One thing Rachael loves about writing is that it allows her to share her experiences, and to learn from the experiences of others.
I'm no fitness expert. And while I was into many activities as a kid, I never became an athlete of any kind. In my twenties, I struggled with a little bit of extra weight and a gut that didn't seem to want to go in no matter how few calories I consumed. I had jiggly old lady arms I did not want. I had a BMI in the healthy range, but I still was not happy with my body.
I tried exercise plans over and over again. I carefully read blogs and magazines. I studied various forms of exercise and tried gym memberships. Sometimes, I was one of those people who would start a gym membership as a New Year's resolution only to quit a few weeks or months later. I'd get all excited about the gym for a month or so, but my enthusiasm would wane over time. Eventually, I would skip a couple days, and then go a couple more times, and then it would become clear that I was not going back.
Now, I'm exercising faithfully every day before bed. What changed? Well, part of it was the anti-depressants. But it also had to do with a new mindset about exercise.
Stop Thinking of Exercise - Start Thinking of Activities
The word "exercise" registers in our brains like other things that are unpleasant, but sometimes necessary: work, chore, task, etc. What was different about my recent routine, the one I would finally call successful? Well, I didn't just have a goal of doing 10 push-ups and 10 sit-ups every day, I added a fun activity I enjoy: yoga. And instead of doing the same work-out videos every day, I made it my own. I got a book that shows all of the poses and has some suggested pose sequences for different purposes. (There is a link to that book at the end for those who are interested.) Using this book allowed me to craft a new yoga workout for myself every night, and to perfect the poses that challenged me the most.
And that got me thinking. I was eager to do my exercises every day, when I hated it, or at least was bored by it, before. Why? Because while I was doing "P.E. drill" exercises, they were just warmups for the activity that interested me. That interest sustains my motivation to work out every day, no matter how I feel.
Professional athletes love doing the thing they're known for being good at. The practice doesn't feel like work to them at all. Arnold Schwarzenegger loved pumping iron. He did it for pleasure. If he hated it, but simply did it to get a better body, he probably would have quit when it got tough. Or gotten bored with doing it so often. So, to be someone like that, you have to stop forcing yourself to do exercises, which you probably don't want to do. Instead, brainstorm what you like to do that gets your body moving. It might be yoga, like it is for me. It might be dance, a martial art, swimming, or a game or sport. Even if you're doing something that's not so intense, like walking, if you're able to enjoy it, you are much more likely to do it every day.
So my rule now is, stop exercising and start being active. Anything you like to do that's active can be your "exercise" activity. Things like gardening, cleaning, or running around with your kids or dogs can be active. Anything that uses muscles and gets your heart pumping can be an activity. The idea though is to find something to do each day, at the same time preferably, so you build up that powerful force known as habit.
Why I Didn't Stick With Previous Activities
Well, this isn't the only time I've done an activity I enjoyed (at first) either. But mostly before, I was doing workout DVDs. Yoga, pilates, and various forms of dance. I became interested in particular in Bollywood-style bhangra dance and belly dancing. I'd copy the same workout over and over again. But I would get up to the most advanced form of the workout, and then lose interest. Eventually, I'd stop doing the DVD workouts altogether. Why keep it up? Learning new things is fun for me, but they get boring once I've mastered them.
So this time, I'm, as I talked about above, creating my own, personalized yoga routines and selecting sequences and poses that give me different challenges every day.
Another thing? Brevity. I focused on only doing something for 10-30 minutes a day. If you say "I will do ten minutes of dance", you are much more likely to be able to follow through on that promise to yourself every day. Even when you get tired, feel like crap, or are stressed out.
So, find something you love, and instead of copying some DVD, find a way to make it fresh, unique, and interesting for yourself. And, only promise yourself to do something that sounds easy. Because, believe it or not, you can get results by starting with a small goal. I find that setting a bigger goal tends to be self-defeating — I get discouraged because I think I won't be able to keep it up, and then it turns out I can't keep it up. The most important thing is to build up this routine of an activity that you will feel you must do every day. Something you will come to dislike skipping. When I don't do my yoga, I feel like something is wrong. I miss it if I can't do it. You have to find what he equivalent of that is for you.
