Get Intense

Get Intense

You can follow all the popular workout regimens you want, but unless you apply "intensity," you'll eventually plateau, get bored and stop producing health results — and you could even go into retrograde.

What's "intensity?"

It's a workout philosophy, says Bill Macy, of Avamere Health and Fitness in Medford, where you have to keep raising the bar, adding weight to resistance workouts, hiking longer and more uphill, taking shorter rest breaks — but you don't just keep doing the same workout because eventually, the weights will be too heavy and the trek too far.

"The only thing that determines success is the intensity of the program. You have to give 100 percent. Very few people can handle that intensity," says Macy, as he overlooks the over-40 crowd at Avamere who have gotten used to his encouragements to give their all.

What you're dealing with in fitness workouts is the human psyche, which in childhood and young adulthood loves intense, go-for-it exertions but, Macy notes, with the years, begins to resist them and get in a comfortable "bubble" where a pleasant workout routine (they think) will do the job.

"There's a common misconception, called 'the maintenance myth.' People think they can do general activity with little effort or thought without changing, and they'll continue to accrue health benefits," he says.

"What they're missing is this — with a little more hard work, where you sweat and are out of breath and your muscles are talking to you, then health benefits accrue. Kids love it. But our society is conditioned for pain avoidance, and adults protect themselves in a bubble of comfort."

Whether his clients are pumping iron, walking, doing aerobics, taking part in a water workout class, or doing laps, his strategy is to push them past the limit on a regimen for four to six weeks. At this point come boredom and a plateauing of results, so he throws in a game-changer — a whole new, fresh workout to challenge and interest the body and mind and to begin again with increasing the intensity.

"It makes real sense," says Ray Tharp, pumping on an elliptical trainer. "I work for flexibility and strength and reach a plateau, and it has to get more intense with more reps, more weight — making the muscles go past that point."

His goal? "To be able to act like a 50-year-old (he's 71), climb in and out of boats, walk on uneven ground, avoid meds for my diabetes (type 2) and keep my weight under control."

It's working — and diet also is key: moderate amounts, low carbs and fat, plenty of veggies and fruits.

Macy asks clients to rate perceived exertion (RPE) on a scale of 20. They should report that they're working in the 12 to 16 range, which is described as "somewhat hard exertion" through "hard." That range is the same as 60 to 80 percent of target heart range in aerobic workouts.

Working out with the intensity approach for three years now, Shirley Houston, of Talent, says she focuses on sets that increase agility, strength and balance, so necessary with advancing years.

"He (Macy) adds to them or changes them every month, and I work on the intensity or endurance. When I started, a 20-minute walk outside was all I could manage. Now it's an hour and a half," says Houston.

Jeanette Simpson rotates on stair-steppers, weights and pool laps, keeping charts to gradually increase the pressure on her body. "It's challenging and very rewarding," she says.

A lot of it is the mind game. The body is not a machine. It has a mind attached to it, notes Macy, so if you just make the body do its same boring workout every day, it's going to rebel, lose interest and stop giving you results.

"The body is like a business. It's either growing or dying. There's no homeostasis. You become more healthy or less healthy. You can't do the same thing day in and day out. It will 'dis-improve' you," says Macy.

"Food is the same as exercise. You can't eat the same thing every day. You need variety — and changing the workout program is required for progress," he says.

Cognition — being conscious, aware and mentally participating in your workout — also is vital. And changing the drill makes that happen. You change the workout and challenge yourself to go just beyond your present level of intensity and, says Macy, you're there.

"At first, people want the easy way out," says Macy. "They walk, and it takes them to a higher level of energy, but at a certain point, the body adapts and becomes stronger. So you have to increase the intensity and start walking uphill or faster or put more weight in your backpack, then you keep accruing health benefits."

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