How To Start An Exercise Program And Stick To It
Have you noticed how in all the magazine articles about exercise they tell you to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program? As if you’re some kind of moron who doesn’t know when you need to consult with your doctor?
So I won’t tell you to check with your doctor first.
I’m also not going to bore you with the health benefits of exercise. You already know all that.
But what I am going to try to convince you of is this: Exercise is awesome sauce, because it actually makes you FEEL good.
Maybe not in the first few months when it’s all sweat and effort and struggle. But if you are able to stick to it long enough – long enough to get yourself in the best shape you can be – you will FEEL better than you ever have in your entire life. You will feel strong. You will feel like you could kick some ass.
Because you actually could.
And not only will your body reap the benefits, but your mind will too. Runner’s high is not a myth and it feels better than Xanax. I know ’cause I’ve tried both. 😉
You simply MUST try it or you are totally missing out. And not just try it for a week or two and then give up. I want to show you how to start an exercise program and stick to it long enough to learn to love the feel of the sweat running down your back. Long enough to learn to look forward to the next time you are breathing so hard you can’t speak.
In this article, I will share all my tips and tricks to make sure you get there.
How To Start An Exercise Program And Stick To It
1. Give Exercise The Priority It Deserves
Maybe your previous starts haven’t stuck because other things kept coming up. You just couldn’t find the time. Or it wasn’t worth the effort.
But here’s the thing. Exercise should be right up there with eating and sleeping in priority. Just like humans need food and rest, we need movement. If you are not giving your body enough movement, it’s like eating one meal a day when you really need three or only getting four hours of sleep when you really need eight.
What would have to happen for you to stop eating and sleeping? Apply the same standard to exercise.
My personal criteria is this: If no immediate family members are having a medical emergency, there is no reason for me to skip my exercise routine.
I know this sounds a bit extreme and militant, but I have so many competing priorities for my time, that if I don’t think about it this strictly, it will always get dropped off the radar.
2. Set An Outrageous Goal
If you want to stick to exercise long-term, set exercise-related goals that will take you a long time to accomplish. The more outrageous your goals, the better. I’m a firm believer in that the higher you aim, the higher you will get.
What qualifies as an outrageous goal? Here’s an example.
I was a runner in my twenties, but whatever exercising I did in my thirties was very off-and-on and low intensity between fertility treatments, pregnancies, nursing babies, and various medical procedures. When I was close to entering my forties, I wanted to get back to the kick-ass feelings I had experienced in my twenties, but I had a bad knee. I couldn’t run for more than one minute without my knee giving out. Yet, I went ahead and set these outrageous goals anyway:
In my 40s
- Run a marathon fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon
- Run Boston Marathon
- Run the JFK 50-Miler
In my 50s
- Through-hike the Appalachian Trail
As I’m writing this, I’m still only able to run seven miles and it’s taking me 10 minutes longer than the pace I will need for a Boston qualifying 26.2 miles.
So I have years more of work to do before reaching my first goal. But that’s the beauty of it – if I want to make exercise a life-long habit, I need goals that will take me a lifetime to accomplish.
And then there’s the sweet “aim higher” bonus. I may be far off from my outrageous goal, but I’ve already gotten further than if I had set what some would consider a more reasonable goal like “run a 5k” or “go to the gym three times a week”.
3. Pencil It In
After you have set your goals, figure out how much time is going to be required to keep your exercise program going – say, for the first couple of months – and where exactly that time will come from:
- How many times a week will you be exercising?
- How long will each session take? Take into account getting changed into exercise gear, getting to wherever you will be exercising if not at home, the actual exercising, getting home, cooling off, and showering. The point I’m trying to make here is that a 30-minute run actually takes longer than 30 minutes and a 45-minute exercise class actually takes longer than 45 minutes.
- What days of the week and what times of day will work the best? “There just aren’t enough hours in the day” is not a valid answer by the way. Something else has to give. 🙂
Be as specific as possible and mark the times in your calendar.
