Leon Pahole

How exercising less intensely helped me become healthier

10 minPersonalHealth

Written by Leon Pahole

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Cover image source: Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Post contents: Exercise - we all know we have to do it, but the thought of spending hours upon hours in the gym doing painful and intense exercises doesn't exactly sound the most inviting. Still, I kept up with a pretty intense exercise routine for many years - until I decided to bring it down a notch. I made my workouts shorter and less intense, which made me the healthiest I've ever been. But how? It sounds paradoxical - shouldn't exercising less make me less healthy?

If you had asked me a year ago what my exercise routine was, my answer would go something like this:

I work out 6 days per week. On 3 of those days I do intense and heavy strength training for about an hour and a half, and the other 3 days I run outside for 45 minutes, followed by a stretching session for 20 minutes.

Impressive! Good job, past me! Now, let’s ask the present me what his routine is:

I work out 6 days per week. On 3 of those days I do strength training for about 45 minutes to an hour, and the other 3 days I ride a bike in the gym for 20 minutes, followed by a stretching session for 20 minutes.

Whoa, what a downgrade! Strength training is no longer intense and it has been cut from an hour and a half down to a maximum of an hour, while cardio went from running outside for 45 minutes to a much easier and less intense bike riding for only 20 minutes!

Exercise is a great hobby of mine. It makes me happier and healthier. Judging from what’s written above, it seems like the past me was much happier and healthier than the present me. However, before we can make this conclusion, we have to ask another key question:

How consistent are you with your exercise routine?

Having an intense and fancy exercise routine is one thing. But the key to results is being consistent with that routine. Here’s what my past self would say when asked the question:

Oh well, I am pretty busy and my routine is a big time investment. I might skip a workout if I’m having a busy day.

I will often skip running if it’s cold outside or if I am not feeling motivated - running is boring and I need full motivation and a good mood to get through it.

I usually don’t skip strength days, but I do feel a bit of pain in my joints sometimes, so I might not do a full workout.

On average, I’d say there’s a 60% chance that I will skip running, 80% chance I will skip stretching and 30% chance I will skip strength day.

Well, that answer is quite long and full of the word skip. Before we comment on it, let’s ask my present self about how consistent he is with his routine:

I don’t skip exercise.

Short and sweet.

As paradoxical as it sounds, exercising less has indeed made me healthier, and it is for one simple reason - because I am more consistent with it. A shorter and simpler exercise routine done consistently is better than a long and intense routine that is regularly skipped.

My exercise past

I’ve been exercising for quite a while. I started quite humbly with an 8-minute ab blaster routine (which is still available on Youtube - oh that brings back memories!), before moving to bodyweight training. When I was younger, I was pretty ambitious with how strong or muscular I wanted to be, so I quickly ditched bodyweight training for a more “serious” and longer strength-oriented routine.

The online fitness community can be a great source of motivation and advice, but it is also quite strongly opinionated. For example, a lot of people say that going to the gym is not worth it if you don’t do bench presses, squats and deadlifts, as these movements can add the most muscle mass and strength. 4-time World strongest man Jón Páll Sigmarsson himself said that there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift.

I can’t deny that all these exercises are great. But I didn’t enjoy them. Still, I did them, because I was quite heavily influenced by the community.

But lifting heavily wasn’t the only thing that I was doing that I didn’t enjoy. I also did quite intense cardio, like running or hiking for 2 hours. It sounds impressive and it yielded great results, but it was a big time investment and with time I would start finding excuses to not follow through with the exercise plan.

Eventually, I quit exercising - I felt that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, and it was too time-consuming to keep up with while also working on my career.

Last year, I returned to exercise. I went right back to the intense running and strength training, just like I was used to before quitting. I tried to keep up with it for quite a while even though I was still not particularly enjoying it.

The self-reflection

Finally, I stopped and reflected. I asked myself an important question: Why am I doing something that I’m not enjoying? Why am I doing something that is hurting me?

If there’s one difference between me now and my younger self, it’s that I value having fun. If I can allow myself to rephrase Sigmarsson’s quote a little bit, I like to say that There is no reason to be alive if you don’t have fun in your free time.

Another big difference is that my ambitions lie elsewhere than fitness now, namely my career. Therefore I don’t see the point in exercise that I don’t like to do, even if it is the optimal way to train.

