The deceptive allure of home exercise programs

Yesterday Samantha posted about the real life secrets of aging athletes.  And truer words were never spoken– as we get older, we have to pay closer attention to all the things that can limit the felicitous functioning of our bodies.  When I was in my 20s, I could ignore the needs of sleep, nutritious food, moderation in workouts, injury risks, adequate recovery from injury, etc. and still my body would keep going.  Now in my 50s, I feel like the CEO of my own personal HMO.  I have to track and adjust my food and alcohol intake for health, energy, reduction of GI symptoms and sleep.  I have to budget more time for sleep because of intermittent menopausal insomnia.  I try to do physical activity more often, but these days at a lower intensity level and shorter duration.  Doing more intense physical activity takes much longer to recover from, as Samantha points out, so I have to plan for down time too.

On the bright side, I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of yoga, which feels good and helps me focus on, care for and give thanks to my body for the ways it moves and stretches.  I’m also exploring other activities (like kayaking) that use other muscle groups (it’s all about the core)  and feed my need for nature (in particular, to paddle nearby dolphins and seals).

But the item in Sam’s post about mobility really hit home.  Here it is:

We are also all working hard to keep our mobility through our joints. See this good article on Mobility. I need to get back to CrossFit or start a mobility routine on my own.

My knees and hips get really creaky after sitting or driving for any length of time.  My shoulders are affected by rotator cuff injuries (surgery on right, physical therapy on left), and because of a history of ankle injuries (torn ligament, avulsion fracture, multiple sprains. What can I say?  I’m a clumsy athlete…) my balance is not as great as I’d like.

So what are our options for maintaining strength, flexibility and balance? Of course we can join gyms like Crossfit, take group coaching classes, hire a personal trainer, etc.  But these are both expensive and time-consuming; many of us have limited time and financial resources.

Enter the at-home exercise plan.  Why bother with an expensive gym membership, trainer, and maybe child care, when you can work out in the privacy of your own home and keep an eye on your kids at the same time?

Two photos of women working out at home, one of them with her daughter.

There are approximately 4 zillion websites devoted to at-home exercise programs.  They sell DVDs, streaming services, “personalized” plans given one’s goals, apps for tracking all manner of exertion, and forums for connecting with like-minded folks also trying to sweat their way to success.  Of course, the DIY approach to fitness is nothing new.  Remember this guy?

Fitness guru Richard Simmons promo advertising for Sweatin' to the Oldies

Richard Simmons practically invented the at-home exercise plan.  He’s persisted through all the technology changes, although if you still want a VHS cassette, they’re for sale on Ebay.

Ebay ad for Richard Simmons VHS tape of Sweatin' to the Oldies.

Now of course there are home plans for all sorts of movement, and most of them are very inexpensive or free.  What a great thing!  Problem solved.

Or maybe not.

Do these plans actually work?  By “work”, I don’t mean “if you follow the plan, will you achieve some fitness results?”  I mean this: what are the chances that people who initiate some at-home plan stick with it for some length of time?

I decided to consult the internets to see what I information I could find. Turns out that this is a very hard question to find an answer for.  What I did find was loads of “success” stories by folks who used some particular plan (usually for sale on the site), with the requisite fitspo before-and-after photos. Lots of sites also turned the tables on us, placing the responsibility for failure on our own lack of will:

The question is not really “Do home workouts really work?”. The true question is: Are you motivated and disciplined enough to do your workout at home?

Yuck.  This story is a familiar one– every diet website tries to sell us the same bill of goods.  Nope, I’m not buying it.  But unfortunately, lots of women do, and some studies have found a variety of negative effects on body and self-image for some women who use exercise DVDs.  The Guardian published an article citing the above study and other related ones, arguing that live exercise classes are more inclusive and motivating.  Not that this is news to anyone, but it does cast some doubt on the efficacy of at-home plans.

Note to self and social science-y readers:  investigating the experiences of women using at-home exercise plans would be a great topic for a qualitative study. There are many studies on physical therapy exercise at-home plans, but I can’t find any on self-initiated plans not connected to medical care.  If anyone knows about any studies, please let me know in the comments.  I’d be most grateful.

Consulting my own experience, there have been times where I’ve gotten into the habit of flexibility, balance and strength training at home.  Often they’ve coincided with physical therapy: given that I had prescribed at-home exercises, it was not hard to add on some others.  And after the PT was over, I did maintain the regimen.  For a while.  And then it went away.  For no apparent reason.

