This column is inspired by one written by Tom Henz in the Jan. 18 issue of the Bluffton Sun, suggesting it is better to work out less than more. It makes great sense, especially if one understands the science behind conditioning.

Why would people over-exercise? The answer is not physiological, but psychological, perhaps relating to the thought of “no pain, no gain.” But the physiological truth is that conditioning is not how much stress is put on the body, but how the body reacts to the stress put upon it.

I like to use the inoculation analogy. Inoculations put a harmless amount of a disease into the body, which reacts (homeostasis) to meet it by building up defenses (antibodies, etc.) to prepare for more of the disease. This is true of the way our bodies react to all forms of stress.

Exercise stresses the body, both generally and specifically, depending on the activity involved. The idea is to give the body enough for it to react without giving it too much, from which it can’t recover and adapt, which is DIStress.

Thus, exercise conditioning consists of stressing the body, letting the body react, stressing again a little more, followed by another period of adaptation, etc. The key is not so much the stress as the degree of adaptation that permits increasing amounts of stress. 

Obviously, some people can adapt better and faster than others because of age, diet, genetics, etc. My annual New Year’s fitness recommendations (regular and gradual) in the Jan. 4 issue of this newspaper are a simple example of how this can be done. 

Top athletes can exercise every day, even two or three times a day, because their bodies have been trained to respond and adapt more quickly. In fact, the art of coaching is to be able to stress athletes close to the breakdown limit without going over the line, eventually backing off enough to enable peak performance at some desired time. 

But most of us, especially seniors, need more recovery time for our bodies to be able to respond adequately without breaking down. This takes time and a commitment to regular exercise. 

Conditioning is both a science and an art. Sometimes we (and our coaches) can overdo the stress we put upon ourselves. We can also underdo it, too, which slows progress, but as long as we understand and enjoy the process, its rewards will be well worthwhile. 

As always, I invite you to find out for yourself.

Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach, and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors.