Dinner last night with my son and daughter-in-law and immediate family – mom, sister, brother-in-law. Such nice people, happy to be joined as family by marriage.
M and I were invited to join them for an evening of board games after dinner, but being kind of old folks who get up early in the mornings (even on weekends), we had to decline. I expected to be at pilates class or in the gym by 7:30 this morning (I was!) and I love my sleep. Since we were just ordering dinner at 8:00, trying to stay up and socialize was not going to work for us.
My early morning exercise routine was intriguing to my sister in mother-in-law-hood, as she is struggling to get into a healthier lifestyle groove. Like me and everyone else I know, it is so tough to get going and reshape our habits. We had a long conversation about it, and I realized that I now have definitive opinions and actual experience on how to get started on the regular exercise pathway. Following are the points I expressed to her that have worked for me in my exercise and healthier lifestyle endeavors.
Throw away any preconceived goals or expectations. Marketing has us conditioned to believe we need goals and motivation and reasons to exercise. Better health seems inadequate; we must be inspired by weight loss, pretty muscles, endurance, strength, flat abs, thighs that do not touch. At some point those types of measurable goals may be appropriate or reasonable expectations as a guidepost of progress, but honestly, I did not then and do not now need the additional pressure. When I got started, the common and measurable goals were just common and measurable signs of failure for me and reasons to be discouraged. I would have quit long ago if I had been chasing progress dictated by the scale or the tape measure. The minute I stopped measuring my success that way was the day I began to actually fall in love with exercise.
Consistency. One of the toughest things about exercise is simply getting up and doing it on a predictable, consistent schedule. Now 13 months into a daily routine of being in the gym at least 6 mornings per week, I did not set my alarm for 4 a.m. one night, click my heels together, and was magically transformed into the groove I now travel. At first I told myself to get to the gym every morning for 30 days, and after 30 days it would be a habit. And for probably 25 of those first 30 days I was forcing myself to get up and to go the gym. The other 5 days? Those were scheduled appointments with trainer J and therefore my hyper-responsible self recognized commitment to someone and therefore a different type of obligation. I had a built-in accountability partner in my trainer, and he was seeing me just about every morning as I toiled with my List of the day in hand. I got regular feedback about my efforts in our sessions, where the additional practice also showed as my progress toward proficiency and competency accelerated. At some point – probably at about 2 months – it was part of my routine, like brushing my teeth or pulling myself together for work, but even more shocking to me, it had become something I looked forward to and genuinely enjoyed, even with its ongoing challenges. From sheer force of will to sticking with it a new habit was born. That said, even now I do not like varying much from my established gym schedule. It seems far too easy to start making excuses for not exercising if I allow myself too much of an out or a loophole.
Stop accepting your own excuses. When I first began working with trainer J, my body ached in places I had no idea that I even had muscles that could ache. It was really easy to tell myself I should not return the next day to try again because the aches would only get worse. Or that I was too busy, too tired, too stressed, too clumsy, too dumb, too something else equally self-depreciating to exercise. Every. Single. Day. If making excuses for not exercising burned the same amount of calories as actually doing the work I would have not needed to go to the gym. I did find the exercise exhausting – at first. Too busy? Other than sleeping, what was I doing at 6 a.m. that would prevent me from going to the gym? Too tired? Okay, maybe, probably, so I needed to adjust my schedule and go to bed earlier to ensure I got adequate sleep. Too stressed? Rumor had it exercise helped with that. Too dumb? Negative girl at her bomb-throwing finest. Too something? I had to face reality – I was self-sabotaging and not being honest with myself. Either I was committed to doing this or I was a dilettante. I had found a trainer I trusted and who made this stuff make sense to me, so I had to either commit to it or quit. And I was tired of labeling myself as a dilettante and desperate to not let myself quit too soon yet again.
Be patient. My thoughts about exercise were just like everyone else just getting started. It’s boring. It’s hard. The gym is intimidating. I’m uncoordinated. I’m not good at it. I don’t want to (accompanied by mental and emotional foot-stomping). Those first few weeks I had them every single day waking up and psyching myself up to get up, dress, drive to the gym, actually go through my practice. I had them ever single night getting my clothes and gym bag prepared for the next day. And once I decided I was in it to win it (the battle to become a regular exerciser), I had to force myself every day for a few months to just do it. Patience is not one of my virtues; I disliked the disruption of this new habit and for awhile sheer stubborn willpower was the only thing that got me through the doors every day.
