No secret to anyone who knows me that I am a born-again exercise advocate who walks the walk as well as talks the talk. Unless I am conversing with someone who understand my usage of the words “addict” and “obsessive,” I rarely use those terms to describe my relationship with exercise, but in real ways yes, I am both an addicted to and obsessed with this process. In the best ways possible.
This was not always the case, though, and I am frequently asked how I got started and went from couch potato to regularly reporting to the gym 6 days per week. It is as if there is some secret formula or regimen I am following, something well beyond the pain and suffering that one must endure to get from there to here. Nope. Sorry to say, I did not get to skip the pain and suffering part, but your mileage may vary and your experience be completely different than my own. But the question comes up so routinely I thought it would be easier (for me) to summarize what I typically say in response.
Make small commitments at first. The commitment to exercise is not an easy one, especially if you are presently sedentary or taking steps to pursue a new or different forms of exercise. There is a lot more involved with deciding to pursue a healthier lifestyle and changing our habits; it goes well beyond the initial decision to do so. Rather than thinking in terms of going to the gym 3 days per week for 45 minutes, shoot for a decision on the days and a time for being in the gym period. While there, whether for 4 minutes of 45 minutes, exercise as much as you can currently handle.
When first starting out with the gym and working with trainer J, not much in my life or lifestyle changed immediately. While I was making our weekly sessions (at that time 8:30 on Thursday mornings), I was still keeping the same late bedtime hours and being very half-assed about my effort to get to the gym. About 3 months into our training partnership, J said he’d like to see me at least twice between that Thursday and the next Thursday. While I knew he did not say it with an “or else!” implied, that’s how I took it, and I took it seriously. For me, I had been kinda/sorta working at this for 3 months. For me personally, I decided that I needed to be in the gym daily for 30 days straight to make it a habit, and that’s what I did. Knowing myself, exercise had to happen before work and immediately began the process of shaking up my priorities to make room for the exercise every morning. I cannot stress enough how making the commitment and sticking with it for at the first 30 days was a process, not something that I just decided to do and it went smoothly straight out of the gate. Whatever your timetable, make small commitments, maybe 2 or 3 days per week for 30 minutes, and adjust to that before adding more to your workload. Consistency of getting to the gym and doing what you can is the only objective at first. Allow yourself to enjoy the initial small success before trying to expand into more days, longer times, additional exercise loading.
Be realistic about sacrifices. Whenever undertaking something personally painful, you have to be realistic about the trade-offs within the life you are presently living. We think it is not going to be that hard, that it’s “only” 30 minutes or an hour a few days per week. What are you doing with that 30 minutes or hour each day now? You are unlikely to be staring into space trying to figure out how to fill that time with activity. Most likely you have life commitments that expand and consume every waking minute of most days. Consider the things you will have to reprioritize or reschedule to make exercise a part of your life on a consistent basis. Plan for it. Schedule it. If you have to, make it a sacred space, something that only gets cancelled or rescheduled if there is a genuine emergency.
I typically spend a minimum of 90 minutes in the gym 6 days per week, plus another 20 minutes driving back and forth. I must get my exercise completed before my workdays begins, because (1) the gym is not that busy and I am less distracted by people everywhere, (2) my energy and focus is better first thing in the morning, and (3) once done with work, last thing I want to do is leave the house again. I allot 2 hours per day, 7 days per week, for exercise, and since most days I am at the office by 9, I have to be in the gym no later than 5:45 on those days. Before I undertook this schedule, I rarely woke up or got out of bed before 7 during the week, 8 or 9 on weekends. Almost immediately upon adopting this schedule I had to recondition my sleeping habits, or be cranky zombie during my waking hours. I had to manage my self-employment workload to ensure I did not miss deadlines due to my altered sleep schedule. My 11 p.m. to midnight sleep time quickly became 9 to 10 p.m. instead. The hours I once spent working on my self-employment jobs, reading, surfing the net, dawdling with other things I cannot even recall now had to be evaluated and reprioritized in favor of the exercise. It was not an easy transition, and it intensified my “I hate exercise” feelings at first.
