For many years, I rarely exercised.
Working out was something I was forced to do in gym class. I viewed it as uncomfortable and time-consuming, low on my priority list.
It’s not like I was completely sedentary, but I sure as heck didn’t go out of my way to hit the gym. When I arrived at college, the situation worsened still.
Walking to class comprised the majority of my physical activity. I pigged out at the all-you-can-eat dining hall buffets and spent a lot of time on the couch, watching TV or gaming.
Eventually, a certain friend convinced me to start working out with her a couple times a week, and I can’t say how glad I am that she did. This marked the turning point in my relationship with exercise.
At first, exercising of my own volition felt foreign and awkward. After a while, though, it became a habit that would re-shape my opinions about health, a lifestyle that would motivate me to make other changes as well.
I ended up losing about 30 pounds of fat and gaining 20 pounds of muscle in the year or so after beginning to work out with my friend. Since then, I’ve maintained (though there have certainly been peaks and valleys) my condition and have remained happy with where I am.
I’m writing this post because so many people admit that they’d love to exercise or lose weight or whatever, but they can’t form the habit. Personally, I’ll tell you right now that if you’re in it just to look more physically attractive, you probably won’t get very far.
However, there is good reason why you should want to make exercise a part of your life. For one, you’ll be a healthier person whose body will serve you for many decades, rather than plague you. This should be reason enough, but a few other benefits are:
1) Boosted confidence/better self-image
2) More energy and motivation
3) Elevated moods
4) Generally more positive outlook
5) Creativity, creativity, creativity
6) Decreased anxieties and worries
7) Combats depression
These are some of my favorite effects of exercise, yet they are only several of the many, many benefits. I don’t want to spend too much time on what you’ll gain from exercising, though. I want to explain how you can truly come to love exercise and incorporate it into your life.
Many lists of exercise tips focus on specifics — what lifts to do, what to eat, how many reps, etc. These lists might be helpful for someone who is training seriously, but I believe that they just overwhelm the majority of folks.
In my mind, what most people need to read isn’t a list of specifics, but a list of more general tips that can act as a catalyst to shift their mental paradigm — to re-think the way they view exercise, to make the habit-forming process easier.
The New Paradigm: An Uplifting Lifestyle, Not an Optional Chore
Okay, okay, you may have read that heading and thought — all of this build-up just to tell me that exercise should be a lifestyle? I’ve heard that a million times.
Yes, I understand that people have been preaching an ‘active lifestyle’ for decades, but hear me out. Have you really stopped to reflect upon the gravity of that statement and the shift in paradigm that it entails?
Most people who fail to incorporate exercise into their life never make this pivotal leap. They continue to view exercise as this optional, strenuous, annoying thing to get out of the way.
I’ll tell you this — if you view exercise as optional, pretty soon it will be absent. If you view it as annoying and undesirable, you will never find time for it.
This is the basic and often overlooked truth of exercise. The healthy, fit people who exercise regularly have two things in common:
1) They know they will keep exercising. Quitting is not an option.
2) They look forward to working out. They enjoy it.
You might wonder — how could people look forward to exercising? I could never do that.
Honestly, yes you can. Believe it, and prepare to surprise yourself.
People too often forget that from evolutionary standpoint, we’re still living in the same bodies as primitive humans — people who had to be active all the time to stay alive. This means that our bodies and minds simply do not function optimally without physical activity.
The people who look forward to exercise have simply experienced firsthand the true benefits of an exercise habit — mental, physical, and spiritual — and realized that embracing an active lifestyle was essential. They’ve realized that exercise makes them feel complete, capable, energetic, and inspired.
Please understand that if you rarely exercise, you probably won’t feel this way after the first few workouts. This feeling comes after you’ve pushed past the initial resistance and made exercise a part of your routine for at least a few weeks.
It makes sense, then, to focus first on forming the habit, not on what benefits you’re receiving. To do this, you must decide firmly to stick with it.
Internalize the idea that quitting is not an option. This doesn’t have to be intimidating. Not quitting can be as simple as going for a walk every couple days, if that’s what it takes to get started. Not quitting just means that exercise is viewed as something necessary, like eating or showering or brushing your teeth. For more on the process of forming a habit, read ‘The Simple, Powerful Guide to Forming Any Habit’.
After you’ve persisted in your new habit for a few weeks, you’ll begin to understand why people love exercise. You’ll realize that you feel vital, motivated, and optimistic. You will begin to enjoy your workouts and look forward to them.
Truthfully, that’s all it takes to love exercise. There are no shortcuts or secret tricks to make it effortless. Forming the exercise habit will require some sweat and determination.
For a bit more direction, I came up with this list of 16 uncommon tips. These suggestions will make it easier to think differently about exercise, form the habit, and eventually love the process.
16 Uncommon Tips
1. Love the process, love the pain.
Loving exercise isn’t just about loving the results. This is where many people get hung up. They hate the actual process. They find it boring and painful. Do not think in this way. View the process as a chance to slow down, an escape from the usual endless to-do list.
Exercise is a chance to be present, to be patient, to feel your body’s power and to be thankful for it. When you begin to push yourself, there will be pain and discomfort. Don’t shy away from this. You don’t have to be a sadist to derive gratification from pain. Embrace it and feel it fully. Pain means effort and growth. Show the pain that you’re stronger than it. I can’t stress enough the importance of this.
2. Set a trigger.
A trigger is simply something that happens right before you perform a habit. For example, showering might be a trigger for brushing your teeth. Having a trigger for exercise, especially when you’re first starting, can be incredibly helpful. When I was in college, my trigger for working out would be the moment my last class ended. I would head straight to the gym. Find a trigger.
