lowering the barrier to exercise, you make it more likely that you will do it and enjoy it. For example, if you have in your mind that you must take an hour and a half to go to the gym, it can be extremely liberating to embrace 20-30 minute home workouts. This way, you can free up more time during seasons of stress, and build a more positive association with exercise overall.

Of course, there are other life factors that can help you make it through stressful periods with grace (or at least with equanimity), like sleep, proper nutrition, and social connection. But it’s equally important to understand how to keep an emphasis on our fitness during rough times, as regular exercise:

  • Helps to manage mood
  • Boosts immunity
  • Increases cognitive skills

… which are all the things we need most when times are tough!

Plus, when a stressful or “low” period begins to end, it’s an amazing feeling to find yourself still moving along on your fitness journey, and a huge advantage to have not lost ground. This reduces the likelihood that you’ll want into a crazy 21-day challenge at your gym or start a juice cleanse. You just won’t need to, because you’ll feel fine already.

So if work’s been busy, you’ve been feeling “off,” and you’re tempted to hit the couch after a long day at the office… think again. Maybe grab those sneakers and hit the gym instead, even if it’s just for a walk.

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