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Do fitness challenges work?

Don’t try a fitness challenge only to look good on Instagram. And think about your fitness levels and lifestyle goals first

Fitness challenges are great if you use them to make meaningful changes to your lifestyle. (Photo: istockphoto)
Fitness challenges are great if you use them to make meaningful changes to your lifestyle. (Photo: istockphoto)

“Amazing Abs and Arms Challenge”, “Little Black Dress Challenge”, “Bikini Body Challenge”, “100 push-ups for 30 days Challenge”, “30-day Burpee Challenge”. If you go online, you will find many such fitness challenges. And as people try to remain active through the pandemic-induced lockdown, such challenges have soared in popularity.

Social media helped spread their popularity: In fact, you can find a lot of articles that tell you which fitness challenges are good “for your Instagram”. So, even before the pandemic, fitness challenges were popular and easily accessible. But do they really work?

“It entirely depends on what the (workout) program is, and on identifying why you are doing it. Sometimes people only want to challenge themselves to get into a healthy routine. Sometimes it also works if you want to radically push your body in case you have plateaued,” says Shivali Seta, a nutritionist and fitness consultant who has worked with Gold’s Gym and Fitness First, among other exercise studios.

According to Pune-based strength and conditioning coach Azar Umal, the next thing to consider before choosing a challenge is your fitness level. “If you are a beginner and you start attempting 100 push-ups a day, it is going to backfire. But if you are already active and in a fitness routine, this kind of a challenge is good to mix things up. That said, I never recommend my clients to try out radical transformation challenges,” he says. Umal has first-hand experience of going all-out a few years ago in a bid to lose weight, dropping from 120kg to 90kg. “It wasn’t a great experience. I found out that I had burnt not only all my fat, but also a lot of muscle,” he recalls.

While none of the popular fitness challenges promise such radical changes, the final thing to consider before undertaking one is the break-up of the plan. An ideal example would be the Indian Plank Challenge designed by the Yoska Running Academy based in Bengaluru. Even though it is called a plank challenge, the 21-day program was more than that. Accessed through a paid app, and an optional monetary contribution for the program (which went to the PM CARES Fund), the challenge asked users to enter information that helped the app calculate their current fitness levels before sending them the routine. According to one of the designers of the workout, Krishna Kohli, this is a better way to approach a challenge than the one-size-fits-all routines so easily accessible online.

“When we initially designed the routines, it was imperative to know the participants’ current fitness level. The routine was called a plank challenge, but we made them do a max plank hold only at the end of every week. The workouts in between constituted a set of simple exercises that can be done at home with the eventual aim to increase your plank hold. People saw a 30-second plank hold turn into a minute; a minute turn into 2 minutes. We also added a leaderboard to promote a competitive spirit,” says Kohli, who is a running and triathlon coach at Yoska.

Triathlete Ingit Anand is the perfect example of someone who has tried both the repetitive kinds of challenges as well as the more varied Indian Plank Challenge. In fact, his maximum plank hold went from 2 minutes, 41 seconds to more than nine-and-a-half minutes. He finished second in his weight category at the end of the 21 days. “When I was doing the 100 push-ups for the 30 days challenge, I was bored of the conventional push-up by the end of the first five days. I then explored 10 different kinds of push-ups and integrated those into the challenge. A lot of these challenges could force you to rep out the numbers. But the form is more important than the reps—and this is why beginners should start slow and work their way up. Don’t do 50 push-ups in one go. Do 10 sets of five instead,” he says.

Anand understands the pull of posting these workouts on social media, with people “tagging” and “nominating” their friends to join in, especially when celebrities join in. There is an argument that clever social marketing makes it easier for people to attempt a challenge. “When you call something the Little Black Dress challenge, there is undoubtedly a tendency to click on it and find out more,” says Megha Parikh, who works as a clinical research associate in Sydney and attempted two back-to-back challenges with 10 others over Zoom calls. The first one was a Bikini Challenge and the second, a 30-day abs challenge. The bikini challenge consisted of five bodyweight exercises: Day 1 involved a one-minute plank hold, 50 squats, 10 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, and 30 lunges. Those five would target your core (or abs), legs, chest and shoulders. Day 30 challenged participants to progress towards 250 squats, 70 sit-ups, 75 push-ups, 150 lunges and a 5-minute plank hold. Every fourth day of the program was a rest day.

Parikh says that while the workouts were fun, and challenging at times, it became a great way to socialize as well. “I will admit that while the exercises were the main goal, it was the little things that came with it that motivated us to get to 250 squats, which I never thought I would. We made sure we did something on the rest days too—share food recipes or create face masks and participate. We wore gym clothes, posted on social media, and set a time for ourselves every day. In the drab life of lockdown, this gave us a kind of purpose. Achieving the goals was an extra bonus.”

But here’s the catch: Parikh continued to work out even after the challenge ended, successfully achieving consistency, discipline, and a lifestyle change which includes regular exercise. “Six hundred people signed up for the Indian Plank Challenge, and 50 of them continued working out by signing up for another 12-week program we created,” says Kohli. While research suggests it takes 66 days to form a habit, Kohli says this conversion rate depends on the results participants see. And these results are based on whether they made the right choices while selecting a challenge.

“There’s no doubt that these challenges are good to motivate yourself but some of them set unrealistic expectations. To meet them or to keep up with others attempting the challenge, one could over-exert themselves. At the end of the day, remember that your body has enough stressors, especially during the lockdown. And these challenges are supposed to be stress-busters and not another stressor,” she says.

So before you jump feet first into a fitness challenge, remember to be honest with yourself about where your current fitness level lies. Choose a program which has varied exercises and rest days. Set realistic goals. Learn to use these short-term goals and incorporate them into a longer plan. The real aim isn’t to get a six-pack in 30 days, but to ensure you turn a challenge into a habit, and a habit into a lifestyle.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.

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