Q: I’ve always been a very athletic guy. I do jujitsu every day. When I don’t exercise, I feel depressed. My girlfriend, however, has never been very physically active. She has a great body—naturally slim—without doing anything, which is probably why she’s unmotivated to work out. I just think that if she did—even a little—she’d look like a superhero and feel better. I keep urging her to exercise, but it’s not working. How do I encourage her?—Concerned
A: There’s that saying, “You are what you eat.” Apparently, your girlfriend ate a supermodel.
Numerous studies find that exercise is a mood booster and improves our cognitive abilities (like memory), even protecting them into old age. Incredibly, a study on female twins by geneticist Tim Spector found that those with fitter leg muscles showed fewer signs of aging in their brain 10 years later. But we humans have a very now-oriented psychology. So, for many people—like women who shave their legs before stepping on the scale—these pluses are merely fringe benefits of workouts for jiggle management. And unfortunately, when your girlfriend looks in the mirror, she sees that all those runs to the vending machine seem to be paying off.
It’s sweet and loving that you want her to have the benefits of exercising, but stand back, because I’m about to make a big mess slaughtering a sacred cow. Dr. Michael Eades and Dr. Mary Dan Eades, low-carb pioneers whose evidence-based approach to dietary medicine I have great respect for, dug into the research on exercise after meeting professional fitness trainer Fredrick Hahn. They were surprised at what they found and ended up writing a book with Hahn—The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution.
In their book, they note that many of the ways people exercise actually don’t do all that much for their bodies or long-term health. For example, they say that many endurance workouts—like the 7-mile runs I used to do—are “tremendously inefficient” for improving health and often come with some serious costs, like the need to have your knees rebuilt with medical Tupperware.
They also write that many sports that people consider exercise—including tennis, skiing and (sorry!) martial arts—have some fitness benefits but would better be considered play. They explain that exercise should do all of the following: 1. Make you stronger. 2. Improve your cardiovascular system. 3. Help you lose excess body fat. 4. Improve your endurance. 5. Improve your flexibility. And 6. Preserve or increase your bone density and muscle mass.
The one exercise that does all of these things is slow-motion strength training. This involves lifting extremely heavy weights—weights that you can barely lift at all—extremely slowly. You do just three-to-six reps in 60- or 90-second intervals—to the point where your muscles just scream and give out.
By the way, though it says on the cover of their book that you can change your body by working out like this for just 30 minutes weekly, Mary Dan Eades told me that you really only have to do it for 12 to 15 minutes a week, but they figured nobody would believe that.
Now maybe you’re saying, “Come on … weightlifting for cardio?” Consider that your heart is a muscle and muscle cells need oxygen as they work. Mike Eades explains on his blog that conditioning your muscles through strength training makes the body more efficient at getting oxygen into muscle cells, which is what improves your cardiopulmonary function—not all the pound, pound, pound of a run.
As for how to get your girlfriend into this kind of exercise, first, it helps to explain that it requires a ridiculously small time commitment—far less than it takes for her to do “natural look” makeup (which, ironically, can take 40 minutes or more to apply). Of course, there’s still the problem of motivating her—considering how all she has to do to fit into her skinny jeans is have a plate of French fries and a nap.
Well, when you’re in a relationship, you get to make requests of your partner—things you ask them to do simply because it would make you happy. Put your request in that light, but give her an attractive (rebellion-quashing) timetable: For just three weeks, try slow-motion strength training with you. If, after that time, she hates it, she can stop. Mary Dan Eades explains that the three-week “try this” allows a person to experience some benefits, which often motivates them to keep going. If she does really get into it, be prepared: This eliminates any need to drag you kicking and screaming to the altar; she can just hoist you over her shoulder.