Exercise and I have had…let’s say…an “on-again, off-again” relationship. Basically all of my adult life, I’ve drifted in and out of various exercise routines without ever committing to anything for more than a few months at a time. (Okay, a few months is probably a stretch.)
On many occasions, I would start off armed with lots of plans and high expectations, only to fizzle within weeks. In college, I went out and bought two five-pound weights…that sat at the bottom of my closet for the rest of the year. At 22, I halfheartedly huffed and puffed my way up and down the (insanely steep) hills of my Birmingham neighborhood before work…for about two weeks. Twice, I decided that I was going to become A Runner…and then, a week later, developed achilles tendonitis from pushing myself too hard and was secretly thrilled that I had a legitimate reason to quit.
In short, nothing ever quite stuck.
Of course, I fell back on all kinds of excuses. “I don’t have enough money to join a gym.” “I’m too busy to spend an hour working out every day.” “I’m active enough as it is.” “I can’t handle running unless I ate just the right snack 1-2 hours before and it’s exactly 72 degrees outside and I have the right music and enough time to shower afterward and….”
The truth is, whenever I missed a goal, I would get discouraged and disappointed—and instead of adjusting my expectations or trying something new, I would give up in defeat and settle into the idea that I am not A Person Who Exercises.
Until this year.
It started with two things, that coincidentally happened at about the same time:
- My doctor casually mentioned at my annual checkup that I was getting toward the top end of the healthy weight range for my height. (Hello, wake-up call!)
- A friend from work (who used to work in physical therapy) offered to show me and another good friend (also a weightlifting novice) around the gym and teach us the basics of weight training.
Combined, those two things were enough to get me into the gym a few days a week. I figured it would be good to learn a little about weight training, but I kind of just fell into it—no real plans or expectations. And then a weird thing happened. Slowly but surely, I started building confidence. If my friends weren’t going to the gym that day, I went anyway. When I got a little bored with my usual routine, I started looking up new exercises. I started jogging in the mornings instead of walking. I picked up slightly heavier weights. I actually ran an entire 5K. I lost 20 pounds. Most miraculously: I kept going.
Realistically, over the past several months, lots of little things helped me find a good routine and stick with it:
- A FitBit (yay gamification!)
- A dog with boundless energy who insists on being walked every morning at 6:30 a.m., even when it’s cold and/or rainy
- The MyFitnessPal app & two months of calorie-tracking (spoiler alert: everything has more calories than you think)
- Some insanely comfortable leggings
But mostly? When I look back, I realize that there was one major change: I stopped putting unnecessary pressure on myself. I stopped developing elaborate workout plans. I stopped setting goals. Ok actually, there was one goal—get out there and do something. Literally that was it, though. Often that meant stopping to walk for a few minutes when I felt out of breath on a run, instead of pushing myself past the point of utter exhaustion. Sometimes that meant a few minutes of walking WAS my entire “run.” But whatever it meant each day, I counted it as a win as long as I was trying. And then I got up the next day and tried again.
When I first started this blog, the idea for this post crossed my mind—but I hesitated in writing it because I thought, “I’m no expert at any of this, and I haven’t even been exercising regularly for that long…if I write about it then I’ll just end up feeling even worse when I inevitably fall off the wagon again.” Then, I looked at my MyFitnessPal app the other day and saw that my first entry was from more than a year ago. An entire year! That may not be a lot for some people, but it’s a huge accomplishment for me.
In hindsight, I can see that most of those excuses I used to fall back on all traced back to one thing: fitness, in general, always felt so OVERWHELMING. The complex training plans….equipment that looks like a medieval torture device…specialized neon spandex outfits…thousands of apps…gyms full of sweaty, grunting men pulling and lifting things and throwing around words like “macros” and “gains”… I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing—or, worse, that I was somehow doing it wrong.
Well, surprise! As it turns out, I can put a little too much pressure on myself sometimes (says the girl who once thought she was going to get kicked out of the 2nd grade for losing one homework assignment). Whenever I missed a fitness goal, no matter how small, it reinforced my underlying belief that I would never be successful…and I would get disappointed enough to give up. My typical forms of motivation—goal-setting, planning, etc.—were only getting in my way.
Never before in my life did I imagine that NOT setting ambitious goals would be the way to accomplish what I ultimately wanted. But here we are. All I really needed to do was give myself the grace to fail.
In closing: I am not a trainer, fitness buff or guru of any kind. This will never be a fitness blog. I could definitely be in even better shape, and lord knows I will undoubtedly have plenty of setbacks in the future. But for the first time in my life, I’ve stopped letting these things hold me back.
And for me, that made ALL the difference.
(P.S. A few of the less-discussed but equally valuable benefits of exercise with a heartening message: “One need not be an elite athlete or fitness nerd to reap the bulletproofing benefits of exercise.” Amen to that!)