While I might be decades behind the popular book curve, I still find new things to read in my wife's eclectic reading collection. There's always something cool jammed behind a forgotten textbook or tome on the living room shelves. I recently palmed and devoured her copy of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, which explores how a singular action - small, yet crucial - can unleash an avalanche toward major change. And of course it got me thinking about exercise.
Exercise is a major part of my life - professionally, socially, and as a geek-out scientific hobby. My own workouts 4 days each week are a big priority for me. No matter what the week entails, I always find ways to get them in. Often it takes some time management acrobatics, but I'm rarely "not motivated" to exercise.
I recognize that for most people, however, even if they have the time, exercise is at best a chore...and an often procrastinated one. Everyone knows they should exercise. Yet 85% of American adults are essentially sedentary, meaning that beyond some moderate walking here and there, they spend their time at desks, on sofas, in cars or in bed. Almost everyone says that they'd like to add more physical activity to their lives. There are time management issues, of course, especially for busy parents and professionals. But some very busy people do prioritize fitness, and they have the health and physiques to show for it. So maybe there's something bigger that separates the movers from the not. What really stops most people from getting active?
I believe it boils down to one major obstacle: momentum. Here's why:
Overcoming the inertia of inactivity
If someone is sedentary (or close to it), the first few days and weeks of an exercise program are tough. The body and the brain are rapidly adapting to brand new stimuli as you feel new things with your body and you start to forge a new habit. Think of it as growing pains for your muscles and your mind. While quality exercise should ALWAYS be "hard" (in other words, challenging no matter what your current level of fitness), the first phase from inactivity to activity is the hardest, because there is both a hefty physical AND mental adjustment.
People who exercise regularly and consistently over a long term have already generated momentum and developed a habit. True habits, as we all know, are difficult to break. Most fit folk actually feel crummy when they don't exercise, because their hormones and muscles have adjusted to the cycle of physical exertion. It's hard to say exactly when it all clicked, but it did. Don't get me wrong, even professional athletes have days when they want to skip workouts, but by and large people who regularly exercise - and exercise intelligently (see below) - keep it up. Their bodies and their minds crave it. For these people, no matter what the logistical pressures of of their lives, exercise remains a priority.
So how do you persevere in the beginning long enough to "tip" over the hump and generate fitness momentum? How do you even take the first step? If visualizing your health and physique benefits down the road isn't quite enough, here are some tips:
- Get to the location. This is #1 because it's critical. Whether your workout is in your basement, at a neighborhood gym, or at a personal training studio in town, GET THERE. Once on location, your mind and body are already primed to accomplish some work. It's especially challenging to really shift gears when your location is at your house (unless a personal trainer is coming to visit you), but get your clothes on, some music pumping, and you'll set the tone. If you commute to your exercise location, have your workout gear in your car or bag ahead of time.
- Tell a friend. Share your workout goals with someone in your life and have that person help keep you accountable, whether a friend, a spouse, a child, a parent, a coworker. Ask that person if you can plan to check in each time you head to the gym (a quick text message should do it). There are cell phone apps for this now too, but someone personally invested in your progress goes a long way.
- Zero in on a favorite element. If it's your cool new pair of shoes, your music playlist, or even a particular part of your planned workout (hurray for foam rolling!), focus on it. My wife told me that on rough motivation days in the past, she would apply a coat of red lipstick before walking into the gym. It was an instant mental boost and, with each passing glimpse in a mirror, a reminder of her fortitude.
- Build in a healthy post-workout reward. Have a plan for your post-workout meal (including protein!), promise yourself a hot shower or bath. Periodically book yourself a therapeutic massage, which can even be scheduled for right after a workout.
- Think an hour down the road. In about an hour from the time your workout begins, you'll be DONE! Guaranteed, you won't have regretted spending your hour exercising versus watching TV. Hindsight is 20/20, but foresight can be sharp too. Imagine yourself in an hour's time. Make that person proud.
- Exercise with a friend - or better yet, a Personal Trainer! It may seem obvious, but a training partner - especially a knowledgeable professional Personal Trainer - is going to help you do ALL of the above and MORE. Keeping you accountable over time and getting you to the location in the first place are big parts of a Personal Trainer's job, in addition to keeping you motivated through workouts, crafting intelligent exercise programs for you, guiding your form and intensity, and helping you understand the "Why's" of what you're doing. Working with a trainer is a financial investment, but a smart and educated trainer is worth every penny.
Keep your momentum - Work that gets results
Building momentum through consistency is key for living an active lifestyle. But all exercise programs are not equal under the sun. For many who've "tipped the point" and have some great momentum going, they lose it a few months in because they aren't seeing or feeling the kinds of results they've imagined. That's why you not only have to workout, you have to workout well. Exercise selection, intensity, progression over time, and GOOD FORM are the chunky ingredients in an effective exercise stew. Everything else is bathwater. If you need guidance, come visit us at True Fitness and Nutrition or let us help you find a top quality professional in your area.
Your Tipping Point
Once you tip over the hump and momentum is flowing, your body is going to be a willing partner in your efforts. Until then, your mind may need to lead the way. You may not realize precisely when you tip, but eventually you'll be a person for whom weekly workouts are no longer a question of "If", only precisely "When".
I tip my hat to you all and hope to see you soon.