After reading my fitness story, a sedentary friend wrote (well not really, but it’s a nice literary device), “Okay Ron, I liked your story, but what should I take from it? I’ve failed at repeated attempts to create an active lifestyle. For a change, don’t be an egghead academic, just spell out the implications of your story as simply and specifically as possible.”
Here’s my best shot.
1. Stop using time constraints as a rationale for a sedentary lifestyle. Until you start creating positive momentum through a modest routine, be honest with yourself and say, “Being fit isn’t important enough to me yet.” My sedentary friend might say, “You were a grad student without children. I work longer hours and have more family responsibilities. Don’t have the time.” This line of reasoning perplexes me. Has everyone else except me completely mastered time management? Below I suggest exercising one to four hours a week for the first several months. Are people really so time-efficient that they can’t squeeze out one to four hours a week?
2. Focus on improving the quality of your life more generally and let weight loss be a natural by product of developing an active lifestyle. My initial goal wasn’t to lose weight, get ripped (obviously), or win races, it was to become more disciplined in the hope that it would carry over into my life as a doctoral student researching and writing a lengthy dissertation. So instead of starting with the normal question, “How much weight should I lose?” forget the scale and think about the other areas of your life (diet, personal finance, family commitment, spiritual devotion, etc.) that might improve if you develop greater self-discipline through a consistent fitness routine. Positive spill over.
3. Set manageable goals and be patient. Don’t expect to get fit in a few weeks or months. When I was sedentary and soft, I wasn’t as overweight as most Resolutions and I was young, so you may want to adjust downwards from my modest starting point, 20 minutes, 4-5 days a week. First month, one to one and a half hours a week of walking, swimming, rowing, cycling, or light jogging. Month two, two hours a week. Month three, three hours a week. Month four, four hours a week. Sometimes when I travel and find myself in a hotel fitness center, I marvel at Treadmill Guy doing his annual workout. He’s recognizable by his spare tire, ALL OUT pace, streams of sweat, and precarious position near the back edge of the treadmill. I resist telling TG what I’m thinking, “The Olympic Team has already been selected. Slow down for pete’s sake, so that when you’re done there are positive associations with the activity and you don’t dread your next workout. It took years of sitting still and eating poorly to get that out of shape, so it’s going to take just as long to become fit.”
4. For the first year, do all activities at low intensity. Many triathletes use a training pace frame of reference based upon “perceived rate of exertion”: easy, steady, mod-hard, and hard. Do all activities during the first few months at an easy pace meaning it’s easy to maintain a conversation. Feeling frisky after a few months, accelerate a bit to “steady,” which means you can still maintain a conversation or sing “Serpentine Fire” outloud with Earth, Wind, and Fire on your iPod (actually, stay away from “The Elements” because they’ll transport you to mod-hardville faster than you can sing “When I see you’re face like the mornin’ sun you spark me to shine.”). Save the mod-hard and hard stuff for years two and beyond. More Norah Jones and less Nelly.
5. Avoid comparing yourself to more experienced walkers, runners, swimmers, or cyclists. I’m competitive, but as I was getting going, I channeled my competitive energy into a training log where I recorded distances and times. Instead of asking myself, can I keep up with that stud down the street, I wondered whether I could go a bit further than last month, or whether I could run a regular route 15 seconds faster than normal. When I competed, it was against myself, and truth be told, I continue to do that. This is where Treadmill Guy’s friend, Biannual Pool Guy, get’s tripped up. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a 500 or 1,000 free in the pool, BPG will wait for me and time his push off as I’m completing my flip turn. He does his best to hang for two laps, rests for a few minutes, then repeats. I get a kick out of this, but BPG would be much better off working up to a continuous 500 free at his own “just getting into swimming” pace. One’s ego can conspire against slow, steady, and evolutionary progress. Also related to pacing, conventional wisdom is to find training partners, preferably people a bit stronger and faster. That’s definitely helpful for competitive athletes, but I don’t think it applies to someone starting to piece together an active lifestyle. My advice, start out alone or find someone whose fitness is just as much a work in progress.
