Five Useful Principles to Help You Exercise Regularly
Life is busy and complicated. There will be many days that you will not feel like being active. Missing one workout can easily turn into missing two or three. Before you know it a whole week can pass before you go back. Now the anxiety worsens because it feels like you have to start all over again, and it gets much easier to rationalize missing additional days—you've already missed a week, a few more isn't going to hurt, right?
Except that eventually you've missed a month and going back to the gym is the last thing on your mind now. All the initial enthusiasm that you had when you first laid out a plan to become more active is quickly forgotten. This is the common fate of most New Year's resolutions.
You need to do everything you can now to avoid getting into the situation described above. What's at stake is far greater than you might imagine. The quality of your experiences in this world depends on your mind and body operating smoothly, and exercise is an essential part of that. So how do you ensure that being active stays the priority it needs to be?
1. Focus on consistency above all.
Just like you stay consistent with brushing your teeth every morning (hopefully), exercise should be a non-negotiable part of your day. The benefits of regular physical activity are so extensive and wide-ranging that to leave it up to whether you "feel" like it or not would be a huge mistake.
It can become too easy to get lost in the details when trying to figure out a course of action. Many people end up getting overwhelmed and then quit before they actually begin. Therefore, when starting off, you are best served by sticking to a tried and true routine—this will give you a plan of action that you can follow every day. That doesn’t mean you will need to plan out an hour of activity every day (as rest days can be important), but knowing what you have to do tomorrow is a critical part of maintaining a routine. You want to avoid letting your feelings at the moment dictate whether you decide to do something productive or not.
There will be times when you will have to miss a day, but beyond that, make a commitment to never miss more than two days in a row without some type of physical activity. If you are able to follow that simple rule, you will be astonished at how much you will change over the course of a year. People have a tendency to overestimate what they can accomplish in the gym in a month but underestimate what they can do in a year. Thus, they get disappointed in the short term, while not anticipating the long-term transformation that can happen if they just stick with it. And those changes can be drastic.
If you are trying to lose weight first, start with your diet, as that will be the most important change you can make in order to see results. If you are trying to gain muscle, try one of these beginner programs.
Starting out can be overwhelming because you might think that to lose an appreciable amount of weight or build a noticeable amount of muscle, it will take a while (and it probably will). That is not a reason to never begin, though, as the mental benefits can be felt right afterwards and only get better the more you keep at it. It is important to approach your routine on a day by day basis when you begin as to not overwhelm yourself. Remember what you have to do for today and make sure you do it, and at night make sure you have plan of what you need to do tomorrow. That is all you have to do.
Understand that this is a process, and your goal should be to implement a system by establishing habits. Trust the process and commit to the system. That is how people end up making sustainable lifestyle changes. There are no shortcuts. The best way to do things is to lay a strong foundation and slowly build upon it without missing a beat. In the end, it comes down to emphasizing consistency day after day, and improvement week after week. If you do this, you will get results month after month, and after a year you will be surprised at how far you have come.
2. Find an enjoyable activity!
Can you remember a physical activity that you enjoyed doing as a kid but that is no longer a part of your life? If you are like most people and you can, then I am almost certain reintroducing it into your life will have you enjoying it again. Many people have great memories of swimming or biking, being carefree as only a kid could be, and seem to think that as an adult, that those activities wouldn't bring the same joy. You would be sadly mistaken. In fact, those activities would likely give you even more pleasure now, and the cognitive benefits would be a lot more apparent.
And just because dodgeball was your activity of choice back then doesn't mean that you can't play today. It's never been easier to find a variety of different activities to participate in by connecting with people online, and you would be surprised how many others in your age group are doing the same.
Anything from kickball to frisbee to a hundred other new activities that probably didn't even exist when you were a kid are being enjoyed right now by your peers. There have never been more resources at your disposal to find people to bond and be active with.
It’s easy to get anxious when starting new things, but people rarely regret doing them after the fact. If you can remember that, you might not worry as much when trying to find something new to enjoy. Go to Meetup.com, join groups that are doing something interesting, and start attending.
The only way you will find out is by trying out new things. You don’t just have to stick to boring gym routines. But if you start getting immersed in a fun activity, you will find yourself sticking to your gym routines because it will complement and improve whatever activity you choose.
3. Embrace discomfort.
This might seem to contradict the previous principle, but you will actually find it complements it. The fact is, in order to find something that is enjoyable, you will have to go through periods of uncertainty and unease—also known as getting out of your comfort zone! It is time to start looking at discomfort as a key factor that leads to growth. It is an essential part of mental and physical development.
Just as our muscles adapt to stress and get bigger and stronger, our minds adapt to stress and get more resilient. Sometimes you will not want to do things, even though you know for a fact that they will make you feel better after you do them. You have to identify these stumbling blocks and realize “I don’t feel like it,” is not the same as "I can't do it." More than likely, you can certainly do it, and you will feel great after. The periods of most growth usually involve some type of struggle, and realizing this and internalizing that sentiment will make it easier to get through that struggle.
Eventually, because of the massive improvements you start seeing in yourself, exercising regularly will stop being a struggle—it will become just another daily habit that is essential to function properly. It will be hard for you to start imagining a time when you didn’t exercise. Read more on how embracing discomfort during exercise can make you more prepared to tackle real life.
4. Track your progress!
You see yourself every day so the incremental changes that happen to your own body can be hard to notice. For example, if you go a year without seeing someone, you are much more likely to notice any differences than if you saw them every day.
Tracking your progress (before and after pictures, logging your workouts) is a great way to see exactly how far you have come since you started your journey. It will not only motivate you, but it will also keep you disciplined because you will not want to regress in your improvement (and that is much easier to notice when you are keeping track of it all).
That brings us to an important principle in fitness: improvement and progressive overload. When you start off at the gym you might barely be able to lift the bar (45lbs) during a bench press. Don’t worry about this! Everyone at that gym was a beginner at one point. But with consistency and progressive overload, you will improve. At the six month mark, you might find yourself with a 45 lb plate on each side of the bar (or maybe even more). The feeling you get when you see that tangible progress (if you are logging your workouts) will make it much easier to continue improving.
“Tracking what’s happening is half the battle in pretty much everything that involves changing behavior,” said Haitham M. Ahmed, another preventive cardiologist at Hopkins. He advises his patients to use pedometers on wristwatches or smartphones, calling wearable activity tracking “a big breakthrough.” (source)
There are many websites and apps that make it easier than ever to track your progress and there is no reason why you shouldn't be doing so!
5. Don't be Reluctant to make an Investment.
That investment in a gym membership, or a bike, or yoga lessons will pay off tenfold in the long run. The improvements in mental and physical health, including a longer, more agile life, are so immense that devoting reasonable time and financial resources to it is sensible if it's making it easier for you to engage in physical activity.
Especially when starting off, getting a personal trainer to show you the ropes at the gym for the first couple weeks will get you much more comfortable with attending regularly (especially because they will be able to answer most of your questions). It might also ease the anxiety you might feel about being new at a gym and how to use all those fancy machines.
Also, consider signing up for fitness classes. It is the easiest way to stick to a schedule and will keep you motivated throughout your workout. Eventually, you will not need the motivation to go exercise, it will come naturally the more you keep at it. But here is the key: You first have to begin, and whatever makes the barrier of entry easier for you to start will be worth it in the long run.