So, back to the need for a mobility routine.  I just renewed my monthly yoga plan, which is located at a studio that’s a 10-minute walk from my house.  And I love the place, and love the instructors.  And some of my friends go regularly.  With all that support, I get there from time to time, and really enjoy moving and stretching and balancing (and teetering) and strengthening.  It would be nice (in theory) to do this at home, but for me this is not a realistic plan.

What about you, readers?  What sorts of movement or activity do you do at home?  How has it gone for you over time?  I’d love to hear your stories.









10 thoughts on “The deceptive allure of home exercise programs

  1. I’ve been using exercise videos/DVDs for close to 30 years. I’ve never joined a gym and never plan to. You absolutely can get fit working out at home, especially with tough trainers like Cathe Friedrich. This attitude that gyms are the only way is disappointing and elitist.

    1. This post didn’t make the claim that gyms are the only way to get fit, and calling a view that one disagrees with “disappointing and elitist” is not an accurate account of that view. The post was asking the question, “how are home exercise plans used?” Some data emerged to suggest problems or limitations, and I solicited readers’ responses both about any sources of research and about their own at home exercise plans. Thanks for that part of your response.

      1. “The Guardian published an article citing the above study and other related ones, arguing that live exercise classes are more inclusive and motivating. Not that this is news to anyone, but it does cast some doubt on the efficacy of at-home plans.”

        This is primarily what I was responding to. I’m so used to people putting down at-home exercising that my response was a bit knee-jerk. Sorry about that. :-}

    2. Hi– thanks for the extra reply. I’m seriously curious about who finds the at home plans helpful, who doesn’t, and why. I’ve used done yoga videos consistently for periods but then something happened and I stopped. It would be cool to know how you’ve maintained a connection to at home plans for so long.

      1. For me, it’s simple. I’ve always been very self-conscious…I would hate for people to see me doing something as potentially embarrassing as exercising (echoing some of ebay313’s points). I have so much more freedom at home; if I have to take a quick break for whatever reason, I just pause the workout. I would die of embarrassment if I couldn’t keep up with a class.

        It’s just me, my husband, and my cat at home, so my distractions are few to none.

        That said, though…if my local park district ever has a class I would like to take, I definitely would. The vibe would be different from a gym. For example, they have a “gentle yoga” class, but it’s in the middle of the day. I’m waiting for them to offer an evening class. I also would take a kettlebell class. I keep track of their offerings to see if there’s something new.

        I ride a bike or walk when weather permits, so I do get out of the house occasionally. 😀

        Also, for many years I’ve been going to for support from others (mainly women) who exercise at home.

        Hope that helps!

  2. I know myself well enough to know that I will not keep up with a home exercise program. There are too many distractions at home. I have to leave – go to a gym or out for a run.

  3. I wonder too about the cause and effect for home fitness program users- I know one reason in the past (and sometimes present) I’ve been attracted to it is not just the ability to do it at home, anytime, but also the privacy and fear of looking stupid in front of other people at a gym or fitness class.

    It’s interesting, I have a whole home gym set up in my basement for lifting and yet, since joining a commercial gym (initially only for the pool while recovering from foot injuries), I find it in some ways easier to get to the gym and workout than workout at home as counter intuitive as that is. Part of it is that I get to swim after lifting at the gym so that incentivizes me. There are also all the gym features that try to make it feel luxurious, which do make the experience feel like one of pampering over duty sometimes (I’m in love with getting to end workouts with a soak in a hot tub and/or some time in the steam room). And there is the factor of just being away from the stress of home that is relaxing, compared to working out in my basement where workouts are often in between doing laundry, with reading for school during my rests between sets. So working out has the “flexibility” of being able to do laundry and school work between sets and exercises, but it has the downside of not being the same quality me-time, time just for taking care of myself, that going out to a gym is.

  4. I have been both a gym member and at-home exerciser for my entire adult life. I definitely was able to get fit and stay fit working out at home. I have a vast collection of cardio and resistance/weight training videos and DVDs and found when my kids were small and gyms weren’t open at 5:00 a.m., my living room was. I have found great success as a gym member -pre kids, and now as an empty-nester too. I will note, though, today I was at a class where the instructor talked too much about nothing, started the class late and did not stress proper technique – I would have had a much better workout at home!

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