For most people, 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity is a good target, but getting there can be a challenge, and unfortunately there is no easy solution for those short on time. The simple truth is that in order to make exercise a regular habit, you need to move it up on your priority list. That said, if you’re able to mentally reposition physical activity as a more positive experience, it won’t feel like a sacrifice, and you may even come to enjoy it. As someone who has long struggled to maintain a consistent fitness routine and finally found some measure of success, I’m happy to share some strategies that have worked for me and others I know.
1. Lower Your Expectations
This seems like a pessimistic way to start a blog aimed at encouraging people to be more physically active, but I think setting a realistic and manageable fitness plan is one of the most important steps in making exercise a regular habit. The same all-or-nothing mentality that deters the best of healthy eating intentions can also sabotage attempts to become more fit. If after months of inactivity you launch right into a high intensity workout regimen, like running several miles at full-speed or starting a series of extreme fitness videos, you’ll likely feel miserable during and after exercising. Breathing so hard that your lungs hurt, or waking up so sore that you can’t move, are telltale signs that you’re pushing yourself too hard, which is counterproductive. If you come to dread exercising, there’s a good chance you’ll quit before you really get started instead of establishing a sustainable routine you can stick with for the long haul. So my advice is to start slow and build your way up as your body adjusts and your endurance increases.
2. Remove Exercise Obstacles
If you have to get in the car and drive five miles to a gym every time you want to get in some cardio, chances are you’re going to skip a lot of workouts. The activation energy needed to get to that first minute of exercise is just too high. That’s why I strongly encourage people to find activities they can do right in their own home or neighborhood. When the weather is cooperating, this can be as simple as stepping out the front door, walking at a good clip for 15 minutes in one direction, and then turning around and heading back home. For the busiest of people, I recommend purchasing a basic piece of fitness equipment for home use, such as a treadmill or ellipitical, if at all possible. (You can usually find affordable used machines on Craigslist or community garage sale groups on Facebook, since there’s always someone willing to sell.) That way, you can work out at any time and in any weather — you can even squeeze in 10-minute bursts while waiting for pasta water to boil or quizzing your kids on their spelling words. Exercise videos are another good at-home option if you want more variety. And if you prefer to use a fitness center, choose one that’s directly on your daily route to and from work so you deviate as little as possible from your normal routine.
3. Pair Exercising With Something You Enjoy
This one was a game-changer for me, personally. When I moved into my first house, I invested in a treadmill and positioned it near a television set so I could entertain myself while I worked up a sweat. Instead of agonizing about exercise, I actually started to look forward to this time as 45 uninterrupted minutes to indulge in cooking programs and talk shows that I otherwise couldn’t justify watching. (After I got into a good groove, I even started ratcheting up my speed during the commercial breaks, turning my power walk into an interval workout.) If TV isn’t your thing, you can use exercise time (and a handy mobile device) to listen to podcasts or books on tape, read your favorite blogs, shop, or even do a crossword puzzle. By pairing fitness with an activity you enjoy, you’ll create a positive association with exercise, which will make getting your daily dose so much easier.
4. Find a Fitness Partner
You’re less likely to bail on your fitness routine if there’s someone else counting on you to show up. Plus, going for a long walk or signing up for a fitness class is an ideal way to spend quality time with friends and family that you might not otherwise see as often as you’d like. Instead of catching up with your spouse or kids by vegging on the couch at the end of the day, go for a stroll around the neighborhood. Or if your loved ones live too far away to meet up in person, schedule a time to talk on the phone while you pound the pavement.
5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
It’s normal to feel intimidated by friends and family members who are extremely fit and constantly chatting about Spin class and 20-mile runs. I know I do. But rating your fitness efforts against someone else’s isn’t constructive. You have to find what works for you and your lifestyle, and for many people, that’s a daily walk rather than a sweat-soaking CrossFit session. If you’re making an effort to be active, you’re doing something terrific for your emotional and physical health, and that’s something to celebrate — not feel badly about. Instead of comparing yourself to friends and family, share in their enthusiasm for health and fitness, and remember to give yourself credit where credit is due.