Knowing how much to push and when to stop: Lessons from Yoga

What yoga can teach us about the optimal amount of effort

Imagine a middle aged person whose job involves sitting in a chair for hours. They live in the suburbs, drive everywhere, rarely walk, and never have to lift heavy objects. Not surprisingly, this person has put on a little weight around the middle. This person also has joint or nerve problems that make many kinds of exercise painful. As a result, this person lacks strength and endurance. They struggle even to walk or cycle briskly for more than five minutes, or to work with five pound weights.

This person knows their body will be stronger and healthier if they exercise, and their doctor tells them so.

At this point, people tend to fall into one of two opposite traps:

  1. Pushing too little
  2. Pushing too much

Pushing too little

As we’ve seen, exercising will be not just difficult, but potentially painful for this middle-aged person. And that’s leaving aside any embarrassment from being seen working out in their current state, and any body image insecurities they might feel.

Not surprisingly, many people in this situation respond by procrastinating. Although they resolve to go to the gym, they never seem to end up there. Nor do they exercise at home. But without exercise, muscles grow weaker. So their body enters a downward spiral towards lower functioning.

Pushing too much

Well meaning friends, family, fitness articles, and even doctors often recommend the opposite approach: “Just do it. Just push through it.”

“Don’t stop until you’re proud,” from an article in The Huffington Post.

So the unfit person sets grueling goals: do the recommended amount of exercise, with the recommended weight, at the recommended amount of reps, for the recommended amount of time. Anything less, they think, is laziness, or at best, lack of self-belief.

The problem is, the recommendations are aimed at a person with average physical fitness, who has much greater strength and endurance and can exercise with less pain.

So the unfit person who can barely jog for five minutes tries to run for thirty minutes without a break every day. They won’t be able to meet their goal. If they push past the point of pain or exhaustion trying, they may experience muscle strain or even injury. This person has set goals that, with their low physical abilities, would take a dangerous amount of pushing to achieve.

The image below shows the continuum of effort:

People who push too little enter the atrophy zone, while those who push past the point where it hurts enter the burnout (or injury) zone.

Some people alternate between the two extremes. They resolve to go to the gym, set unrealistic goals and push themselves too hard. Discouraged by their failure to meet their goals, they enter a bout of procrastination. During this time, they become even more physically unfit. When they become frustrated enough with their state to drag themselves to the gym again, they will be even less prepared to meet their goals and even more frustrated. The negative cycle can continue indefinitely, if the person doesn’t give up or discover a better way to exercise.

The correct solution is to tailor one’s exercise to one’s fitness level, even if that means doing what seems like a pathetically small amount for a pathetically short time. If you can’t run for ten minutes, run for five. If you can’t lift a five pound weight, lift a three pound one.

To improve one’s physical abilities, one must find the middle ground between ease and pain.

That’s where yoga comes in.

Yoga teachers tell you not to try to instantly copy their pose, or even your classmates’. Instead, seeing the teacher’s pose as an end goal, gradually deepen your own. Incrementally twist your torso a little further, or straighten your raised leg a bit more, or hold your balance a bit longer. Stop not when your body looks like your teacher’s, but when you start to feel pain. To a yoga teacher, pain is a signal to stop, the body’s warning that you’re pushing past your limits.

When you reach the point of pain, yoga teachers tell you not to stop but rather to ease back the effort slightly, until you reach the point of greatest effort without pain. Then, stay in that sweet spot as long as you can.

If you stop entirely, or drastically lower your effort, you will benefit less from the exercise. Your strength and flexibility will increase more slowly with insufficient challenge. Lower the challenge more, and they will stay at the same level. And if you stop, they’ll eventually will start to decline.

In the image below, you can see the sweet spot right next to the point of pain. As one increases effort from zero (moving from dark blue to green), one moves from atrophy to gradually increasing rates of growth, with the peak rate of growth at the sweet spot. You want to avoid the red zone to the right of the point of pain, which can lead to injury and burnout.

The maxim “no pain, no gain” is incorrect: the real gain comes from staying at the sweet spot, not going beyond it. You’re still working hard at the sweet spot, and you can feel it. You can feel your heart race, your muscles twitch and strain, and your lungs gulp in breath. But it feels tiring in a satisfying way, not a painful way. You feel better after a yoga class or gym session in the sweet spot, not worse.

The misconception “no pain, no gain” comes from observing people who, instead of staying at the sweet spot, lower their effort until they fall into the suboptimal growth range. They might run for twenty minutes when it no longer challenges them and they’re ready to run for thirty. Or, they might lift ten pounds when it no longer feels difficult and they could lift twenty. By doing only what feels easy to them, they maintain their fitness level instead of increasing it.

You’ll notice another section, just to the right of the point of pain, labeled “growth at a cost.” Pushing yourself too far can create short-term performance gains beyond what the sweet spot offers. However, it comes at a cost, which takes a toll on you if you continue too long.

For example, pulling an all-nighter can help you meet a next-day deadline. However, you will feel tired and perform less well for the next day or two. In essence, pulling an all-nighter borrows from the future to help the present. If you regularly pull all-nighters, you will rack up a sleep deficit that wreaks havoc on your mood, focus, reaction time, and thinking ability. The effects of chronic sleep deprivation are so disabling, they’re sometimes mistaken for ADHD.

A relationship between the “sweet spot” and flow

My effort graph might remind you of the famous diagram of the relationship between a person’s skill, a task’s difficulty, and the likelihood of achieving a “flow” state.

Flow occurs when a task’s difficulty matches a person’s skill level. Too little challenge, and the person becomes bored. Too much, and the person becomes anxious.

In this graph, the optimal state of flow occurs when a task’s difficulty matches the person’s skill level. If the person has low skill, the optimal task is low in difficulty. If they have average skill, they benefit from an medium-difficulty task. If the person has high skill, they need a high difficulty task. (That’s one reason for creating gifted programs).

This graph is also about effort.

The point at which a person’s skills match the task’s difficulty is the point at which they have to put in the optimal amount of effort. Or in other words, it’d the point at which the effort required to do the task is at or near their sweet spot.

If our middle-aged, fitness-challenged friend were to lift a five pound weight, it might be challenging, but not painful or impossible. It would fall around their sweet spot. A professional weightlifter would find it to be effortless. They could raise and lower a five pound weight all day and it wouldn’t make them any stronger.

On the other hand, a 400 pound weight that lies at a weightlifter’s sweet spot would be impossible for the average person to lift, even at their point of maximal effort.

Perhaps flow is an evolutionary adaptation to make us seek out the “sweet spot” so that we continue developing our capabilities. That extra bit of strength and speed could save us from being a sabertooth tiger’s lunch.

TL;DR? Here’s what yoga teaches us about effort

Yoga teaches us several important lessons about effort:

  1. When you make an effort, pay attention to how your body feels.
  2. If something causes you pain, stop doing it.
  3. Find the “sweet spot,” the maximum effort you can make without pain, and stay there as much as possible.
  4. If you fall below your sweet spot, you won’t increase your abilities as much. If you go beyond your sweet spot, you will experience short-term and long-term costs.

You might be wondering, what do these concepts and graphs have to do with disabilities — or at least, with non-physical ones?

Actually, thinking in these ways about effort has profound implications for how to teach people with disabilities (and how not to). This perspective helps us critically examine what we want interventions to achieve, and what researchers should consider a successful outcome. It can also help explain why people with disabilities have so much difficulty learning how much to push themselves and when to stop. It might even help them solve that problem for themselves.

Stay tuned, because we’ll be examining these issues in the next post.