(This is an article which I post every year about this time though it has been updated several times. Hopefully it will be of real benefit for many this time of the year.)
Each year about this time hundreds of thousands of people nationwide finally decide that they need to start exercising. These folks have many different reasons or combinations of reasons for starting an exercise program again, or maybe for the first time. They may be tired of being out of shape, they may have gained too many pounds, they may not like what they see in the mirror, they may be following doctors orders….and the list goes on and on. There is one thing many of these folks have in common….they intend to stick with their new exercise program at least until their goals are achieved, and perhaps for the rest of their lives. Far too many have something else in common…they will fail, and they will fail miserably.
People start exercise programs throughout the year, but early January sees the biggest number of new exercisers by far. After overeating through the holidays, for these folks it is a time of new beginnings, for New Year’s resolutions. Every January, health clubs across the nation brace for the onslaught of new members, many confidently signing contracts for several months or even a full year’s membership to take advantage of lower rates.
Veteran gym rats like me patiently put up with crowded aerobic machines and stand in line for weight machines while the new folks try to figure out how they work. We endure this stoically because most of us understand that it is this sudden influx of new members, and the new money they bring in, that allows many health clubs to continue to provide services for long time members like ourselves throughout the rest of the year. And more importantly we know from long experience that by the middle of March most of the “New Year resolutioners” (as we call them) will be gone, and we will again have the clubs to ourselves. I have spoken to others who participate in other types of exercises program and they see the same thing in their exercise venues. It seems that most folks are far better at starting new exercise programs than sticking with them.
As I watched this phenomenon repeat itself year after year, I began to try to figure out how people who begin working out with the best of intentions and resolve can ultimately be more successful. If you are one of those people who is seriously considering starting an exercise program, I have come up with some suggestions below that will hopefully increase your chances for success. Maybe some of these suggestions will not work for you. However, I truly believe that you can use at least some of my suggestions to successfully to make exercise a part of your life – not for a month, or even for a year, but for the rest of your time on earth. No one can guarantee your success. In fact from what I have seen the odds are against you; it certainly appears that far more people drop out than succeed. However, I believe that if you can make some of these concepts work for you, you can be one of those people who defy the odds. Here are my suggestions:
Note: If you have any concerns about whether you are healthy enough to start exercise program, consult your doctor.
Understand in advance – exercise is work: You need to understand before you begin an exercise program that exercise is work. The purest engineering definition of work is using a force to move a mass through a distance. In any exercise you use a force generated by your muscles to move a mass (your body, a weight, a bike, etc.) through a distance. Exercise is the most basic type of physical work. Exercise takes physical effort. If you understand this up front, and you are prepared for it, it is less likely that you will quickly choose to return to the couch when the going gets a little tough. I believe that if you get into an exercise program with a full understanding of what is involved, you are less likely to quit when exercise starts feeling a lot like …. well……work.
Use Available Resources: If you join an Gym or other exercise facility, use the resources they have available. Often such facilities will offer a walk through where a personal trainer or other employee will explain how to use their various pieces of exercise equipment such aerobic trainers (treadmills, elliptic trainers, exercise bikes, etc.), weight machines, etc. Unless you are already very familiar with how all of the equipment works, avail yourself of that opportunity. Also it is probably a good idea to make use of any other free orientation or instruction available.
Most exercise facilities also offer exercise classes (sometimes for an extra fee, sometimes free) and the services of personal trainers – usually for a extra fee, but many clubs will offer the instruction of a personal trainer without cost to get you started and teach you how to use the weight and aerobics machines, etc. Make full use of any free instructions offered. Whether or not you make use of exercise classes will depend on your preferences – for instance you may or may not be interested in an aerobic dance class.
Whether or not to employ a personal trainer is again a personal decision. If you are a person who need to be pushed to perform exercises with enough vigor to be useful in maintaining good health, then a personal trainer may be what you need if you can afford the costs. You will have decide if the service is worth the money. Perhaps engaging a trainer for one or two sessions would be a good way of deciding the value of the service. If you are one of those people who can push yourself when exercising, you probably don’t need a trainer except perhaps for a few sessions to ensure that you are dong the right exercises and are doing them correctly.
Find an exercise or exercises you like: I know many men and quite a few women that love running while others like to work hard on weight machines or lifting free weights. They not only like the results they get, but they like the entire process as much or even more. But these types of exercises may not be right for you. If you are able to find a way of exercising that you actually like, you are far more likely to still be doing it a year from now.