Pursuing consistency in my exercise efforts is all about me. The choice to exercise for whatever reason may start because we want to lose weight or reshape our shape or spend more time with our significant other or active friends. As a starting point, it’s better than not getting up and off the couch. But honestly, for the long haul, you have to do this for yourself for reasons and motivations that are personal for you. Ask for help, ask for support, request accountability – but know that you, and only you, can do the heavy lifting to make real changes happen.
I won’t lie – M’s compliments and encouragement mean the world to me, as do J’s and other members I have met in the gym. There are friends I love and adore who are eager to hear about my fitness adventures and will actually text or email me if my recaps do not appear on Mondays and Thursdays by a certain time. Their genuine interest both humbles and inspires me, and it makes me sure that I am on the right path. There are also friends I have had to leave behind because I am taking care of myself and on a quest to improve my overall health. Why what I see as such a positive effort for me has turned them into toxic, angry, hostile forces in my life remains a mystery, but it is a reality I have dealt with and may possibly face again in the future. But no matter how nice the kudos and admiring words are and how GREAT they make me feel, this effort to be consistent and work hard is all about me and what I think, how I feel, my personal priorities and objectives. It is truly foreign for me to think so self-centrically, but I found that depending upon others to validate and recognize my hard work and effort had this weirdly discounting effect within my own head. The more I tried to tell them how great I feel about my pursuits, the hollower their replies and encouragement became in my own ears. Please understand, those in my own family and tribe of close friends (J included) have never been anything but completely sincere in their comments, but the more I spoke out loud with them about my challenges and overcoming them, the less I “heard” their genuine praise and joy in my success. Initially I began writing about my better health pursuits to give myself safe space to talk about it without creating this weird dichotomy that felt like an echo chamber of insincerity. Now I write about it because it has become a way to process the things I learn about how my own body works and responds to the workload I put upon it, and I have a record of where I have been and can see my progress forward. Plus I now have enough direct experience with the ups and downs of the journey to speak about what works for me.
Listening to body. Body understands what it needs and asks for it. Interpreting those requests and demands, though, can be a huge challenge. Especially after extended periods (in my case, most of my life) of ignoring reasonable requests. When first getting started with exercise, muscle aches are common, even expected. But as time goes on and muscles become accustomed to the workload, the aches tend to fade away. Stick with the exercise, and body and mind begin working together. Body starts asking for movement and opportunities to work, mind feels and enjoys the benefits. I do not think our bodies were designed for us to spend our lives sitting in chairs staring at computers screens for the majority of our days.
Whether I am hearing it clearly or not is an evolving process. At first all I could hear was pleas to stop. Stop pushing. Stop trying. Stop moving – now! Return to the couch. If we are going to lie on the floor let’s take a nap, not do those awful bridge things or worse, planks. Or the demands for sugar. I want a cookie, a soda, a donut, a piece of cake. Chocolate – feed me chocolate! Yeah, when J would suggest I “listen to my body” that negative noise was all I heard at first. There is a certain addictive craving for exercise now; it is the motivation that keeps me trying long after I am so sure (like 4 reps into a first set) I am absolutely done. I may walk into the gym feeling tired and completely out of it, but it rarely takes long for mind and body to get in sync and be working together and the feeling-good chemicals to be coursing through my system. At the same time, when I am consistently lagging, feeling flat, and tired, and distracted, I can accurately pinpoint when and how much sleep shaving I have been doing, how much crap I have been eating, and how long it has been since my last rest day. Body is telling me it is time to take a brief break – a complete day off of exercise or a change of pace with yoga or pilates is all it typically takes to refresh and recharge me. After so many years of not listening to body or listening through the filter of marketing about what body should want and desire, hearing my body’s requests is like a very tiny, quiet voice through a poor cell phone connection. Regular, consistent exercise must strengthen and embolden it, because I tend to get the message a lot more quickly. Only occasionally does it have to scream to get my attention.
Motivation may change and become clearer as your habits evolve. Maybe you want to start exercising because of a special event – a wedding, a reunion, a date with someone you met online. Your motivation is to lose weight and reshape your shape for this event that could be a few days, weeks, months into the future. The future event is your impetus to get started getting moving. Thing is, weight loss and reshaping our shapes does not always happen in linear and mathematical fashion, and such temporary, transitory motivation could be discouraging and disheartening. Anything that actually gets you up and moving is good, but finding the thing or things that keep you moving forward may not be immediately or readily apparent. Be open to new ideas and sources to inspire or keep you engaged in this process.
