I remember the first time I tried starting my exercise routine. I was about 15 or 16. I was entirely motivated by the way I looked. Like so many teenage girls, I was anxious that I was putting on weight. I remember sitting in my bedroom looking at myself in the mirror, horrified by what I saw as excess fat. I started a short exercise routine of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, running in place, and stretching. Twenty years later, I still have an exercise routine, but both the routine and the motivation look very different.
Most of us think about starting an exercise routine, but only a small percentage of people can follow through with it. Why? Why is creating an exercise routine so tricky?
I'm not entirely sure how I've been able to start, develop, and maintain an exercise routine over the years. That said, I have learned some excellent lessons about exercise that can help anyone trying to find an exercise routine that's right for them.
1. Accept That You Won't Always Want to Exercise
There's no way around it; establishing an exercise routine isn't easy. It takes time to develop any routine, let alone one that doesn't usually feel good when you start. Exercise takes effort. It just does. Establishing a new routine means you need to do it even when you don't feel like doing it, and there will be many days, especially at the beginning, where you don't feel like it. So, the first step to establishing an exercise routine is to expect that part of your brain will fight with you about it. My alarm goes off most mornings at 4:45 so that I can get in an hour of yoga before I use my stationary bike, all so that I can get ready for work and then bike 6 miles there. Do you know what I'd instead do almost every single morning? Sleep an extra hour and a half. Why don't I do that? Because a powerful secret to exercise is in the next lesson.
2. Keep the Routine Consistent
This part takes some trial and error. I love a morning exercise routine. Meditation is a big part of my routine, and morning meditation helps me prepare for the day. I also love a full-hour yoga sequence. I've found an hour is enough time for me to get everything I want from my practice. I also have an active calorie goal of 200 for each morning. I track it with my Apple Watch. A combination of yoga and some time on my stationary bike will usually get me to my 200 calorie goal within an hour and 15 minutes. My alarm goes off every morning at 4:45 am, and by 6:30 am, I'm ready to shower and get ready for work. It has taken years of trial, error, tuning, and re-tuning to find this routine, but millions of combinations of routines are out there.
Some people prefer working out in the mornings before work, like me. Others prefer a spin class after work. Some prefer high-intensity interval training on their lunch break. Some folks like to take their time at the gym, while others want a quick 20-minute workout—some folks like the weekend warrior life. There's no wrong way to do this! Begin by trying to combine a time of day to exercise and an amount of time spent exercising that sounds interesting to you. Let yourself try on that combination for at least a couple of weeks, and then adjust from there. Eventually, the habit of working out at some point in your day will be so automatic that you'll feel odd when you don't exercise. Remember that you're building something, and anything worth building takes time. And most importantly, remember that the best way to find a routine and keep it consistent is in the next lesson.
3. Choose a Routine You Love
I might sound a bit bizarre saying this, but the truth is that you aren't going to keep an exercise routine if you hate it. I don't care what promises a personal trainer made to you or what the commercial for that overpriced exercise equipment guaranteed. You will not exercise regularly and consistently over a long period, and you will not establish a new exercise habit if you hate how you're exercising. For example, I remember trying to develop a running routine for a while. I consistently ran every morning for about a month, and it just didn't stick. Why? It turns out I hate running. I hate everything about it. No matter how often or how many miles I ran, I never got used to it. The more I ran, the more I hated running.
Simply put, this isn't the right exercise for me, and that's ok. For some people, running 5 miles adds a lot of goodness to their lives. For me, it made me want to stop exercising, which is a problem. There is a difference between working hard and suffering. Your routine should make you feel like you're working hard, but it shouldn't make you feel so terrible that you never want to do it again. It's ok to enjoy exercise. If the activity leaves you feeling like you never want to exercise again, it's not a suitable exercise for you. Find an activity that makes you think, "Wow! There were parts of that I liked! It was challenging, but I enjoyed it! I want to try that again!" We spend enough of our lives doing things we don't want to do. Our time to exercise should be about moving our bodies in a way that feels good, even if it's just a 10-minute dance break. The more fun you have moving, the more likely you will keep moving, so keep looking until you find something you love.