About five years ago, Bill had to leave for work by 530 am. He usually didn’t come home until 7 or 8 pm or later, and was frequently out-of-town. I was 1 year post-partum with Peter, and Fritz was only 8. We didn’t own a treadmill or any other exercise equipment. I was feeling the beginning effects of middle-aged, metabolism slow-down, and didn’t feel that I had fully recovered, physically, from Peter’s birth (in other words, I hadn’t lost the baby weight or the baby bump). I had been walking or running several times a week before Bill had started that job with long hours, and was unhappy and resentful that this seemed no longer possible. It was easy to blame circumstances for the extra 10 pounds and lack of exercise.
Eventually, I grew tired of blaming everything but myself, so I brainstormed what to do about my situation.
Exercise tapes? Little floor space, presence of whiny children, and not my style.
Joining a gym with babysitting? Too expensive, required hauling 5 kids in and out of car.
Buying a treadmill? Too expensive, little floor space, presence of whiny children.
I wanted to hire a babysitter so I could continue to walk or run, but that seemed expensive and once the kids woke up and the day began, life’s issues of school work and laundry and cooking always seemed more important.
Finally, what remained was the idea that I would have to walk or run early in the morning or late at night, whenever Bill was home. I quickly opted for early in the morning. For me, by the time it hit the kids’ bedtime, I was exhausted myself. The only exercise I wanted to do was the crawl from the kitchen sink to my bed.
So, this is where I started my habit of running in the morning, first-thing. Back then, the alarm went off at 415 am and by 430 or so, I was outside pounding the streets, with my running partner – Greta, our dog, who was young and very high-energy. It was not long before she knew what that alarm meant, and as soon as it went off would start hopping madly around the room wondering why I wasn’t moving yet. On the days I lacked personal motivation, I still managed to get up “for the dog.”
Greta is now over 6. She doesn’t like the heat, so in the summer, she dragged. But once the weather got cooler, and especially now that we cracked down on the children giving her too much food so her weight is more within a normal range, her energy has picked up and she really enjoys running. If I walk, she pulls on the lead, and I have to remind her to slow down.
But it has been years since the morning alarm has gotten her excited. And it’s not even at 415 anymore. Now, it’s 5 am before it goes off, and often it is 10 or 15 minutes before I get up. Then I like to have a cup of coffee to gear myself up for the run. The dog just stays in her sleeping area in our room until I get my shoes on.
Even then, I have sometimes had to say, “Come on!” before she gets up.
This is the time of year when people resolve to give up bad habits and start good ones. The thing is, it takes weeks to change our habits…not two or three weeks, either. More like 6 or 8 or more. Any plan for change has to account for this in order to be successful. Based on my experience, here are the steps I think are necessary to develop an exercise regime that will be maintained and not discarded:
1. Schedule a time of day to exercise. “Whenever I can” isn’t going to work. “During the baby’s morning nap” might work, if the baby is a regular and sound sleeper, but think ahead to when he gives that up and what you will do. Think about what time of day is best for you. Experts say to not exercise close to bedtime, but if you are a night-owl, then working out at 8 pm might be fine.
2. Start small. Sore muscles are a great excuse to skip the next day’s workout. If you aren’t looking forward to exercising, you will be tempted to do anything else but it. Better to establish the habit of an easy one mile walk every day first, and then take on the challenge of trying to run that distance – or to go farther – then to push yourself to run hard and fast, and give up in frustration.
3. Pick your workout wisely. I love to walk. I love to run, even if I am slow. Biking hurts my tush. I don’t have a pool or easy access to one, and I really can’t do much more than doggy paddle. I’m not into group classes at the Y. Sometimes I will bike, sometimes I will go to an exercise class. Maybe some day I’ll learn to swim well. But for now, for me, a program that centers on walking and running is one that I like, so it is one that I will do.
4. Set a goal. Back when I started running, I decided to run the Army 10 Miler. I had never run farther than 6 miles before that (and that was many many years prior), so I found a training program (I like Hal Higdon) and I followed it. I reminded myself often that I wouldn’t be able to complete 10 miles for that race in 3 months, if I didn’t run my scheduled 3 miles today. I trained for nearly a year to do that race – first working on the 5k plan, then the 10k plan, then the 15k/10 mile plan.
And after that, I stopped running for a long time – months. But that’s ok. I set another goal and got back out there when I started to miss it (and when I added 5 pounds).
Don’t tie exercise goals to weight loss goals. You will be disappointed. Your exercise goals should be performance goals. If you struggle to do even one sit up, aim to do 25 in a row. If you struggle to find the time and motivation to exercise daily, resolve to walk 30 miles a month – some days you might do none and others you might do 2 or 3. Maybe you want to run a ten minute mile – or faster. Maybe you just want to get to the gym 3 times a week on average.
5. Make exercise something you look forward to doing. This is easiest to accomplish if it is tied to something enjoyable: great conversations with a walking partner, an energetic playlist or interesting podcast on your iPod, a break from the kids. Some people watch their favorite show while on a stationary bike. Some people love a competitive game of tennis.
6. Reward yourself for good behavior. If you stick with an exercise program for a certain period of time or accomplish a goal, give yourself permission to celebrate. I usually take off a whole week after I’ve done an 8 week Hal Higdon training schedule or after a race. One hot fudge sundae in honor of completing your first 5k won’t add 2 inches to your thighs. Smaller goals might only deserve a self-congratulatory pat on the back, but relish your success for a few days before moving on to the next challenge.
7. Establish a form of accountability. Whether it’s your dog or your neighbor, having a workout partner keeps you motivated to get out the door. Having a sister or a husband or a friend regularly ask you about your progress helps, too. Signing up for a 5k, hiring a personal trainer, logging your exercise online in a public forum are other ways to keep you going or get you back on track when you have a bad week.
8. Expect curve-balls. Your whole family gets the flu. Your husband’s work routine changes. You get pregnant. You can’t be so tied to your training plan or to your goals that life’s surprises completely derail your exercise routine. You may need to take a week or two off, and you may need to decrease the intensity of a workout to deal with a temporary situation. Other changes may require you to change your routine altogether. Be committed to figuring out a new plan, whether temporary or permanent, rather than putting exercise on hold for the indefinite future.
Exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle that will keep you active well into old age. If you are sedentary in your 30’s and 40’s, expect to remain sedentary in your 50’s and 60’s and beyond. That’s not what I want in life. There’s too much to do and see.