Registered Dietician and certified trainer, Liz Daeninck, offers inspiration when learning or developing new exercise habits…

As I hit the cross country ski trails yesterday, I made a conscious decision to test myself…Given it was my first time out this season, I figured it was a good time to do so, when my skiing fitness is not where it was at the end of last winter. You see, skate skiing is like skating on long skis – a demanding activity requiring muscular balance, coordination and strength as well as mindfulness to be able to put the sequence of necessary movements together.  It is helpful to use poles to assist with balancing while lunging forward in the skating motion to propel forward. Typically a ‘skater’ will favor to ‘pole’ on one side – in my case, I prefer to pole on my right side, leading with my right leg and side.

So, I decided to challenge myself yesterday and pole on my left side. This means so much more than simply poling on my left side – much easier said than done! I had to be conscious every single stroke – a mentally and physically exhausting endeavor! There were many times I ended up defaulting to poling on my right side – something that was very comfortable and required little conscious mental and physical effort. Once I found myself defaulting to this ‘easier’ movement, I would stop skiing, and set myself up to start my lunge initiating with my left leg as I used my poles to assist in the movement.  What a taxing effort to make such an easy change! By the end of my ski session, I was exhausted, mentally and physically.

In this seemingly simple activity, I discovered how difficult it can be to undo engrained routines and habits, to replace them with new, unfamiliar and uncomfortable patterns of movement. You see, our bodies develop ‘muscle memory’ and neuromuscular pathways that help us with our movement patterns.

Our muscles remember familiar movements – in my case, my right leg and side was used to lunging forward using poles to assist in doing so. When we exercise and do the same type of exercise, our muscles get used to the movement – which is why, in the exercise physiology world, it is strongly recommended to periodically change the types of exercises performed to see changes in muscle development.

Neuromuscular pathways are the other reason why this change in my movement pattern was so difficult. These pathways are the highways established between your brain and muscles. It is the way your brain and muscles communicate – ultimately controlling the movement of your body (by way of your muscles), whether is it conscious or not. Many movements are unconscious: sitting down, standing up, walking, running or even riding a bicycle, but they have not always been without mental effort! Just watch an 18 month old infant start to navigate walking around that coffee table to recall how walking was once a very conscious effort for you too…There is much dialoging that has to happen to maintain stability in movement, balancing the body and shifting the body weight to be able to stand on one leg while taking a step. Mental focus is critical to be able to achieve a given movement, until we have repeated the movement successfully multiple times. This repetition will lay down those neuromuscular pathways, strengthening the muscles involved in the dialogue as well as the action.

Now, fast forward to when you are trying a new activity – it takes a significant amount of effort to get that new Zumba step down, or to learn how to snowboard.  Starting a new exercise program or routine can be especially challenging.  You are working on laying down new neuromuscular pathways, along with using muscles that may not have been stimulated in some time, if ever!

So keep these key points in mind when you are trying out a new activity or even doing one you have not done in quite some time. Your friend may have convinced you that Zumba is ‘fun’ but it is hard for you to see ‘fun’ in such an exhausting endeavor!

  • Expect that you will be challenged mentally – view this as a positive, for many reasons…for example, research has demonstrated that trying a new activity can help in avoiding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Be gentle with yourself – give your mind and muscles some time to understand each other and settle into an agreement.
  • Laugh it off – from challenge comes growth.  So, you may fall a few times – remember the 18 month old navigating around the coffee table?  Perseverance and patience will help you stay the course to master your skill, just like anything!
  • Take frequent breaks and build up slowly– recall that you will be tired both physically and mentally. By taking a break, you are able to bring your heart rate down, regain your focus and slow yourself down to give yourself a quick ‘recharge’ before getting back at your given activity.
  • If at first you struggle, try try again…you are likely not going to have the same experience the 4th time you do an activity as you did the first time.  Give it a whirl a second and third time to fairly assess before you decide if you like a particular activity.
  • Who knows, you may one day be teaching that Zumba class your friend has convinced you is ‘fun’!

In the end, I had a great day of skiing – I was mentally and physically exhausted by day’s end, but next time I ski, it may be that slight bit easier (more intuitive, dare I say) to pole on my left side!