The Bizarre Reason Your Workouts Might Not Be Working

by Danny Cullen

Are you busting your keester and not seeing any results? Well, you could be what fitness scientist are referring to as “nonresponders,” which describes people whose bodies don’t respond to the exercise they’re doing.

The first major study on nonresponders came in 2001, when researchers pored over data from studies of cardiovascular and endurance exercises. What they found was that (as you might expect), the exercises generally increased the subjects’ endurance, on a whole.

However, when they took a closer look at a case-by-case basis, they found that while some had improved their endurance substantially, others had actually become less fit, despite the fact they were following the same exercise regimen.

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The usual variables (age and sex) didn’t matter, suggesting that genetics plays a significant role in how a person’s body reacts to exercise. 

Since this initial study, researchers have been trying to find the link as to why some people acquired great results from exercise while others regressed, but couldn’t form a significant result regarding nonresponders, largely because the studies weren’t designed specifically to target these people. 

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The most recent study, published in the December issue of PLOS One, sought to finally find out the truth behind nonresponders.  Researchers from the Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and the University of Ottawa focused on whether or nonresponders, according to the New York Times

Their goal was to discover whether a person who was a nonresponder to one exercise could benefit from switching to another. Over a series of weeks, they put 21 males and females through a series of varying endurance and high-intensity workouts, all of which were aimed at uncovering the truth behind nonresponding.

As a group, they found the subjects had improved significantly in their fitness. But like the initial study from 2001, upon individual inspection, the responses varied. 

About a third of the subjects failed to show any improvement in one of the measures after three weeks of endurance training. Likewise, when the subjects were put through high-intensity interval training, another third did not improve. Most glaringly, some participants were in worse shape afterward. 

In short, some participants failed to respond to certain workouts. However, everyone in the group showed improvements in one way or another.

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The conclusion? “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise,” said researcher Brendon Gurd, associate professor of kinesiology at Queen’s University, in an interview with the New York Times. “But it does seem as if there is some size that fits everyone.”

So now the question becomes: How do you find out which form works best for you?

In the future, we’ll probably have technology that can tell you exactly that. But for now? Trial and error.

The important thing is to be methodical when starting a new regimen. Measurement is key. 

Find a baseline for your workout (like taking your pulse or finding the maximum amount of reps), then measure that baseline after a month. Dr. Gurd says that not only should you be doing better in that workout, but it should also be easier.

If not, you may be a nonresponder. In that case, you need to switch things up in a significant way. For example, if you’re jogging, try sprinting in intervals. If you’re doing weight training, try longer, slower reps.

The takeaway is that despite your best efforts, your body might be working against you. So be mindful and methodical about your workout approach to get the most out of your time. Trying new ways to be healthy, and zeroing in on successful techniques is one of the core challenges that face all the couples who appear on our new hit show Altar'd. 

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