Maybe swimming or bike riding is right for you or you might enjoy a competitive sport such as tennis, racquetball, etc. If you have rhythm in your soul, aerobics, Zumba, or any one of a number of dance exercises might be your best choice for getting moving. These might be instructor lead or you can exercise with videos. Maybe one of the martial arts might appeal to you. Perhaps you might want to just settle for brisk walks around your neighborhood. Regardless of which of the many types of exercises you ultimately chose, you are more likely to stick with your program when the work of exercising is disguised as something you like doing.
Consider including both aerobic and weight lifting exercises in exercise program: Optimally men and women need two kinds of exercises to maintain good health. Aerobic exercises which strengthen your heart and weight training exercises which use some kind weights or resistance to movement to tone up the other muscles in your body and strengthen your bones. Both types of exercise burn calories and help you loose weight . I don’t want to spend too much time on this here. I’ll put out an article within the next week or two which will go into these subjects in more depth if you are interested. Regardless, any exercise is better than none at all.
Start Slowly: Early on in an exercise program, when your enthusiasm is high, it easy to over do the first few times out. If you over exercise the result will be painfully sore muscles and your body telling you the next morning, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” You have to let your body get used to you new physical activity; start slowly and let you body get acclimated, and then increase the activity over time. You will still probably have some sore muscles, but you are more likely to be able to get out of bed the next morning. Over exercising early on is a sure way of encouraging yourself to quit exercising. (See my suggestions further below on setting goals for more information on this subject.)
Override excuses: I have seen many cases where folks have started their exercise programs with high enthusiasm and with deep resolve. Early on only something very important could keep them from exercising according to their predetermined schedules. However, as time goes on, they start missing workouts for less important conflicting priorities. That would be okay if it stopped there, but after a while just about any excuse is a good enough for missing a workout. That phase is usually followed closely by giving up exercising all together. That’s just how we human beings work.
Most people are very gifted at rationalization. Unless we exert a great deal of will power we can eventually talk ourselves out of doing anything that is a bit difficult. When you see this start to happen you have to take charge and stop the downward spiral in its tracks before it can really take root. You have to make yourself overcome the excuses and stay with your program. The only other alternative is failure! In time your exercise program will become part of who you are. You have to make exercising a good habit that is hard to break. You know you have arrived when you start feeling guilty when a poor excuse for missing an exercise routine even crosses your mind.
Overcome being “tired”: Being tired is one of the excuses that could easily be discussed above, but it is so common with all of us that I think it deserves special attention. Many of us are often tired and we could use that as a handy excuse on a regular basis for not exercising. Those who do physical labor or who are on their feet all day at work probably get the majority of the exercise they need on the job. Most of the rest of us who really need to exercise don’t really get physically tired on the job, but we often get mentally tired.
It is easy to confuse being mentally tied with being physically tired because they often feel the same, but it is important to understand the difference. We get mentally tired due to stress, frustration, boredom, or other work or life related inducers of mental fatigue, but being mentally tired should never keep us from participating in our exercise program. On the contrary, being mentally tired is often a good reason to jump right in. Exercise is often the best medicine for relieving stress, frustration and all of the other negative feelings that complicate our lives. After a good workout we might feel physically tired, but it is a good tired. It is amazing how much better we can feel after a workout than before we started. Don’t use being mentally tired as an excuse for not doing physical exercise.
Make time for exercise, make it a priority: For most of us, modern life places a great many demands on our time. Work, relationships, housework, yard work, community service, parenting, etc. may all vie for our time and it is somewhat understandable that something like exercising might not be the best competitor for whatever free time is left available. Let’s face it, it is a lot easier to use what spare time we might have for couch potato activities such as mindless watching TV or surfacing the internet.
To be able to successfully stick with an exercise program, you have to make it a priority. Exercising can make everything else in your life better, and more importantly your life and/or health may depend on it. Once you have achieved a certain level of fitness through exercising you will have more energy for everything else in your life. You will look better, you will feel better, and perhaps most importantly, you will very likely feel better about yourself.
If you haven’t heard about the health benefits of exercise and how it can even prolong you life and/or add to your quality of life then you just haven’t been paying attention. Wise human beings place priority on those aspects of their lives which are most important to them and they make time for those activities. It is hard to argue that exercising and being fit should not be one of your top priorities. After all, if you are not healthy, you won’t be able to properly deal with everything else in your life.
