Exercise is supposed to be the answer for myriad health concerns – from cardio-respiratory fitness and blood pressure maintenance to weight control – but there are those of us who may feel that, no matter how much we exercise, we don’t see much in the way of results. Turns out, it may not be in our heads.
Fitness experts estimate that anywhere from 20 to 45 percent of those who undertake a form of regular exercise experience no measurable physiological change as a result – and they even have a name for us: non-responders.
“Although it would appear to be intuitive that all previously untrained and sedentary individuals undertaking exercise can expect positive changes to their physiological function and overall health, the scientific literature is quite clear that for a segment of the population this is indeed not the case,” says Lance Dalleck, associate professor of exercise and sport science and director of the Center for Wellness and Human Performance at Western State Colorado University, who has done research on non-responders.
One unfortunate effect of the phenomenon is that non-responders can become frustrated with their lack of progress and decide it’s not worth it to stick with their exercise program – or, really, any exercise program.
But recent research has indicated non-responders to one form of exercise may yet respond to another, and so it may be just a matter of finding the right exercise program for you. That study, which was conducted Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and the University of Ottawa, determined that non-responders could benefit by swapping out one form of exercise for another.
Dalleck (who was not involved with the Canadian study) suggests that an individualized exercise program based on research-based guidelines and tailored to the person’s age, weight and fitness level is more likely to yield a positive outcome. “If a one-size-fits-all approach is used that doesn’t taken into consideration the individual, then it is more likely that an individual will be a non-responder,” he says.
It may also be a matter of persistence. Non-responders may just “take longer to respond to exercise,” Dalleck says. “They may need to stick with it for 6 months before positive training adaptations are observed.”
Sabrena Jo, senior exercise scientist at the American Council on Exercise, agrees, noting that one issue with research about non-responders is that the exercise interventions are generally short-term, sometimes only three to four weeks. “It is unknown whether the non-responders in those studies would have eventually responded had the exercise program lasted several months or even a year,” she says. “In general, all people respond to some form of exercise. The trick is to figure out which type of exercise works well for the individual.”
Jo maintains that the first step toward success is finding an exercise you enjoy. “If you force yourself to do an exercise that you dislike, you’re not likely to stick with it long enough to see results,” she points out.
The next step is tracking improvement with a “pre- and post-test.” For instance, if you’re planning to exercise by walking, walk around your block when you start your regime and track how long it takes you. Then, after a few weeks of walking, again measure how long it takes you to walk the same block. “If you are faster — that is, it takes less time to cover the same distance, you’ve improved!” she says.
Jo also advises that you keep your eye on the mood and emotional benefits of exercise, which may be apparent even when other markers – like weight loss and endurance – prove more elusive.
The bottom line: Don’t give up!
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.