I had a rough time of things this morning. First off, I had to be up at 4:30 to make a 6 a.m. training session, which has gotten easier, but isn’t yet second nature. (5:30 I can do, no problem. So I’ll get there eventually I guess. A far cry from my college days when I refused to schedule any classes before 11 a.m.) What’s more, my back was tighter than it’s been in months, and I was full of PMS and general early-morning crankiness and an overwhelming sense of DO NOT WANT. I’m sure my trainer had a fleeting moment of wishing we were sparring today so he could smack me.
Later in the day, as I was veritably skipping in to work and singing along with my ipod, I realized how glad I was to have been there, and how much my morning depends on getting in a good workout. I’m not coming to you as some kind of brainwashed pod-person who’s just discovered this new thing called “exercise,” and insists on spouting some kind of empty promise that if I can do it, anyone can. Nor am I some kind of Jillian Michaels type who thinks she understands you because she weighed 150 once and now makes a living out of being buff. (Well, actually, Jillian Michaels makes a living out of yelling at fat people until they cry, but the buffness plays into that too.) I’m a real person with an office job and a messy apartment and what could be termed an addiction to Starburst FaveReds. More importantly, I spent the first two-thirds of my life actively hating physical activity of any type, and several years after that picking it up and putting it down…and now I get up at the crack of dawn every day to work out for an hour or more.
How do you go from point A to point b? Well, I don’t know how you would, and I have only the most tenuous sense of how I did. But I can share with you a few things that worked for me as far as getting me to make physical activity an integral part of my daily routine. Some of them may be things you already know. Some of them may not be useful to you. But I know they’ve all conspired to get me this far, so somewhere, somehow, they work for at least one person.
1. Pick something you’ll enjoy doing. If you make working out a chore, you’ll never stick to it. You might do it as long as it takes to reach some arbitrary designation of success, but you won’t make it a real habit. So find something that looks like it’ll be enjoyable. Just pick an activity that you’ve always wanted to be able to do – there’s no reason in the world you can’t do it now. Don’t worry for now if it’s not something you’ve previously been good at – it’s never too late to GET good at it. For certain values of “good,” anyway. I’m not going to ever be a world-class boxer, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting a ton out of it.
Don’t worry if there’s some trial and error involved, too. My gym, known for its creative classes, used to offer a ballet class once a week, which I took for awhile until I realized it wasn’t really doing it for me. For one thing, most of the classes involved performing a move across the studio, one person at a time, while everybody else watched you – and I hate getting up in front of people, especially when I’m not sure of what I’m doing. For most of the girls in the class, it didn’t bother them. They were all very upbeat and positive, as was the instructor, but it was apparent to me after a few tries that I was not cut out to be a dancer.
Lately the class du jour at my gym involves these Moon Shoe-looking contraptions that you strap on your feet and then bounce around on all aerobics-class-like. It looks like everyone in the class is having a great time, but I don’t have to try that to know that it’s not for me. (Even if I hadn’t already found my sport, I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be that. It might be yours though. You never know.)
And while fun is important, and you really shouldn’t keep doing something you actually hate, don’t just quit the first time it’s not fun. If working out were always easy and fun, you’d probably be doing it every day already.
In any case, get ready to try some new things, and get ready to fall in love eventually. The right activity is out there waiting for you to meet it.
2. If it’s not inherently fun, make it fun. If the mindless repetition of a cardio machine seems boring to you, you’re definitely not alone. For the times you do use a machine, you can always bring in distractions. Cardio machines give you a good excuse to consume guilty-pleasure media – load your Kindle with romance novels, or bring in a trashy magazine, or buy some cartoons in the itunes store. My gym has TVs mounted to many of the machines and as a result I’m greatly enjoying Angel, which airs from 6 to 7 a.m. and which I highly doubt I would have ever watched on my own.
It doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure, either. I’ve listened to audiobooks and foreign language tapes from time to time as well.
And of course good workout tunes are extremely important. I’ll share some of my faves in upcoming posts, but I imagine you already know what sort of music revs you up.
3. Listen carefully to your body. “Listen to your body” is the most important, most fundamental principle of starting or continuing any workout. But it’s also one of the most common excuses. Some days you may think your body might not want to get up at the butt-crack of dawn just to get punished. Do you honestly think that every day at the gym is a party for those of us who go all the time? Some days it’s an epic struggle.
Which isn’t to say you can’t ever take a break. You need breaks to let your body recover. But you probably don’t need as many as you believe your body is telling you. If you’re in actual pain or your body is physically fatigued after a hard day or two, take an extra day off. But if you’re merely groggy or you’re feeling like it’s a chore, that’s probably not your body talking, that’s your mind. Make yourself go, and push yourself a little. Your body probably doesn’t strictly want to pick up that heavy weight or bend into that Triangle pose, but it will probably thank you later.
4. Track your progress. Sometimes it may feel like you’re treading water in the fitness department. For those times, you need to remind yourself that you are achieving forward momentum, and that there are things you can do now that you couldn’t do before. So establish a metric. It can be weight if that’s what you want, or it can be body fat percentage, the amount of weight you can lift in various exercises, the time it takes you to run a mile, or how close you can get to touching your toes. It can really be anything. Don’t track it daily, but periodically you should check back in and see how you’re doing.
Last fall, in one of my first sessions, my trainer made me do plank-to-push-ups. I struggled and swore my way through a painful set of them, got a big mat-burn on my elbow, and had sore arms for a day or so afterward. Today, we did them again and I breezed through multiple sets without even breaking a sweat. If I didn’t know progress was being made, I’d certainly know it after that.
5. Make an investment, and remind yourself that you’ve made an investment. Look, gym memberships are expensive. So are yoga mats, bikes, roller skates, boxing gloves, personal trainers, and running shoes. If you purchase something to kick-start your fitness routine and then it gathers dust in the corner, you might as well have just set fire to that money. Look, I’m not proud of guilt trips, but it’s certainly effective to remind myself every so often that I’m throwing a lot of money at this hobby of mine and I need to get my money’s worth.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t get fitter on the cheap. You can do it for free, in fact, if you want. But if you can find a line on your budget to accomodate your fitness goal, you’ll have more at stake. And honestly, it’s a better investment than a lot of things you could be buying in the interest of self-improvement – the $65 billion diet industry doesn’t need your money, that’s for damn sure.
6. Reward yourself for a job well done. Remember when your parents used to pay you for getting good grades? (OK, maybe yours did. Mine always said getting good grades was its own reward.) If you’ve consistently exercised, say, three mornings a week for a month, or you’ve hit a milestone (for example, running your first mile without walking, or doing a non-girlie push-up) do a little something to commemorate it. So much the better if it’s thematic, like getting a new pair of fancy athletic socks or some headphones for the gym. My first pair of gloves, a-way back in 2004, was a reward for consistently attending my class (no more grody gym gloves!) – and it made me want to keep going back so I could put them to good use. (Which plays into item number 5 up there again.)
This doesn’t have to involve a monetary outlay. Rewards can take the form of a long sauna session, a bath, some vintage sitcoms on Hulu, a healthy snack from the fridge, or even a nap. (I reward myself with naps all the time.)
7. Missing it once doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Okay, so you’d planned to go and you didn’t. The world’s not going to end. Just go tomorrow. It takes some time for your workouts to integrate naturally into your day. And you are likely going to have occasional setbacks. Don’t go easy on yourself, but give yourself credit. You won’t necessarily improve measurably every day. Some days you might even feel like you’ve gotten worse. But trite as it sounds, the only way to fail at this is not to do it at all. If you drop it, pick it back up and keep picking it back up. Every day you’re active is better than a day when you’re not.