To give you an example… I’m currently exercising five times a week. I like to do it first thing in the morning, because a) I have 10 times more willpower in the morning than later in the day and b) it helps me feel better for the rest of the day. I have an elliptical machine and a treadmill in my basement, so I don’t have to go anywhere. Depending on the length of my scheduled run, I set the alarm between 5am and 6am to be done running by 7am. It takes me up to 10 minutes to convince myself to get out of bed, so that has been factored into the schedule. 😉 Sometimes I switch around the two days off if something special is going on, but I keep to the five times total per week. And I always have one of the days off on the weekend, because I like to have one morning to sleep in as long as the kids will let me.
4. Tell People
The more people you tell, the more real your plans become. You should tell two groups of people.
First, tell the people who will be affected. Most likely, this will be the peeps you are living with. Prepare them for the fact that you will be out of reach for the times you have scheduled for your exercise routine and ask for their support. Make arrangements for child care if needed.
Second, tell anyone you know who you think will be supportive. Other exercise enthusiasts are your best bet. Do not tell doubters – people who can’t do it for themselves. When you get a bad blister, you need a friend who will tell you to try a different pair of shoes and keep going. You don’t need a friend who will tell you how terrible it is and suggest that maybe you should just quit.
5. Start With Baby Steps
Remember that you are starting an exercise program that will last for the rest of your life, so you are not in a hurry. Even though you are aiming high, it’s better for your long-term success to start slow. Go at the pace of your weakest body part to prevent injury. Do whatever you can do comfortably without pain and increase pace and intensity incrementally.
When I was rehabilitating my knee, I was running for one minute every third day until I could do it without pain. Then I increased it to two minutes every third day.
Really. I started that slow.
I think it’s also better for your confidence levels to start slow and succeed than to take on too much at once and fail. I mentioned willpower earlier, but I actually think willpower is kind of a myth. When people say “I just don’t have the willpower,” what I think they are lacking is not will, but the confidence that they can succeed at something they have not succeeded at before.
Start with whatever you are 100% confident you can actually do to show yourself that you can. Can you confidently commit to putting on your workout clothes and walking in circles in front of the TV for two minutes twice a week? Start with that. Can you confidently commit to walking around the block three times a week? Then start with that.
It doesn’t matter where or how slow you start, as long as you start somewhere. The first step is always the hardest. After that, just keep adding one more little baby step every week, so you are always making progress.
6. Make A Commitment To Stick To It For Two Months
Google says it takes about two months to establish a habit. So make a commitment to push yourself to do it for that long. You won’t be pushing yourself forever. You only have to push yourself until you reach the level where exercise starts to feel good and then you’ll actually want to do it. Your body and mind will start to crave it.
You know those crazies who get up at the crack of dawn to run – rain or shine? They don’t do it because they are gluttons for punishment. They do it because they have stuck to it long enough that it started to feel good.
I only know because I’m one of those crazies. 😉
7. Make It More Enjoyable
When you are in those first few months – pushing yourself and making an effort – do everything you can to make it more about pleasure and less about pain. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Make a playlist of your favorite music to listen to while you are exercising.
- Listen to audiobooks or pod casts while you are exercising.
- Save your favorite TV shows for the elliptical or treadmill.
- If you are an extravert, find someone to exercise with or take exercise classes.
- If you are an introvert, choose a solitary form of exercise and make it part of your recharging routine.
8. If You Fall Off The Wagon, Get Right Back In
No matter how good your intentions, eventually the day will come when you fall off the exercise wagon. You’ll spend the night clutching the toilet with a stomach flu and feel too weak to work out. You’ll hit the snooze button one too many times and miss your time window. You’ll say yes to the party invitation that conflicts with your exercise class. And then all these things happen in a row and you’ll miss the whole week’s worth of exercise. This is how most exercise programs die.
But yours doesn’t have to. Because you can get right back in the wagon. You don’t have to wait until next January, the first of the month, or even next Monday. Just get back to it tomorrow.
9. Reward Yourself
Reaching your outrageous goal may be many months or years away, but don’t forget to celebrate and reward yourself for all the mini-milestones along the way. How will you treat yourself after you have completed all the goals you set for the first week of exercising? The first month? The first time you run a mile? Plan it all out so you have something to look forward to and an extra motivator.
Are you ready to start? Don’t forget to tell me your outrageous exercise goal in the comments below, so I can cheer you on! 🙂