3. Be spontaneous. Diversify constantly.
A lot of people become bored when they try to only run or only swim or do only a certain set of lifts. It’s better for your body (and more fun) to do a whole mixture of things. Jog one day. Rock climb one day. Do yoga the next. Play soccer the next. Dance wildly for 30 minutes the day after that. You get the idea. Diversify your environment too. Go to the gym, the park, the woods. Take a run with no set route.
4. Doing anything always beats doing nothing.
People often don’t feel up to working out for an hour one day, so they don’t do anything at all. Do something. Jog for five minutes. Do twenty push-ups. Something.
5. Start so small — microscopic.
Many folks try to start exercising and become overly ambitious. They run three miles the first day, but its so hard and they’re so sore afterwards that they don’t want to do it ever again. Instead of doing this, start so small that it’s easy. Run a quarter mile three or four days per week. Do a few sit-ups each day. Gradually increase in the coming weeks.
6. Do it for someone else.
If you need an extra pinch of motivation, think of all of the people who want to see you live a long, healthy life — your parents, children, friends, siblings, grandparents.
Furthermore, you can literally think, “This one’s for __________” while you’re lifting to get that extra oomph or while running to get that extra push at the end. I’ve found this to be extremely motivating.
7. Join a class, club, or organization.
There are countless options for joining a group that encourages exercise. Take a cycling class. Join a martial arts dojo. Sign up at a gym. Find out if your city has a local group of runners. Meeting other people who are also trying to exercise is a great way to enjoy yourself and stay inspired. Even if you don’t join something, try to befriend other fit people.
8. Really notice and celebrate small victories.
Went for a 15-minute walk? Pat yourself on the back. Worked out every day this week? Take pride in that. Lost 2 pounds? Give yourself a hug. Positive change comes in increments. It makes it easier to keep going if you appreciate every small step.
9. Gradually cut down on consuming nasty foods.
You don’t have to do this at first. Starting to exercise is hard enough without also changing your eating habits. However, over time, you’ll find that diet and exercise really do go hand-in-hand. If you’re eating deep fried, fatty, artificial foods all the time, you feel clouded, bogged down, and low on energy. Because of this, you don’t exercise as much. On the other hand, a healthier diet makes your exercise more effective and gives you the energy you need.
10. Respect yourself.
When you want to give up, respect yourself. When the couch sounds better than the elliptical, respect yourself. Love who you are enough to not slip into a life of obesity and lethargy.
11. Listen to that fiery music, that burning passion music.
The music that makes you want to conquer the world. Maybe it’s the Rocky soundtrack, a Beethoven concerto, or an Eminem album. Whatever it is, play it in your headphones and get in the zone. One study found that exercisers who listen to music can improve their performance by as much as 15%.
12. Get addicted to the high.
In rare cases, exercise addictions can be harmful. However, it’s pretty hard to overdo it. The natural high that exercise provides is seriously invigorating and uplifting. Let yourself feel it and fall in love it. Crave it. It will get you to the gym.
13. Find a natural setting.
Exercising in nature might be your thing. Personally, I prefer it. The air is fresher. The scenery is vibrant and interesting. The space is open and inviting. It just feels so raw and primal to run through the woods. Give it a shot.
14. Just put the clothes on.
Throw on the shorts. Lace up the shoes. This is one of the simplest ways to push your mind into a place of expectation for a workout. If you can just do this, it will seem silly not to at least step outside and go for a short jog.
15. Don’t set goals.
This might seem counterintuitive, but I’ve written before about how goals can actually inhibit us. We focus on “losing 30 pounds” or “running a marathon” then become discouraged when we realize how far away our goal actually is. And what happens we we reach a goal? It’s simply onto the next one in a never-ending succession of goals.
What we should do instead is what I said before — love the process. If you learn to love the process and stop keeping score, you’ll exceed all of your expectations and gain more satisfaction than any amount of goal-achieving. If you insist on setting goals, base them on effort, not results. Make it your goal to give it your all for the next week at the gym and with your eating habits. That’s the type of goal that will serve you.
The Most Important Habit
I would argue that exercise is the most important habit, the one that allows all of the others to fall into place. Exercise allows you to see and feel the benefits of striving to better yourself.
After I had exercised for a few months, I became excited about the possibility of changing other aspects of my life as well. I started to understand that I could design my lifestyle in a way that would lead to the most fulfillment and enjoyment.
Therefore, I urge you — take this article to heart. Let it be a catalyst. Just start. If you don’t think you have the time, make time. You’ll never regret investing in your health.
Without our health, what else is there? Nothing. We need to remember this, and we can do it. You can.
“If we are creating ourselves all the time, then it is never too late to begin creating the bodies we want instead of the ones we mistakenly assume we are stuck with.”
― Deepak Chopra
Important Note: In this post, I operated under the assumption that everyone can enjoy exercise (or at least feel good afterwards) if they make a prolonged, regular effort to work out. However, this premise was challenged on Reddit by a user who cited this Reddit conversation as evidence that some people simply cannot derive immediate pleasure from exercise. While a Reddit conversation is certainly not a published study, I felt these firsthand accounts were worth noting. It seems that, for some people, an immediate incentive to exercise may not exist. Thus, for such people, exercise motivation would derive purely from an understanding of the largely unfelt and/or long-term health benefits. I, for one, can see where this would make it vastly more difficult to form an exercise habit.
Photo by davidd