I started realizing that when it comes to exercise, it is often enough to just consistently show up. If I can craft an exercise routine that will keep me moving multiple times per week regularly for years, even if it is even basic, I’ll still get a lot of health benefits.

With all of this in mind, I’ve concluded that I should exercise the way I want to, the way that I find fun! This includes:

  • Doing the exercises that I like and avoiding the exercises that I don’t like, even if they are more effective.
  • Keeping exercise short, as the longer the exercise routine is, the less likely I am to actually show up in the gym to do it.
  • Asking myself regularly if I am finding my current exercise routine fun and if not, readjusting it appropriately.

Is this the right way to become a top-performing athlete? No, but who cares? I am just a guy who wants to have fun, be healthy and take my thoughts off of my work for a moment.

Choosing the fun exercises

Yes, running is more effective than biking. Yes, the bench press is more effective than push-ups. But I just find the less effective exercises more fun (and safer)!

It’s interesting, but because I find it the most fun, I have switched my routine back to what it was when I first started training, more than 10 years ago - bodyweight training. I feel like a traveler exploring the globe searching for a good life, only to find themselves right back in their homeland. Sometimes going back to the passions we had as teens is the right answer after all.

Apart from bodyweight training, I also use weights, but I do most of the exercises on machines. Yes, it is less effective and might be considered soft, but it is more fun and also a little safer for my joints.

Finally, I’ve also stopped running outside and now instead do biking in the gym. Running outside was somewhat fun, but not if either the weather or my mood were bad. Depending my exercise success on the factors that I cannot control was not ideal.

Truth be told, I really don’t like cardio. But it is vital for health. 20 minutes of biking is just the right amount of cardio that I can do to not get bored, which keeps my cardio consistent. If I had instead planned for 45 minutes sessions, I would find every possible excuse there is to not go to the gym.

To be clear, I am not saying that my way of exercise is the most fun, it’s just what I prefer. The great thing about exercise is that everyone can choose whatever they find fun, regardless of what other people claim is the most effective way to get results (unless you are a professional athlete).

Keeping exercise short

I like to exercise, but not for too long. 1 hour is about as much as I am willing to invest in it. If my routine is longer than that, I might just start finding excuses not to go. Because of this, I employ a variety of different approaches to optimize my time in the gym and reduce it to the minimum while still getting a good workout in.


Supersets involve performing two exercises back to back, followed by a short rest. They are a great way to save a lot of time by performing two exercises in parallel. My exercise routine consists of 3 supersets.

Progressive warm-up

I’m one of those people that needs to warm up quite a lot before I can start doing strength exercises. In total, around 20 minutes of my time in gym is spent warming up.

20 minutes is a lot of time. If I were to perform a regular 20-minute warm-up before every gym session, I would not have a lot of time left for the actual exercises if the goal was to keep my routine under 1 hour.

This is why I employ the progressive warm-up technique: I warm up for the first exercise (or first superset in my case). Then, I start performing that exercise and during rest periods I warm up for the next exercise. Therefore, my 20-minute warm-up is dispersed around rests, effectively saving time.

Minimizing rest time

In the past, I would often rest too long in between sets, because my rest time would involve checking the phone. Nowadays I like to practice short rest times - sometimes I even start the exercise before I feel like I am rested enough, just to challenge myself.

Of course, short rest times will not work for everyone, especially for people who do heavy compound exercises.

Avoiding unnecessary exercises

Every exercise has its purpose, but we can often avoid doing certain exercises by performing compound movements that involve multiple muscles at the same time. For example, I don’t do bicep curls, because I already work out my biceps with pull-ups.

Wrapping up

I started exercising as a teen because it was fun. Then I became ambitious and wanted to be strong and muscular, so I switched to an exercise routine that was less fun and longer. I suffered through a few years of performing this routine, often skipping it before I eventually stopped exercising altogether.

When I resumed my training last year, I went into it with a different mindset - I no longer cared about how strong or muscular I am, but instead wanted to have fun, take my thoughts away from my work for a moment, and be healthy. I crafted my routine the way I wanted (which was very similar to how it was when I started working out as a teen!) by making it short and fun.

With these adjustments, I am now happy. I exercise consistently and I genuinely look forward to it. I self-reflect often by asking myself if there is something that I no longer enjoy and adjusting accordingly.

Ultimately, this switch in the mindset has made me healthier - both physically as I consistently work out, and mentally, as I am having fun when exercising.

There is no reason to be alive if you don’t have fun in your free time.