I spent the first 25 years of my life with a steady workout regime of not working out, eating crackers in bed late at night, and vaguely thinking I should get around to changing things sometime.
In recent years though I’ve gone through a conversion. I went to the mountaintop, came down to the river, saw the light, etc. I’ve started working out. Not just started, but continued to work out. Not just continued, but I’ve become one of those people who seems to enjoy exercise. I recently ran my first race, and not only did I not collapse at the finish line, I decided I wanted to do another one.
Has this change been easy? No! I’ve lost motivation and hope over and over. Even after making improvements I’ve fallen into serious despair and wanted to crawl back to my days of not caring. But I’m sticking with it, and here are a few ways I’ve made it happen.
Have a clear reason WHY you’re working out
In many ways, I was lucky — my big motivator for starting to exercise came in a fairly dramatic moment. My dad had to have open-heart surgery for a birth defect and I spent several days in the cardiac intensive care unit. It’s a terrifying and desolate place. I witnessed families lose loved ones. I saw other patients besides my dad, and I saw some trends. There were a lot of men of a certain age and certain physique in those hospital beds. I knew that I was on a similar trajectory with my current habits, and I knew I needed to change.
When I first started working out and going to the gym, it all hurt. Not just my muscles getting pushed for the first time — my soul hurt. It was painful to drag myself to the gym early in the morning. It was painful to see all these people in such amazing shape around me. It was painful to be a beginner later in life. But I had a reason to work through the pain. I wasn’t going to be in the cardiac ICU someday — I was resolved to start today to give myself a better future.
Whether you’re just starting out or just in a rut, take some time to reflect on the BIG reason you’re doing this. Is it for your physical health? Great. Is it for your mental health? Great. Is it for your appearance? Great. Know why you’re putting in the hours and they won’t feel like a waste.
Set small, practical goals
A big goal is great, but it’s going to take years — even a lifetime — to meet. Working out happens daily, and each day presents a chance to fall off the wagon. When I first started at the gym, I’d get real wishy-washy — I’d start off Monday morning thinking that it was the start of my Rocky training montage, that surely by Friday I’d be ready for the big fight.
Instead, by Wednesday I’d be burned-out and finding excuses to stay home instead.
So the first small goal was to just make a habit of going to the gym on a regular schedule. They say that it takes seven weeks to start a habit, so I started there. I took the pressure off myself to perform at an expert level (which wasn’t going to happen anyways) and just focused on making a routine of going to the gym four days a week. It took some months, but it became part of my day. If I skipped a day, I felt it. I was less focused, crankier, my body started wanting that time at the gym. Focusing on the small goal set me up to better accomplish my big goals.
By setting small goals, I can celebrate meeting them more regularly. I can recognize the progress I’m making, thank myself for putting in the work, and then set my sights on the next challenge. The work of exercising regularly becomes less of a slog, and more of a chance to achieve something.
Make it easy on yourself
When I first started working out, I hated going to the big gym on campus. I hated going during my lunch hour and dealing with the crowds. So it was easy to skip a day and justify it with some excuse — I was too hungry, too busy, too full, etc. Excuses can pile up, so if I was going to meet my initial goal of making the gym a habit, I had to cut every obstacle out of my way and make it easy on myself to go.
I was intimidated by the crowds at the gym? I found another gym that was smaller and had less equipment, but I felt comfortable there.
I didn’t like going over my lunch break? I went first thing in the morning.
I had a hard time waking up in the morning? I laid everything I’d need out by my bed to make the mornings easier.
Working out is labor — labor you technically don’t have to do. So identify the obstacles in your way, work to eliminate them, and make your life easier. If it helps you to make a habit and meet your goal, then there’s no shame in finding shortcuts.
Ask for help
When I first decided to go to the gym, I had no idea what I was doing. So I shelled out the money for six training sessions with a lovely woman named Judy. Judy kicked my butt on a daily basis and during one session I lost my vision for a full ten minutes. It was great. She wouldn’t take no for an answer but always had a smile on her face. She got me started and I could run from there.
When I got more serious about weightlifting, I was having sharp pain instead of soreness — a big red flag. So I went to my brother, a physical therapist, and we worked through the movements of every lift I was doing.
When I would feel despair at not seeing huge transformations in the mirror, I opened up to my therapist about it. We talked about why I needed to see huge transformations, why I was being so unkind to myself, and how I could set better expectations for myself.
Working out is an individual pursuit, but it’s when you’re alone in your head or training that it’s easiest to lose hope. Bring other people into the process — whether that’s to train you, workout alongside you, or to help you keep your hopes up.
Track your progress in the long term
There have been too many days in my fitness journey where I’ve had a great workout, feel great about myself, and then come home and look in the mirror and see the same body from before. It’s a surefire trigger for me to lose motivation.
That said, when I look at a photo of myself from four years ago, I see a new person — someone who’s made great strides physically and emotionally on this journey.
Working out might happen daily, but your body isn’t going to change daily. If you’re hoping to lose weight/gain weight/build muscle or any other physical goal, it’s going to happen over months and years. There was a time when I would weigh myself daily. Don’t do that. Your body can easily fluctuate in pounds from day to day for a variety of reasons. You won’t grow a six pack overnight.
For me, I’ve had to very intentionally spread out my weigh ins. I take progress photos months apart. It’s good for me to see progress, but I have to zoom out and look at the long term. Daily check ins are an absolute trap.
Finally, learn to be kind to yourself
Perhaps before any physical fitness goal you set, take on the endeavor of treating yourself with kindness and patience. There are so many benefits to regular physical exercise, but when it becomes an exercise in beating yourself up, you have to stop. Nobody made their body better by hating it.
You will slip. You will fall back into bad habits. You will gain weight when you hoped to lose it. You’ll lose it when you hoped to gain it. These are not failures, they’re parts of the process.
I’ve started a small ritual after each trip to the gym. I’ll pause for a few seconds and ask myself how I’m feeling. Do I feel energized? Tired? Sore? Refreshed? Do I feel better now than before I worked out? Then I thank myself for working out that day. I know it’s a good thing for me, I know it took great efforts to make it happen, and I know it will pay off in the long run.
Be kind to yourself in this journey. It’s not easy, but you’re amazing for trying. Always remind yourself of that.