Team up with an exercise buddy if you can. Folks with wills of iron can perhaps easily ignore all to the possible excuses that day after day might stand between them and the exercise they need. However, most of rest of us need all the help we can get. An exercise partner can be very valuable in this regard. This is not something that can always be arranged, but it is a good situation when a family member, a friend or an acquaintance decides, or can be talked into starting an exercise program at the same time you do. It is an ideal situation if that person also likes the same type(s) of exercise and displays the same level of commitment. Not only does the companionship of an exercise buddy make exercise more appealing and enjoyable, but it can make a difference of whether you will stick with your program over the long term or not.
I have seen many instances where both exercise partners would have individually given into excuses and stayed home on a given day, but they both showed up ready to exercise because neither of them wanted to let the other down. Exercise is usually more fun when done with a companion and the mutual encouragement is invaluable. The bottom line is that when you exercise regularly with someone else, you are less likely to give in to excuses and ultimately fail to maintain your exercise program over time.
Set realistic, incremental goals for improvement: When making a decision to start an exercise program most people have some sort of goal in mind, and working towards a goal can be a very positive thing. Of course a person who has trouble walking a few hundred feet sets an unrealistic goal of running a marathon in a couple months, he or she is most likely setting him/herself up for failure. A goal of losing 80 pounds during the next year is probably a goal set too far in the future to provide positive short term feedback.
Now there is absolutely nothing wrong which having long term goals, but they should be accompanied by short term, attainable goals such as losing 2 pounds a week for the first month. Such goals need to be accompanied by realistic plans for achieving them. When properly set short term goals are realized, they provide positive feedback and strengthen our resolve to stick with our exercise program.
Let’s take an example: Perhaps your long term goal is to get in better physical shape by walking around your neighborhood for an hour, three times a week. It would probably be best to use the first week or so to gain an understanding of where you are fitness wise. Let’s say you find that the first week that you are pretty well pooped after walking a mile in 15 minutes. The second week you might want to set of goal of walking for 5 minutes more at the same pace and thus also increase the distance some. Then you could add a bit more time and distance at achievable intervals week after week until you are walking the entire hour. Then you might want to pick up the pace and cover more distance in that hour. Each time you achieve a short term goal it provides feedback and the knowledge that you are on your way to achieving your long term goal and that will help to keep you on track.
Goal oriented people often get additional feedback by keeping records of their workouts – time and distance of walk or run, pounds and repetitions during weight training, etc. I find there is satisfaction in not only achieving goals, but keeping records of how well I am progressing day to day, week to week. (And yes, there are apps for that.) The main thing to remember is that setting realistic, short term goals will help you stay with your exercise program over the long term and make the achievement of your long term goals more likely. .
Make exercise a part of you life: If you are relatively new to exercising, this is not something that is achieved overnight. Habits, both good habits and bad habits, are acquired over relatively long periods of time. However, once exercise becomes as much a part of your life as everything else you do on a regular basis you will know that you have acquired a good habit that can forever be part of a longer, healthier life.
Let technology help you set and meet your goals (added this year): There are a number of high tech wearable fitness tracking devices that you buy which can help you maintain your exercise and fitness program. The device I personally wear is made by Fitbit; it is the Fitbit Charge 2. Other manufactures of such wearable fitness tracking devices include Garmin, Samsung, TomTom, Withings, and many others. Many of these devices not only monitor and track your exercise activity, providing information such as your heart rate while exercising. they also track other activities which contribute to your fitness and overall health. For instance my Fitbit Charge 2, tracks my daily aerobic exercise time, my less strenuous fat burning exercise time, the number of steps I take and the number ofstairs I climb daily, the length and quality of my sleep, the calories I burn daily etc. and it suggests and allows me to set daily goals for each of these items.
Since my most of my job and daily activity involves sitting behind a desk, new research indicating that lack of any physical activity for significant periods of time is detrimental to our health is a concern to me. That’s why I really like that my Fitbit tracks the number of steps I take every hour and determines whether or not I have taken the 250 steps per hour which is recommended the National Institute of Health to ensure that we get up and move around often enough.
I can not only display on my Fitbit’s screen my progress to my daily goals for many of these fitness activities, the device also syncs with my iPad and phone to display the history of these activities over time. Since you can use these wearable devices to track your progress towards establishing a better lifestyle, these high tech gadgets can help provide the additional incentive that many of us need.
Okay, now get out there and get started. I would say good luck, but you don’t need luck. What you really need is an enduring commitment, and that you have to find that within yourself. If you can use these suggestions to stick with your exercise program for the first month, I suggest you come back and reread this article. With your new gained experience I think it will be even more meaningful for you. I sincerely hope you succeed, but if you don’t it will be less crowded wherever folks like me exercise.