Break out of Your Workout Rut

Break out of Your Workout Rut

The importance of a balanced exercise routine


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Fact checked by Derick Wilder


Mary Dreiser, 74, of Downers Grove, has been working out regularly for almost 20 years. “I started getting serious when I was about 55,” she says. Her children had grown up and moved out. “I had empty nest syndrome, and I had time to fit exercise in,” the retired social worker adds with a laugh. 

Dreiser takes three weekly exercise classes at the local recreation center — strength, balance, and chair yoga — and walks at least three times a week, adding up to 240 total minutes of activity. “The strength and balance class includes weight training, exercise bands, and moves to increase your balance. The exercises are varied, and the routines vary from week to week,” she says. 

While Dreiser didn’t set out to create an exercise plan that includes cardio activity, strength training, and flexibility, “I sort of intuitively knew that one thing is not enough,” she says. “You don’t feel as good, and you don’t get the same benefits when you do the same exercise all the time.” 

What Dreiser knows intuitively is borne out by research — while some exercise is better than none, a well-rounded routine that includes elements of cardiovascular activity, strength building, and flexibility can reduce your risk of injury, fend off boredom, and help you stay fit regardless of age. Here’s a closer look at why a balanced routine should be one of the priorities on your fitness to-do list.

Avoid overuse injuries — and workout boredom  

Doing a mix of activities helps reduce your risk of injury, says Kevin Baidoo, MD, physiatrist and sports medicine physician with the western region of Northwestern Medicine. “You want to make sure that you’re working out a variety of different muscles to get all the effects and benefits of exercise,” he says. “This helps you avoid overuse injuries that occur from doing the same things over and over.” 

Cross-training, or doing different fitness activities, is the answer. “Mentally, it helps you to do something different and keeps your routine exciting,” Baidoo says. “You want to incorporate three things — aerobic exercise, strength training, and flexibility — and hit different parts of your body with different kinds of exercise.” 

Create balance 

Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity and two days of strength training to help strengthen bones, joints, and muscles every week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keep in mind that some exercises provide more than one kind of benefit. “For example, swimming is a great cardio activity, but it’s also great for your muscles,” Baidoo says. “And hot yoga can be great for flexibility and get your heart rate up, too.”

To add more balance to your routine, you can swap in a new activity, such as biking instead of walking, or add something new, like signing up for a group weight lifting class when you usually train on your own. 

“The idea is to keep the body guessing,” says Julian Collins, Sr., personal trainer and co-owner of GetFit1st Fitness Studio in Chicago. Otherwise, he adds, “Your body gets really stagnant with the same routine, and workouts become a chore.” 

Collins suggests adding exercises that promote mobility and pain-free motion. So, if you’re a diehard runner, you may want to add stretching to your routine to free up tight hip flexors. Enjoy weight lifting? Incorporate a circuit routine that keeps your heart rate up to give you some cardio. And if you sit at a desk all day, consider including shoulder exercises that help counteract slumped posture after your usual cardio workout. 

“Real strength training is not about lifting weights and getting strong — it’s about mobility,” Collins says. “And with fitness, the real goal is function and quality of life. Our overall goal is to be able to move freely and without pain.” 

Dreiser’s balanced program paid off on a recent trip to Turkey, where she did a lot of hiking and walking. “Climbing on the ruins was very strenuous. The surfaces were rough and slick, and there were no handrails,” she says. “I had read that some people stayed on the bus instead of exploring the ruins. Not me! But I couldn’t have done it without my exercise routine.”

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 print issue.