By Alina Gonzalez, Byrdie (TNS)
Perhaps my story is not all that uncommon, but it still feels pretty unbelievable (or terrifyingly unhealthy) to admit that I didn’t exercise for ten straight years. I lived my life, woke up, ate food, went to work, and carried on without so much as breaking a sweat. No cardio, no conditioning, no heart-pumping movement or muscle-toning repetitions. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch.
While others around me went to the gym post-work, and walked around on weekends in their envy-inducing active wear, I existed as though exercise was not a thing. Not for lack of wanting it to be, and not for lack of trying, at least at first. It just never stuck (more on that later). I had other things to do with my time. I wasn’t “bout that life,” I told myself. I guess you could say I was in denial.
This extended lack of exercises was all the more surprising since I had been a very regular exerciser in high school. I went to the gym for at least an hour, five days a week, and I was in a dance ensemble, which meant ballet and tap classes in addition to regular practice. Exercise was a consistent part of my life. And then I went to college.
The decline began with the complete free-for-all that is college: being without any adult supervision for the first time and without the same daily schedule. I proceeded to make it through all four years of school — plus an additional post-graduation six — without ever exercising regularly.
Which brings us to present day. Just over ten years after I stopped exercising, I got myself back on a regular workout regimen — something I thought might evade me forever, or until I had a kid one day and was forced to get into post-baby shape, or something like that.
Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.
The thing with exercise is that it’s fraught with a whole lot of expectations and desires — and self-pressure (let alone the societal pressure). Here’s how literally every single previous attempt at working out over the last ten years went: I’d get motivated and excited, and start a new class, or go for a run. I’d make it through three, maybe four workout sessions feeling pretty good, mentally planning how much butt I was going to kick as an exerciser, imagining all the benefits I was going to reap. I’d get grand ambitions about what I would accomplish and how committed I’d be, like waking up at 6 a.m. and trail-running was happening in my future.
And then life would get in the way: a trip, unexpectedly getting sick, a busy week at work. And when the dust settled, I already felt like I’d failed. It was discouraging, and the idea of starting back up all over again seemed overwhelming and pointless. As soon as I had a small setback, it was as though any effort I had made didn’t matter.
The biggest thing that helped me get back into working out consistently — and not giving up after a month — was letting go. If you are doing great at exercising for three weeks, and then go to Vegas, and somehow find that seven days have passed since your last workout, don’t stress over it, or let it demotivate you, or discourage you — don’t even think about it. Just look forward. I was only able to get into a routine again when I stopped letting setbacks depress and derail me.
Don’t think about what you haven’t done, or how much work it’s going to take to get you to where you want to be. Don’t think about how out of shape you are, or how terrible it is that it’s been so long since you last exercised. Overthinking is momentum’s enemy. Let the past stay in the past, and just do something.
In addition to overthinking things, the other mistake I would make is trying too hard when first starting out. It was as though as soon as I started exercising, I was trying to atone for the last decade of inactivity. So I’d do a super-intense spinning class, be sore for 12 days, and then give up. It’s no use to be fast and furious if it stops you from being consistent.
The other thing I realized is that I was fooling myself. I didn’t work out for ten years — anything I do is better than nothing. Who cares if it’s ten minutes — it used to be zero minutes! The pressure was coming from myself, to start back up with intensity, even though it sabotaged the long-term regularity.
Letting go of that pressure freed me up to be consistent without the negative, discouraging thoughts. I stopped feeling like I should be doing things I knew my body wasn’t ready for yet. So what if you’re only capable of a leisurely walk? It will keep you active and in a better headspace than losing momentum because you did Barry’s Boot Camp and were so sore you couldn’t work out for the next two weeks. Don’t try too hard, only to overdo it.
I started to vaguely focus on working out three times per week. Like the saying about finding true love when you stop looking, I found true regularity when I stopped trying so hard to hit goals or numbers, and just kept on keeping on.
I had an absolute turning point when it came to exercising after I made a 7 a.m. Hot Pilates date with a girl I barely knew who works in my industry, after we struck up a conversation about a mutual love of Pilates. The morning of the class, at 6:40 a.m. when my alarm went off, I thought to myself that if I had made this date with literally anyone else (including my own self), I would have cancelled. A hundred times over. There is not one thing that could have gotten me out of bed that morning, except being locked into a workout date with someone I couldn’t cancel on.
The beauty of semi-strangers is that, like when you’re first dating someone new, you’re on your best behavior. I’d feel bad, but wouldn’t hesitate to cancel on a best friend, family member, etc., if I was too tired to work out. They’d understand.
If you’ve locked yourself in with someone you don’t know that well — a new coworker, a friend of your boyfriend’s friend — it’s too awkward to bail. You can’t.
I jokingly regretted having arranged the workout date I couldn’t escape, but as the saying goes, you never regret working out. That morning at 8 a.m., when the class was over and I got fresh juice before heading to work, I felt like a million bucks. I knew I had accidentally discovered a way of forcing myself to exercise at times I never otherwise would have.
Relatedly, sign up for classes that require you to reserve a space in order to attend. Most places have a cut-off window to cancel and you’ll get charged regardless. Unless you’re fine with wasting money, you’ll feel obligated to plan your day around making the class — i.e. getting your work done, or taking a break to attend the class and finishing up afterwards.
From my own experience, working out consistently is easier to do when you’re in it with other people, especially if they share a similar passion. It’s the very nature of team sports: a shared, communal experience that’s empowering and motivating. Personally, I think “showing up” is easier when you have people to workout with, to sweat and suffer with, all while music plays overhead. Compare that to “showing up” when you alone are holding yourself accountable to go for that run. It’s a bit more difficult, isolating and, I think, less fun.
When I discovered boxing, I was genuinely more excited to work out than I had been the last ten years, mostly because of the social aspect. And for those times when I don’t feel like working out, I think about the people in my boxing classes, about doing jumping jack and drills with them, and I suddenly look forward to attending — that’s an experience I never had when the only thing waiting for me to “show up” at the gym was an elliptical machine.
And you know what? It’s the most consistent, regular exercise I’ve done since I was 18 years old.
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