Some thoughts on exercise, and how to stick with it

Views from my run
Views from my run

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to stick with exercising regularly. It isn’t an easy thing for everyone to do. I know because I’ve decided countless times in the past that I’m going to start incorporating some form of daily exercise into my life, and then I usually do it for a week and then get bored or busy and decide not to do it. I’m usually trying some new form of exercise, so I stay active, but I never give myself time to get good at it.

Being active is really important to me. It makes me feel proud of who I am and what I can accomplish, and it balances my life. I’m pretty high strung, and so working my body so that both my mind and muscles are tired is crucial to my happiness. Not only that, but time spent outside is a large part of my identity. I wouldn’t be me without the hours I spend outside, and usually the best ways to get out also mean getting active.

It also frustrates me when I commit to something and then poop out on it. I like to think of myself as someone who lives out her principles, and so not being able to stick with something that’s important is disheartening.

Recently, I’ve found an exercise regime that works, and the fact that three months into it I’m still going strong tells me that maybe I’ve hit on something that will work for other people too. Now it’s important to note that I’m no fitness expert. And I’m coming at this with the perspective of someone who exercises to be fit and healthy–not to compete in events or build crazy muscle.

So here are my new edicts for a successful exercise regime:

Start out comfortable

This is crucial to sticking with it in the long term. When you begin exercising, do things that are easy for you at first. Don’t worry about pushing yourself. You may not see results as quickly, but working exercise into your lifestyle successfully will give you a lifetime of results, so don’t rush it.

Starting out small has a few different benefits. First of all, you give your body a chance to adjust to being back in motion, or to get used to a new activity. You’re much less likely to get injured if you take the time to work on form and building up all your little stabilizer muscles (whether you’re running or lifting or doing yoga or whatever it is that gets your blood going). You also build up your confidence. Exercise is way more fun when it feels like you’re doing it well.

If you need breaks, take them.
If you need breaks, take them.

I’ve seen this work out a couple different times in my life. The first was back in college, when I spent a summer walking our young husky mix. We started out with leisurely walks together, and those slowly morphed into runs (in a desperate effort to expend as much of her energy as possible)–where we’d alternate between running and walking, and finally, when it felt easy, straight up running.

When I went back to school (sans my canine running buddy), I kept running. For the first time in my life I actually enjoyed it, and ran just to run. That was a completely new experience for me. I’ve run on cross country teams, run for gym class, and spent years pushing myself to run on my own, and through all those experiences I always hated it. My love of it after that summer (and now) speaks to how powerful taking it easy in the beginning can be.

The hottie with a body who totally derailed me after that glorious summer and fall semester of regular runs

Now I’m in the same place again. I chose a training plan that started out way too easy for me, and instead of rushing through it to get to a place where it actually challenged me, I let myself enjoy the easy times. Now, because of the prior training, what would’ve been difficult a month ago is still easy, and I love every minute of it.

Do what works for you

This is another big one. I’ve heard so many excuses against exercising, and have made so many myself. So instead of letting those stop me from being active, I worked hard to figure out a situation where I wouldn’t have many excuses.

One of my biggest things is that I like to exercise alone. Having other people around–even just people that I pass–stresses me out and makes me feel self-conscious. I’ve tried going to gyms and classes before, but just the social pressure of having to look at other people burns me out before I can get into it.

So instead of using that as an excuse to not exercise, I get up at the crack of dawn each morning, strap on my sneakers, load up the dog, and go to a nearby farm. For me, this is perfect. I’m a morning person–I come alive early in the morning, and I adore watching the sun rise. The farm gives me the solitude that I need to make exercise fun instead of stressful, and I also get to enjoy nature while I do it.

The best ever.
The best ever.

Running works for me too. Cardiovascular fitness is what I’m looking for–I’m not super interested in gaining muscle or strength. I just want to be able to hike up mountains without losing my breath. And I want to feel comfortable with my body’s capabilities. It’s also free, which is awesome on our limited grad-student budget. Running gives me what I need without asking much in return.

What works for me might not work for you. Think about your preferences. Are you extroverted or introverted? What sort of benefit are you looking to get out of your exercise? What things do you enjoy? What time of day do you work best at? Do you have the money to buy a gym membership? How about to hire a trainer or attend classes?

Maybe you’re someone who thrives dancing their heart out in a Zumba class at four in the afternoon–great. Do what works.

