The CDC tells us to get 150 minutes of cardio a week, yet 3 in every 4 people in the US don’t. Meanwhile, we average 3 hours a day watching TV. Human history is littered with laziness-enabling inventions like the TV remote, created to spare us the suffering of walking 10 feet to change the channel. Zenith even named an early version “Lazy Bones.” I think they were on to something there. The bottom line is that we’re lazy and we know it’s bad for us. Most of the health advice out there is about what to do, but there’s very little focus on how to implement it. I want to offer a few ideas for the difficult part: committing to doing something and strapping on your proverbial gym shoes.
Step 1: Figure out your own psychology
It’s hard to figure out how best to address something if you don’t fully understand it, so the best advice is to do a comprehensive study of yourself. Here are a few questions that may help you organize your thinking:
Define some internal concept of motivation
I think about my motivation like a point system (henceforth motivation points, or MPs): certain things add to the stash, and others deplete it. Most people you see packing the gyms in January are gone in a month because they’ve exhausted their MPs. Define a concept that works for you, and be judicious about how you use your motivation to get out and exercise. Will you be the 0500 jogger? Me neither.
Step 2: Find ways to get out the door using what you learned in step 1 and any combination of the below (several are inter-related)
Focus on activities you enjoy
Several roads lead to Rome, so find the one that gets you there with the lowest MP cost. I don’t like jogging, it bores me to tears. I do enjoy cycling, because there’s more scenery, it’s more cerebral, and I just like it. Find what you like, try a few different things, and then avoid the more boring ones.
Schedule in your exercise
Some people are very calendar-oriented, so if they get a reminder for something, they just do it. My mom seems to be great at doing this, but I apparently missed that gene. If calendars are your thing, pick a time to exercise, block it out, and then go do it. One advantage that scheduling has is that it makes it easier to keep that time: if someone else asks “Are you free at [gym time],” it’s easier to tell them “Nope, that’s gym time, but I can do [free time].”
Exercise to get places
Exercising can become a chore, especially if there’s no objective. I ride my bike most places I go, so for me it’s less of a chore to exercise than it is simply a matter of “I want to go to the store/happy hour/friend’s house.” The destination is a great carrot to build the MPs and get going. Pretty quickly, you’ll think of “active transportation” simply as “transportation.”
Get your ego into it
As we saw in the intro, the idea of “exercise because it’s good for you” doesn’t work for most of us. Does the idea of “do something that your friend didn’t think you’re capable of” get you fired up? If so, goad a friend into betting against you. One time a buddy bet me a bottle of whisky that I couldn’t finish a 100-mile bike ride before lunch the next day. That got me fired up to do it, and the whisky tasted great!
Box yourself in
The fewer options you have to retreat away from exercising, the more likely you’ll be to exercise, and the fewer MPs you’ll consume in the process. Find ways to engineer your environment to support your exercise goals, both to get you going as well as to keep you going. Hide your TV remote under your gym shoes. Run around a lake or do an out-and-back, because if you lose interest halfway through, you’re committed to continuing one way or the other because you have to get home (at a track, you can bail whenever you like). At several of the places I’ve worked parking passes were expensive, so instead I opted against buying one and decided to ride my bike to work. There are plenty of winter mornings when I wake up, look out at the drizzle, and think “Aw, not todaaaaaay,” but not riding means either $20 in day parking or riding the bus and missing my first meeting. On the way home, the thought process is even simpler: “If you want to get home, you can either ride your bike… or ride your bike!” Also, my colleagues know me as the nutcase who rides his bike rain or shine, so I know that they’ll ask me what’s wrong if I don’t ride, and my ego doesn’t want to have to field that question.
Have a gym buddy
If you and a friend are both looking to exercise more, try teaming up and keeping each other honest. Book a time, ideally with a recurrence pattern, and commit to holding each other’s feet to the fire. Now if I bail, I’m letting my buddy down. One thing to consider is asking your gym buddy to support you in a way that works: do you prefer them to have a more upbeat “you can do this” attitude, or a sterner “dammit, focus and DO IT” attitude? I personally prefer a harsh Gunny Hartman approach where my gym buddies give me a hard time when I slack off. It may seem weird to be stern with people, that’s why it’s important to articulate when to apply it, e.g. “I’m shooting for 7 reps at this weight, yell at me if I slack or look like I’m sandbagging at 7.” That empowers your friends to lean into you a bit and give you a good ribbing within parameters you’re comfortable with.
Compete with others who are out there
If you’re competitive, convince yourself that every other jogger/cyclist/walker/lifter/yogi etc. is duking it out with you and that it’s an imperative to win by whichever metric you’ve defined. There’s an entire subculture of cat 6 racing among bike commuters, and I’m sure joggers and others have their own lingo for the concept. This will push you to get you a better workout and make it more engaging than simply going out for a jog/ride/walk.
Compete with yourself
Set a goal or find an external challenge that provides a north star to keep you on track. This could be anything from “go run a 5k” to “cut my commute time by 5% over the summer.” Be creative, define it, and then find a way to hold yourself accountable, maybe with a tracker, gym buddy, etc.
Get addicted to apps like Strava
Strava has several functions that can help motivate you: setting targets, monthly challenges, comparing your speeds with others on the same segments, tracking your own personal records, and having a network of friends that you can use for motivation. Getting addicted to some combination of these features can motivate you to go out more, push yourself harder, and find like-minded people to exercise with.
Let your freak flag fly
Whatever works for you will probably be completely alien to someone else, and that’s totally fine. Some of you probably read some of my examples and now think I have a few screws loose, and that’s totally OK. Whatever you do, don’t let other people’s ideas get in the way of you doing what works best for you.
Hopefully some of these ideas will help you get on your proverbial gym shoes and go out there, or inspire you to think of related ideas. Whatever works, give it a whirl, have fun, and embrace who you are in the process. Speaking of exercising, Strava tells me I’m a bit behind my pacing on my annual goal, so I should probably stop typing and hop on my bike….