Setbacks happen; forgive yourself for being human. Perfection is the enemy of good, and it took me awhile to warm up to this fact. True confession: I do not always put forth 100% effort every time I am in the gym and practicing on my own, and even sometimes when I am working with trainer J. And for a long time I would be plagued with guilt about it. I felt insincere, unauthentic, fake, as if I was the only person in the entire club who was not mentally in the game that day and therefore failing in my quest. It opened up the box of negative emotions and feelings that distracted me from continuing to strive for proficiency. Surprisingly to me at first, I began to have some modest successes and gaining confidence. With those tiny changes and increasing abilities my mindset started to change as well. Some Lists I enjoyed so much more because I felt good about my ability and my effort, so I looked forward to days where I would do those and come home feeling happy and successful. It happened so slowly I did not notice it at the time, but my negative girl thinking faded and rather than a soundtrack of how much I sucked at exercise I was breaking it down with the cues I had learned and steps to each movement. I began using failure less and less in my discussions; if something did not go as hoped or expected, I had faltered, not failed.
Celebrate the small wins. I remember the first time I could do a walking lunge across the room without losing my balance on the way out or the way back. I remember the first time I did a Bulgarian split squat without the elaborate helps to stay balanced. Picking up a pair of 35 lb. dumbbells to do Romanian deadlifts. At 55 and doing resistance training for the first time in my life, these are Very Big Deals for me. I still think about how great and pleased with myself I felt every time I have a List with walking lunges (still not a favorite), Bulgarian split squats (several times per week), or Romanian deadlifts. It’s those little things that get me through my unmotivated to exercise days.
Big wins may not be typical or observable. I am a type 2 diabetic. When I started, I was injecting 2 different types of insulin multiple times daily as well as prescription oral medications for blood pressure (protect my kidneys), and high cholesterol. Within a year after starting my exercise program, I was off the insulin, then the oral medications. As of right now I take a Vitamin D capsule, a milk thistle supplement (thyroid function support), and a single low-dose aspirin daily. That’s it. What a difference a year of consistent exercise makes. Looking at me, I am trimmer and have visibly gained some muscle and lost some fat, but I have not dropped an impressive amount of weight and have no idea about total inches lost. I feel better, and my regular bloodwork and visits with my physicians says I am far healthier. Biggest win for me has never been about physical appearance; biggest wins for me have been on the inside.
Exercise is a forever journey. The goals and measurements imply that you reach some point with exercise and then you can stop. Lose those 20, 30, 100, 200 lbs. and then you have arrived. Unfortunately bodies do not work that way, and what I know is that stopping is not an option. It’s not like I am mending a bone or getting over the flu; for me I am always going to be diabetic either in good control with or without medication. How much I struggle for that control even with the medication depends a lot on how willing I am to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Same is true of weight loss, stress or depression management. Lifestyle habits may not cure you completely, but it’s something we can do for ourselves that goes a long way toward keeping us healthy and feeling good.
It gets easier. Best advice from my husband about exercise: just do a little something every day until you can do more. From my trainer: consistency trumps intensity. From my best friends who exercise regularly: it gets easier and becomes more satisfying. I didn’t believe them at first, and I am sort of amazed to find out the simplicity of their wise words actually works for me. Most importantly, it does get easier. Be patient. Stick with it.
Accountability. I won the lottery with trainer J. He’s scary smart and exceedingly great at his job. However, his versatility in working with different types of clients with different abilities, skills, and personalities truly sets him apart. That said, if ours was not a productive partnership, I would probably be sitting on the couch and writing even less consistently than I have been lately. With the exercise, I needed someone to teach me how to exercise. That I found someone who is kind about my blowing up his text with questions and emotional meltdowns when things are not going well is major bonus. But with the blog I have a safe place to write about my ups, downs, all arounds, and it helps enormously. Understanding that I needed an outlet to express my thoughts and feelings was another factor in successful new habit forming.
I started this post as an email to my sister in mother-in-law-hood, because I want to be helpful in getting her on her feet and out of her own head. Life can be difficult enough without having something else to hate ourselves for (not taking better care of our bodies) or be disappointed about or feel as if we are failures.
As I keep reading in my ventures to Pinterest and Facebook, fall 7 times, stand up 8. Even I am not immune to the platitudes that I see and read, because sometimes they just make sense. If I say or do anything that helps her overcome the inertia and get started, I have done a nice thing.