Take a gentle approach to keeping up exercise over the long term
Every time I’ve tried to start getting regular exercise and then stopped again, I’ve tried following all the rules: get yourself a fitness buddy to keep it sociable, tell your friends and family your plans to keep yourself accountable, pin inspiring photos on the fridge door.
And of course the big one - push yourself to get out of your comfort zone. All the gurus tell me I won’t make progress if I don’t push myself. Simple rules for fitness beginners they were not.
The rules made me feel bad
Respecting these rules made no difference to me. I failed until I decided that the world was sending me a message; getting fitter just wasn’t for the likes of me. Each time I tried and failed, my suspicions that I didn’t have the mental strength to follow rules was confirmed.
I was a weak person, no staying power, no backbone.
Break the rules to stick to the "rules"
In the end, I threw the old rules out of the window and replaced them with my 5 principles for fitness beginners which today guide my whole approach to exercise and health and shape my exercise schedule.
These principles are the ones I remind myself of when I’m struggling to get our, or when I don’t think that I’m making progress - or when I’m tempted to bite off more than I can chew.
The next time you feel you ought to be following the rules, try these principles instead.
Respect the laws of nature
The laws of nature win out over human nature. Every. Single. Time.
We all know this. Yet somehow - when we’re feeling stubborn or we hear some particularly condescending piece of “advice” (Just get off the bus a stop early and take the lift - easy!) - it’s no surprise if the result is an overwhelming urge to sit in front of the telly with a family-sized bag of crisps.
And how tempting is it not to account for those 10-12 little micro-snacks you’ve nibbled throughout the day when you’re filling out your MyFitnessPal diary?
Has half an hour of hoovering really “earned“ me a Mars bar with my afternoon coffee?
If you’re a weight loss fan (and I’m not) these behaviour patterns aren’t going to help you out, so they’re a good example of Mother Nature winning out over human nature.
The really boring bit
Healthy eating really is about lifestyle change and small changes do add up, whether we like hearing it or not.
To be healthier, you do need to move around. You do need to keep your muscles active. You do need to hydrate. You do need to restrict alcohol intake. Too much sugar and refined carbohydrate really is bad for you. Getting enough sleep really is a thing.
The lizard brain
Somehow our lizard brains want to fight back and get around these truths. In the middle of a busy, stressful day, when we’re firefighting a pile of consequences and responsibilities, how easy is it to let it win?
Lizard brain has an ally in the uncertain state of nutritional science - or at least in the way it’s reported to us in the media. Less fat or more fat in your diet? Is absolutely no alcohol better than a very small amount of alcohol? When is sugar bad for us? Do we use all calories equally effectively? There’s a new study in the news every day. Enough for our lizard brain to persuade us that no one knows what they’re talking about, so hey, why bother?
But while we’re busy throwing the baby out with the bathwater and giving lizard brain air time, the laws of nature are still there. Unchanged.
The really, really boring bit
Taking good care of yourself is a never-ending task and there’s no guarantee that you’ll live a long, active, pain-free life if you keep doing it. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes a certain amount of faith.
As tempting as it is to just forget about those sugary snacks when I’m trying to work out how to get healthier I’ve still eaten them. I might push them under the carpet but my metabolism won’t.
You can’t dupe Mother Nature
Practice "slow fitness"
Practicing something slowly comes down to doing it mindfully and patiently. Always go at your own pace. This doesn’t just mean don’t try to walk too fast or run too far too quickly. It also means taking the time and effort to notice the effect of changes to your routine, focussing on the purpose of a particular activity and building up your routine bit by bit.
Take your time
Take the time to work out what matters for your goals. For example, if you want to strengthen the muscles of your core, take the time to learn to feel where those muscles are. How does it feel when you tense them? Relax them? You can afford to spend a few weeks just learning to breathe correctly, then add in a single exercise for a while until you have the form right for that one exercise. If you want to learn to run without getting injuries, focus on how your legs feel as you run. When you feel impatient to move on, it’s amazing how much focussing in on the detail can stop you from burning yourself out.
It’s OK to do things your comfortable with - and OK to take your time to get comfortable with changes. We shouldn’t all be trying to get out of our comfort zones in all areas of our lives at the same time. Recent thinking suggests we have a limited store of willpower. It’s easy for our willpower stores to have been used up before you get around to looking after your fitness. If we can get familiar with the things we do to get fitter, that’s when can start looking on it as positive and relaxing.
... but not too comfortable
Sometimes it’s enough to just focus on the familiarity of routine itself. If you find it difficult to get out of the house at all but you want to start cycling, it’s OK if you aim to just get outside onto the bike and turn the pedals a few times. If it’s progress for you, then it doesn’t matter if it’s not for others. You can build up the distance later. There’s no rush.
We still need to change things around and be flexible to stop ourselves from getting bored or getting stuck in a different rut. As for getting too comfortable - by setting long term goals we can still work towards something that takes us out of our comfort zone.
Just not on a daily - or even weekly - basis. That’s just exhausting.
Break getting a bit fitter down into small chunks
This is one tactic that gets bandied about in self-help world that I do agree with. It’s definitely worth setting a long (or medium) term goal and then breaking it down into chunks that are manageable for you.
This is really the main reason my initial jog for 30 minutes programme worked. It set a target for me to aim at which stretched me but which was manageable and then broke it down to chunks that were small enough for me to deal with.
Smaller chunks look that much more achievable and they distract you from the size of the job, meaning that you it’s easier to motivate yourself.
The trick is to break your goal down into chunks that are small enough for you. Not for someone else - you. If I were to decide to climb Snowdon I wouldn’t prepare for it in the same way as someone who’s already climbed Everest.
I find this quite hard. If I’ve got it in my head to follow a particular plan, I find it very difficult to adapt if something unexpected gets in the way. It’s something I’ve actively had to teach myself. In the past, if I decided to go cycling for an hour and then a friend invited me round for coffee, I would actually be secretly annoyed with the friend for messing with my plan!
Part of the reason for this in my case was fear; if I put off a session now, would I end up never cycling again? I didn’t trust myself to be flexible.
Over time, I’ve learned to adapt. So I can’t go for a 2 hour walk this evening as planned? I can manage half an hour this afternoon instead. This way I might not have used up as much energy as planned but I have kept my routine up.
So if you find your plan A isn’t on today for whatever reason, it’s good to have developed the skills to rustle up a plan B. Just being able to do this will bring you some confidence and it means that you won’t need to worry about losing your way.
Focus on building resilience
Life doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes we end up dealing with things that weren’t on the plan, other times we just don’t have as much energy as we’d like. If we’re learning new skills, we sometimes need to take a couple of steps backwards to go forwards. Someone might make fun of our attempts to get fitter or we’re discouraged because things aren’t going our way.
If we still manage to do something to help ourselves during these times, then we are making progress. When it comes to getting fitter, the bad times really are opportunities not threats. They’re an inevitable part of getting fitter, so learning to get through them is critical.
That doesn’t make it easy. But if you do get up off the sofa when things aren’t going well it’s money in the bank towards getting more resilience.
And now, if you’ve read this far, you’re ready for the bonus principle: be kind to yourself.
If you’re doing something – anything at all – you’re making progress. So try to appreciate it. If you’re finding that hard, get in touch and I’ll be kind to you.