I have made no secret of my sixty-years of exercise-hatred. Exercise illuminated my physical flaws. I am a physically awkward woman. I don’t say this out of a sense of shame or inferiority; I am merely stating a fact. Being able to recognize that fact and accept it was actually a big step forward for me. Some people have big noses, others are tone deaf, still others have trouble distinguishing their right from their left. I am a klutz. Exercising, first and foremost, revealed my klutziness for all to see.
My second problem with exercise was that I had no stamina whatsoever. The first time I got on the elliptical—without even turning it on—I decided I would use it for three minutes. By the end of that time, I was sweating and I thought my heart was going to pound its way right out of my chest. I would watch other people at the gym where I used to work out and marvel that they could go seemingly forever on those machines, watching TV or even reading, for heaven’s sake. Three minutes and I was on my way to having a coronary!
Another exercise dilemma was that I hurt. Arthritis hurts—and I have a lot of it. When the doctor read the X-ray of my foot, he said he was impressed both with my fracture and with the amount of arthritis I had. (Well, thank you very much. When I was younger, people used to be impressed with me for other reasons!) Exercising hurt, and when I did actually manage to make the attempt, I hurt afterwards as well, with sore joints and muscle spasms.
You would think all that would be enough to steer me away from exercise, but there was one more underlying reason I hated it. I looked awful. I didn’t have anything to wear that was big enough and comfortable for exercising (and who wanted to spend the money on something when I knew I would give up?) I was ashamed of my weight, ashamed of my body, and exercising put it all out there. Frankly, also, because I wasn’t going to push myself, I knew that exercising ultimately wasn’t going to make any difference. Every now and then I “checked” the exercise box, but I didn’t try to make it challenging.
You might have your own list that is even more heinous than my own. You might not want to listen because I have clearly drunk the Kool-Aid and am thus incapable of rational thought. Well, you do not have one single excuse for not exercising that I haven’t already voiced. Still, I promise you this:
If you commit to an exercise program, you will feel better, you will get stronger, and you will feel infinitely better about yourself than you do right now.
That doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or that the goal post isn’t pretty far away from you right now. What it does mean is that regular, disciplined exercise will transform how you feel and how you look at yourself. That’s what’s at stake.
To develop an exercise plan that works for you, there are a few basic things to do. First, think about what makes you hate exercise and get rid of all the unnecessary “stuff.” My hang-up about my appearance and my klutziness was easily removed by deciding I would exercise at home, where no one could see. I exercised in whatever I had in my closet that would work the first few months, until I could stuff myself into a size 3X exercise outfit a friend had bought me long ago. I didn’t move out of that until it was, quite literally, falling off of me. Yeah. Imagine my surprise when I went to buy my first exercise outfit and instead of a 3X it was a medium!
If you hate to exercise alone, get an exercise buddy. If you think you won’t do it without someone encouraging you, get a personal trainer. If you don’t have enough money for any of that, figure out what you can use at home to exercise and invite your exercise buddy over. If you’re a procrastinator, exercise first thing in the morning, like me. Find forty-five minutes in your day that you can devote to yourself and your exercise. Just forty-five minutes.
Second, develop a plan that helps you do three things: stretching, strengthening, and cardio. That doesn’t mean you have to do all three things in one day, just that over the course of the week your exercise should include all of those. Strengthening should also be divided up so that you are working your whole body. I alternate upper body and core with lower body and core. You should always stretch, as a way to warm up and cool down—and to avoid those pesky muscle spasms. Oh, and hydrate. Water should become your new favorite cocktail!
Third: find your sweet spot. That’s the point at which any given exercise is stretching you so that you have to work at it—but is still doable. It is analogous to taking a class in French. Stay at beginner’s level French and you won’t get very far. Skip from the beginner level to expert and you’re lost. You find your sweet spot, not just on each exercise but on the overall amount of exercise you do every day, and then you move that sweet spot a little bit at a time, so that you are gradually building your own capacity.
There are so many examples of how to do that. Start with a push-up against the wall. Keep your back straight, your body aligned, lean in, hold it and pull back out. Gradually start moving your feet further away from the wall to increase your angle and the difficulty. When that gets too easy, do them at the counter, then at a table, then start with stairs—four steps from the bottom. Each change, when done sequentially, extends you, but is not overwhelming because you’re taking small steps instead of overwhelming ones.
Stairs offer wonderful cardio. See how many times you can go up and down the stairs at your own pace. If you have to hold onto the handrail, or you can only take one step at a time, those are your first sweet spots to move. If you can go up and down the stairs just once, work to make that twice, then three times. As you progress, set a timer for two minutes and see how many times you can go up and down.
Everyone has a starting point, no matter how humble. Find yours and build on it. If you’re already walking the dog, consider going on a walk by yourself and timing it, then slowly decrease the amount of time it takes you to walk the same route. Just about everything can stretch you if you commit to that stretch.
Alternate, alternate, alternate! Doing different exercises works different muscles so that those muscles don’t get over-tired. Right now, I start with ten minutes on the elliptical. From there, I go through nine exercises, twelve reps each. I go back on the elliptical for five minutes, do a second set of the exercises, elliptical, third set of the exercises and end with the elliptical. Nothing gets too tired and I don’t get too sick of anything because I’m always switching to something else.
My last piece of learning was just as important as the rest of this: know when you’ve had enough. There are people out there who start an exercise plan and decide to go into body building or endurance or extreme sports. That will never be me. I found doing exercise forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, was enough to make me stronger and more fit, but wasn’t so much that I resented it or felt like it was taking over my life. I identified how much time I was willing to put into it, and I stuck to that timeframe. It gave me a sense of control and it also kept me from listening to the “but you can do more” voice in my head. What I was doing, what I continue to do forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, is terrific, and it’s enough.
I know you can do this. You have it inside yourself to make this commitment, and to get through those first weeks or months when it is just awful. It won’t always be awful. In the end, with that daily commitment, it will be transformational in your life, as it was in mine.