- Choose an activity, not an exercise.
- Make it personal, and choose something fun for you.
The reason people quit gyms is not because they're lazy, it's because they get bored with cycling, running, and lifting weights. People who like one or more of those will stay in the gym, but a gym is not for everyone. Or I dare say, for most people.
- Make it challenging and like a game. Don't just copy someone else's workout, you should try to design your own. Make it different every day.
- Set a goal that will easy to stick to. Build up a habit of performing your activity of choice daily, or at least a few times a week.
- Start small. You can always build up to more challenging goals later.
I sometimes do more than my goal, but my minimum is to do one sequence of poses or ten minutes of yoga, with ten pushups and ten sit-ups. The reason I do this routine every day is because it registers in my brain as an easy thing to do. It requires little time, no expensive equipment, and it's not hard. If you think of it as hard, you probably won't do it.
Start with something small and easy, achieve that goal, and then you can dial up the difficulty just enough to keep yourself from being bored. Doing an easy physical activity every day, whether you feel good or bad, cranky or full of energy, is much better than doing a difficult physical activity inconsistently, only able to do it when your mood is good.
How to Plan This
I don't know that much about exercise. But I do know about the psychology of learning. Exercise is learning, your body is learning how to do something. If you treat it as such, you can become your body's teacher, and that means coming up with a lesson plan.
It's good to start with the fundamentals. Right now, I'm working my way through every pose in my yoga book. Each night, I do a single pose, but I hold it a long time, read all about it, and try to get the exact position of my body parts correct. I work on my yoga breathing. I ease slowly into and out of the pose.
When I get through all that, I want to go back to what I was doing earlier, which is doing sequences prescribed in the book. One each night. The sequences vary in length but usually took me about ten to fifteen minutes. Unless I wanted to lie in the relaxation pose for a bit longer at the end!
So, my advice for how to go about planning this structured activity routine:
- Choose your activity.
- Work on mastering the basics and fundamentals first.
- Plan to do the activity at the same time every day, if possible.
- Start with a small, simple goal, something you're likely to stick with even on days when you feel bad.
- Plan ways you can make each session feel new and different. This may require experimentation, brainstorming, and research.
You'll know you're doing it right if you feel like the activity time is something you look forward to, that actually makes you more happy. If you dread it all day, or dread waking up in the morning to do it when you go to sleep at night, that's a sign you're either not doing the right activity, or that you're pushing yourself too hard. The important thing is to set a goal for how long each session should be. Choose a time commitment that will be easy for you to stick to. Even if it seems too easy or not ambitious enough, that means you will do it most days, even when you don't feel like working hard. This has a lot of power, because you will wind up active in times when you never thought you would have the willpower to be active. Because, you're not forcing yourself to do something that takes up a lot of willpower. You'll be itching to get off the couch to do your activity when the time comes! Just avoid doing the same exact routine each time.
Find something where you can change it up easily. For example, if you enjoy running on your treadmill. You might be able to simulate the experience of running across flat ground or easy hills if you're not feeling great. But when you feel up to it, you can also challenge yourself by simulating challenging runs across mountain roads. I have failed at this kind of thing many times because, like I said, I was just practicing the same exact workouts over and over. One thing you might try is YouTube, or some workout streaming service or TV channel. Then you might be able to try a greater variety of videos.
Find what you love and do it. Stop exercising, and start doing activities!
You don't have to love running or lifting weights to get in good shape! Just do what you love to do.
This is the yoga book I was talking about, it really helped me figure out my own yoga plan and workouts.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Rachael Lefler
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 02, 2020:
What you did to make exercise fun and personal to you worked. Congratulations! Right now, with COVID-19 and other considerations, we all have to rethink our exercise programs.
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on September 02, 2020:
You offer some great tips for sustaining that original impetus to exercise (okay, to be involved in activities you enjoy). I am motivated to give this reframe a try. Thank you!
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 01, 2020:
This is good stuff. Having to switch from group or the gym to home has been a challenge. And I really enjoy mine. Go figure.