6. Pay attention to and celebrate subtle signs of progress (I didn’t breathe quite as hard on that hill, I wasn’t quite as tired at the end, I had a bit more energy at work today, etc.) in order to create positive momentum. Once a weekly rhythm is established, positive momentum will kick in. For example, once I got into a weekly exercise groove, I gradually started to eat more healthily. My thought process was, “Tomorrow’s run will be less difficult and more enjoyable if I eat x instead of y or 1/2x instead of x.” Gradually I began to develop a base level of fitness to where I could run 3-4 miles without becoming winded or do a 1,500-1,800 meter swim workout with ease. As I burned more calories and switched to a lower-fat diet, I lost weight; as a result, my shortish workouts at an easy/steady pace became even easier. Positive momentum.
7. Keep your “I should probably be working out right now” wasted time to a bare minimum by exercising first thing in the morning and/or commit to meeting a workout partner at an appointed time. Also helpful, organize your workout clothes/equipment and the next day’s breakfast/work clothes/lunch the evening before to expedite getting to work and gradually move up your bedtime about the same number of minutes as your intended workout. Other excellent solutions to the time dilemma, if at all feasible, do some of your commuting or errands on foot or bicycle. Related suggestion, if you hook up with a training partner, be the type of training partner you want to have. His conservative politics and predictable routes aside, my ace running partner, MC, also known as PC, is the gold standard of training partners because he’s as consistent and prompt as a German train. We run three or four days a week at 6:15a.m. in all conditions and if either person is 90 seconds late, we know it’s due to a rare communication breakdown.
8. Use exercise to develop a deeper, more intimate feel and appreciation for the natural world. A couple of women who live on our street are committed walkers. I bet they walk an hour a day every day, but I don’t understand why they loop our neighborhood over and over and over. They don’t have small children at home so my guess is it’s just a habit. There is a park with nice wooded trails easily within reach, but to each is own. I guess it’s better than exercising mostly indoors. My suggestion is to break out and find a wooded trail to walk or run on, pedal into nature, or find open water to swim or row on when the mercury rises. As a result of doing those things, I feel a deeper connection to my corner of the world.
9. After a few months of consistent exercise, consider signing up for an event, such as a 5k walk or run, or 30 mile bicycle ride, as an added incentive to train. If you do sign up for an event, reread number five first. Some people get caught up in comparisons and commit to especially difficult events like a marathon or Ironman distance triathlon that are way beyond their level of fitness. Sometimes the event is so difficult it’s mostly a negative experience and has a detrimental effect on their medium to long-term effort to build a consistent fitness routine. One and done-ers. Do some 5ks before your first 10k, some 10ks before your first half marathon, a 100 kilometer or metric bicycle century before your first 100 miler, some sprint triathlons before your first Olympic, and several Olympics before your first half Ironman.
10. After you develop a lifetime commitment to fitness, remember the sedentary chapters in your life and encourage others who are striving to get fit regardless of their starting point. A few years ago, after returning from a dinner-hour swim workout at the Y, I said to L, “Water aerobics is a joke.” “What are you talking about?” she asked. “Every person in the water aerobics class tonight was seriously overweight.” In hindsight, that was one of the more ignorant and arrogant things I could have said. I didn’t know what any of the participants weighed a few months or a year earlier. Maybe they were just starting to make the lifestyle changes that would lead to improved health. They weren’t sitting at home on the couch eating and watching television; they were working out in sync with what I’ve written here. They deserved respect and encouragement not disdain. I forgot that I had been sedentary once. Besides, as my running, cycling, and swimming training partners like to remind me, there’s always someone more fit. A great Swahili phrase comes to mind, harambee, which translates, “Let’s all get together and push.”