How to Start Exercising…and Keep Going

I avoid exercise. I don’t think I’m very unique in this, but in order to meet my goal of being more fit in my fifties than ever before I’m going to have to find a way to embrace the workout.

Like many people, I start exercising and then life gets in the way in one way or another, and exercise fades once again to the back burner. Not the most important thing. I’ve started and stopped many times over the years. So how do I make this part of my life for more than a few months or years at a time?

When I got diagnosed with cancer, I had a talk with myself and reprioritized my life. My health is more important than anything else, which means that moving my body daily is the most important on my to-do list. To do it regularly, you have to make it a priority.

My exercise regimen after two years

I’m not perfect, but I do keep up a regular exercise routine now. It has evolved over two years since I made my health a priority, and it continues to expand. My current regimen includes:

  • Daily yoga (10-30 minutes)
  • Daily walking outside (1-5 miles)
  • Peloton HIIT bike rides (20-45 minutes, 3x per week)
  • Bodyweight strength training (10-20 minutes, 3x per week)

Before I started, this regimen would have been impossible, for many reasons. I didn’t have the time in my schedule. I didn’t have the energy or endurance. I was seriously out of shape after a few years of unhealthy living. But I had to start somewhere.

There are a few things I’ve learned that help me keep going.

Remember why this is important to you

In order to get myself out the door for my daily walk or into my bike shoes for a Peloton ride, I often have to remind myself of what I truly want: fitness, optimal healthy, vitality, and energy. If I’m lucky, maybe longevity, but a future possibility is not a good source of motivation. I want to experience the benefits of exercise today. I want to feel good today. I want to know that I’m doing everything I can to prevent a recurrence of breast cancer. I want the satisfaction of resting after doing hard work. I want the mood lift that comes with moving my body or going outside in nature. Despite all of those motivators, it can be hard to get started. But it would be impossible without them. Write down your “why” for exercising, and remind yourself of it

Start (really) small

Even after nearly two years of almost daily yoga, I sometimes only do ten minutes. When traveling, I might just do a couple of sun salutations and call it good. I have learned that the important thing is consistency, not duration. The best way to start a fitness routine is with the smallest possible effort. Just walk around the block, or do one squat. Seriously. It feels silly, but this is how you build a new habit. Take one small step, then gradually add more steps over weeks and months.

Set aside time

As with anything new you want to add to your life, you have to make time for exercise. This does not mean trying to “find time” in your packed schedule (you won’t) or sneak in workouts before your kids wake up (you need sleep, too). It means booking it on your calendar every day and committing yourself to showing up, as you would with any meeting or appointment. It may also mean giving up other time commitments. Remember that your health is your top priority, even over your career or relationships. When you look at it that way, you can find ways to say no to other, less important activities.

Start with an activity you like

I don’t like strength training, and I can’t be bothered with sports. Running stresses me out (though I have been a regular runner in the past). I love walking, swimming, yoga, and cycling–the same things I loved to do as a child. Swimming is complicated, but all the others are the foundations of my current regimen, and doing things that I like to do makes my resistance much lower than it is for going out for a run or doing some pushups. Other people enjoy team sports or get motivated by training for a marathon. Think about the physical activities you have enjoyed in the past, and find a way to work at least one into your daily routine.

Enroll in a program for beginners

The structure of a fitness program can be really helpful for keeping you on track. It’s also a great way to learn biomechanics and how to exercise safely. There are a gajillion online fitness programs and apps, and there are even gyms if you are the kind of person who likes to commute to your exercise. There are personal trainers and coaches if you have a bit more disposable income. When I started on the Peloton bike, their program for beginners got me into the action without making me feel too out of shape. Start slow, start easy, and start with the help of a trainer or coach.

Make your health priority #1

When you make good health your top priority, it changes the decisions you make. You choose the healthiest item on the menu, or choose the workout over watching another episode on Netflix. For me, health has always been “important,” but mostly sat on some disused back burner. It took a cancer diagnosis for me to finally put it on the front burner. That means that I exercise instead of any number of other things I could or even should be doing.

Set up accountability

This is one of the best tools for keeping up healthy habits over time. When you’re only accountable to yourself, you probably won’t take that accountability very seriously. As soon as someone else is expecting you to do something, you take that as a serious obligation (even if it isn’t). I joined an online group focused on healthy habits and check in every Monday with my weekly intentions and how well I did (or didn’t do) over the previous week. My husband and I also help each other by telling one another what we plan to do. There are no real consequences if I miss a walk or workout, but my accountability buddies will know. Even if you just post your intentions on social media or tell a friend you will text them after your workout, it will add an extra layer of motivation.

Your roadmap to success

What works for me may not work for you. We are all motivated by different things, and we all live in different circumstances. If you’ve read this post thinking, “that won’t work for me, though!” I invite you to read it again. Even if you can’t buy a Peloton bike or hire a coach, could you carve out 15 minutes in your daily schedule to do something? Anything at all? Over time, small actions add up. It took me two years to get from mostly-sedentary to the regimen I have now, and I still have lots of room to grow and improve. The key is to just start. And then, when you inevitably stall, start again. Eventually, starting becomes easy, and soon enough you won’t even have to think about it–exercising every day will simply be part of who you are.

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