Stronger Every Day

I recently an across the quote “Do something every day that makes you stronger” and immediately felt annoyed.  Sure, it sounded good in theory.  But if you’re constantly pushing yourself you will eventually burn out. This applies to fitness, work, family, and any other area of life that you can think of.  I’ve been there and done that already and have no desire to do it again, thank you very much.

Do something every day that makes you stronger

Later that day, while on my run, it occurred to me that perhaps there was another way to look at it.  Sometimes taking a rest day, whether from exercise or work or other adult responsibilities, is exactly what you need to make yourself stronger.

When I began weight lifting every guide I read on the subject emphasized the importance of recovery days.  The way that your body becomes stronger is by creating micro-tears in muscle fibers as a result of overexertion (generally speaking, lifting the heaviest weight you can for the greatest number of reps you can).  If you don’t allow yourself to have recovery time the next day (which can mean no exercise, gentle exercise like yoga, cardio, or resistance training for a  different set of muscles) your body won’t have a chance to rebuild the muscle fibers that were torn.  Since the physiological basis of getting “stronger” is the combination of an increase in the number of muscle fibers (which will occur when repairs are made) as well as the increased structural integrity of each fiber (again as a result of old, “damaged” muscle tissue being replaced by new tissue), not allowing yourself to rest will negate all the hard work you put in at the gym and you will find it difficult to build strength.

While weightlifting provides the easiest demonstration of the process of building strength the concept applies to all other types of fitness endeavors.  For example, improving running performance involves increasing leg muscle strength as well as heart strength, which can be measured by heart rate at rest (among other physiological changes). Increasing distance and/or speed forces your heart to become stronger so that it can pump more blood per contraction in order to make sure your muscles are receiving enough oxygen. As a result, your heart can contract less times per minute (both during exercise and during everyday life) in order to deliver the same volume of blood to your cells. That is why one of the major measures of improved cardio health is a decrease in resting heart rate.  If you don’t allow your heart and leg muscles to rest and rebuild between intense running sessions you will find it much harder to make improvements.

You run into the same problem if you don’t eat enough.  If you are low on carbs, your muscles will have difficulty creating enough ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate), the most basic molecule which provides cells with energy. Without ATP your muscles will have a much more difficult time increasing weight/reps/sets/distance/speed and you won’t be able to create those microscopic tears that are needed to induce your muscles to get stronger.  If you don’t have enough protein, you won’t have enough amino acids (building blocks of proteins) to properly repair those micro-tears.  Again, no increase in strength.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Doing something every day to make you stronger, whether in the physical, mental, or spiritual sense, does not always have to involve new challenges.  Virtually all exercise programs recommend 5-6 days of exercise with 1-2 days of rest per week. I think a similar ratio should apply to building inner strength.  Be intentional about challenging yourself on a daily basis and creating and meeting regular small goals that will help you achieve larger ones. But don’t get so obsessed with those goals that you can’t allow yourself a day or two a week where you can at a minimum coast (go to work, do chores, take care of kids, etc but without making steps towards future goals) or ideally rest and reinvigorate (read something inspirational, watch a tv show that makes you laugh, go for a walk or hike in nature, pray/meditate, do something creative just for the fun of it, get coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in ages, etc.). These days “off” play an equally important role in increasing your mental and spiritual strength and meeting those larger goals as do the days you challenge yourself.

One last thought I’d like to pass along to those of the more anxious/perfectionistic persuasion (yours truly included) that choose to adopt “do something every day to make you stronger” as a mantra is this: the act of taking care of yourself despite strong feelings of anxiety counts as your inner strength building exercise for the day. Sometimes showing yourself compassion can take far more strength than falling back on old patterns of negative self-talk and feelings of shame.

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