Have a plan

This is honestly what has made the biggest difference for me. In the past, I’d just decide I was going to start exercising. And I would for a little, but then without a set plan forward it was easy to stop. I didn’t feel accountable to anything. Didn’t feel like I was blowing anything off. Even further, sometimes the indecision of what I should do and how much and when paralyzed me. I was never sure if I was exercising in a way that was good for me, and with that seed of doubt in my mind, it was easy to let myself stop.

So this time around I went online and found a free half-marathon training schedule. It dictates which days I run and which days I rest, how long I should warm up for, how long I should run and how far, how l cross-train and when, and so on and so forth. It takes all of the decision making out of it for me, which is wonderful because then I have no room to doubt myself. I don’t plan to run an actual race (see above about you know, exercising around other people), but it’s still awesome to have a tangible plan to work toward.

Minerva only joins us for rest days.
Minerva only joins us for rest days.

It also gives me a visual way to track my progress. My plan comes in the form of a little calendar, and as someone who adores crossing things out on lists, I knew that a big way to motivate myself would be to cross out the days on the calendar as I completed them. (Yeah, I’m probably the dorkiest human you know). And part of the reason I haven’t skipped a day yet–even through visitors, busy times and illnesses–is because it’d drive me crazy to have that day forever unchecked.

I’m not sure what I’ll do once I finish the training plan. Probably download a marathon training plan and go from there, cause why not?

Have a routine

This goes hand in hand with having a plan and doing what works for you. Try to build exercising into your daily routine. Instead of varying when you go and for how long and what you do, try to stick with one thing. After awhile, it will become as automatic as brushing your teeth or taking a shower–a needed part of your life.

Views from my run
Views from my run

I’ve found that I’m most excited to exercise when it fits neatly into the pattern of my day. Often, Jordan will drop me off to run while he goes to the gym. Then he picks me up and we have breakfast together. It’s always such a nice way to start the day–the early morning drive together, running while I watch the sun rise, and then the peace of sharing good food.

This is a little harder to keep up because it depends on another person, and sometimes I end up driving myself, and then get back after he’s already left for work. Those days aren’t nearly as nice, but I see it as just another variation on the routine. I have a quiet breakfast by myself, and bask in the feeling of already having accomplished so much.

A post run game of fetch is part of our routine--it gets Chara in the water, and gives her a chance to cool off.
A post run game of fetch is part of our routine–it gets Chara in the water, and gives her a chance to cool off.

Having a routine differs from having a plan in that it’s about focusing on the moment instead of planning for the future. Make sure you don’t get too focused on your goal, otherwise you’ll be tempted to rush through the motions of exercising (or at least, I will). The way I’ve found to best stick with it is to enjoy the moment. I don’t often think about the end product–being able to run a half marathon. Instead I enjoy where I am, right now.

Adopt a dog

This is my final, and favorite piece of advice.

If you have trouble finding the motivation to get off the couch (and you really, genuinely plan to try to lead a more active lifestyle), adopt a dog. Dogs are the best exercise buddies you can find. We adopted Chara–a long-legged husky mix–partially so that she could be my running partner, and she’s done a wonderful job of it.

This pooch is built to run
This pooch is built to run

She looks forward to our runs each morning. When I take too long to get moving, she dances around me, play bowing and stretching in an enticement to collect my things and go. Unlike a human running partner, she’s never busy or not in the mood.

She’s my motivator when we’re running too. Unlike Emma (my last canine running buddy), she doesn’t often get tired. She’s been in it since the beginning with me, so she’s had all the training I’ve had. Sometimes when I feel tired or bored, I look down at her and see how excited she is to be out, how powerful every one of her strides is, and I feel inspired to keep pushing it.

Not to mention that when we’re out on the trail, she serves as welcome protection. Because I prefer to exercise in isolated places early in the morning (and because I’m a small woman), having her along makes me feel a lot safer. She’s generally more alert to the people around us–the perk of her ears or hesitation in her strides let me know she’s spotted or smelled something. In addition, not many people are willing to approach a giant black dog.

Exercise keeps her tired, and a tired dog is a good dog.
Exercise keeps her tired, and a tired dog is a good dog.

And it isn’t just during my runs that she gets me moving. Chara is the sort of dog that requires lots of exercise. She needs walks at least twice a day, and off leash time daily in order to not be a maniac in the house. That means I have to make an effort to get her out and about, and in doing so I get out and about myself.

If you already have a dog, incorporate him or her into your exercise plan. Don’t worry if it doesn’t go smoothly at first–it took Chara a couple weeks to figure out running on the leash, but with training and persistence she runs nicely alongside me. Stick it out. Your dog will thank you.

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