When I first began, I thought losing weight was my goal. Weight loss is a huge boon to diabetics, so the exercise would help me drop some weight, and since I was working hard and enduring this painful process of purposefully making myself sweaty and gross, it would influence and impact my eating. I felt sure the initial few pounds I dropped would motivate me. Except, the scale refused to cooperate. I would weigh myself and want to cry because there was no change or worse, I had gained weight in the week. It went from weight loss as motivation and scale as my measuring stick to weight loss never happening and scale as my enemy. It was me at my lowest and my worst, and the only thing that worked was throwing the scale away. Without that number dogging me and eroding my self-esteem, my exercise efforts improved. Then I started having blood sugar crashes, because I was now in the gym 6 or 7 days per week and still injecting the same amounts of insulin as when I was completely sedentary. I had to reduce my insulin dosage, which was this amazing magical thing that had never even occurred to me might be possible. Suddenly the motivation of better health loomed large on my horizon. Ultimately control of my diabetes was what I want, but I believed weight loss way key to that. No, regular exercise and better food choices are key to that.
Exercise is a daily choice. In its simplest form, exercise is a choice. To go to the gym or not. To go to a yoga class, or not. Unfortunately I am not athletically gifted, and I find the whole sweaty and gross process of my exercise pursuits is a conscious choice I have to make every single day. Trainer J is good but has no extraordinary powers that make me forget sweaty and gross is … well, kind of gross. There is no magic workout, exercise equipment, diet, or supplement that makes me healthier, thinner, stronger, or happier. Regular exercise, though, contributes to all of those things.
While rewarding and deeply satisfying, exercise is rarely happy-happy-joy-joy type fun. My alarm goes off at 4 a.m., and the 10 minutes I allow to wake up and drag myself out of bed feels like luxury, to turn off the alarm and be warm and snuggy under the covers with my eyes wide open. In that time there is opportunity to make another choice, to stay in bed and sleep for another 3 hours versus getting up and going to the gym. The consequences of not going are dire for me, though, but I think about and weigh them every single morning. Then I get up, I get dressed, I make and drink a protein shake, fill my water bottle, say goodbye to M (usually still sleeping when I leave), grab my bag and go to the gym. I do not allow myself to sit down, other than to put on my shoes, and I definitely do not sit down at my computer. I read my mail and texts on my phone standing up in the kitchen drinking my protein shake. Sitting down, especially at my computer, is sure to put my off my schedule and make me late. In the year plus I have been pursuing the 6 gym days per week schedule, I am glad to be have done the hard work to make this my routine, my daily habit.
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For a variety of reasons, I am far more tuned in to health and fitness marketing now than I have been much of my life. If there is an advertisement for weight loss programs, supplements, fast-and-easy fitness products on any media I am utilizing I seem to be aware of it. Mostly immune to their messages, fortunately, but the consistent exposure reminds me of what the average person sees and hears on a daily basis. I have no desire to join the ranks of marketing madness that bombards with craptastic thoughts and ideas to turn your life around.
I can hardly stomach their slick promises of how quick and easy their process, how you can be model thin in 10 minutes per day and never hungry subsisting on minimal calories or eating anything/everything you want. After more than a year, I am not thin and fat-free with nary a jiggly part left. And I am okay with that. I am in excellent health, have more visible muscle, and a much healthier outlook. My progress is not the stuff that sells gym memberships or anything else, and thankfully I am not in that industry and have zero desire to become peddler of false hope and promises.
The real person I am is the woman who has enjoyed some inside-outside success. My interest in helping anyone who reads and/or follows my blog find success as they define it (versus the mass marketing machine that tells us how we should look and feel) is genuine. I blog because I want to talk about this stuff, and this gives me a forum to do so without boring my family and friends into some sort of vacuous coma. Plus it helps me remember the why of it all when the question comes up again in the future. Except now that I have written it down so I can have an intelligent conversation no one will ask me ever again.
This post, my experiences – my thoughts and opinions are my own. Your mileage may vary, and personally, I hope your success far exceeds all your hopeful expectations.