Really, is there anything more depressing that making a goal for the 15th year in a row to exercise more? And knowing that, just like in each of the last fifteen years, this commitment to exercise will fade in February or March with a quick resurrection in April or May (because summer is coming!) morphing painfully into a brownie-enhanced slide into June, July…October…and, um, who wants to start to exercise before the food-filled Holiday season!
Perhaps I am not talking to you. Perhaps you are on exercise like hands on a clock, and you have that constant healthy glow from your workout at the gym not four hours ago. If that’s the case, you are in great shape, I applaud you and urge you to read another article.
But if you struggle with regular exercise, and the thought of another January filled with goal-setting pressure is daunting enough to drive you to donuts, then stick with me for another few hundred words.
Believe this: even you can begin to regularly exercise. Seriously. Even you. But in order to make this happen, you can’t do it the way you’ve tried to do it in the past. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not working. So the solution isn’t to do it more, harder and faster! The solution is to find another way to make it work and try that. Eventually, if you don’t give up, you will find what works. Think about this more as a behavioral habit issue, and not as an indication of personal pathology. Don’t waste your time and energy beating yourself up about it.
Change Your Focus
Change your focus. Instead of trying to increase your level of motivation, increase your level of commitment. Motivation varies from day to day depending on circumstances like how much sleep you’ve had lately, how much your legs hurt, how much your boss is annoying you, etc. Relying on your motivation level to keep you exercising is about the most unreliable method I can think of. Instead, the key is to increase your ability to keep a commitment.
- In order to keep a commitment you have to do the behavior whether or not you feel like it. Commitment is not traditional style of the average American citizen who makes decisions based on how he or she feels in the moment. If you wait to go to the gym until you really feel like going….well, you’ll probably be waiting a long time.
- Don’t worry that you’ll be a fake or hypocrite by going when you really don’t want to go. What matters is that you show up and go. You don’t have to “mean” it. You just have to DO it. You don’t have to want to do it. You just have to barely do it.
- Also, don’t worry about whether or not you do a “good” enough job at working out. What matters is that you show up. If you do a lousy five minute workout it still counts. You went to the gym.
Create the Habit
The most important thing to do first is to create the habit. After the habit is created then you can work on the quality of your actual workout.
It may be that you aren’t used to being accountable to yourself. Perhaps you let yourself off the hook a lot of the time, and thus you feel unreliable at best. You don’t really trust yourself. This leaves you vulnerable to depression.
Exercise and Depression
Speaking of which, exercise is one of the most effective ways to both protect yourself against becoming clinically depressed (I mean actually “medically” depressed, not just bummed or discouraged) or to relieve clinical depression.
A study at Duke compared the effect of exercise to taking antidepressants. Results showed that exercise was comparable to the antidepressant over four months (but of course with a much, much better side effect profile. I mean seriously, review the side effects of exercise. Better sleep, better metabolism, better blood sugar control, more confidence, more energy, better sex and a healthy glow. What’s not to like? Now go check out the side effects of any antidepressant. Depressing, isn’t it?). Anyway, after this first part of the study, the researchers took a look at the same participants a year or so later. Those who kept exercising had a significantly lower rate of relapse (getting depressed again) as compared to the group that stuck with medication.
There’s a great quote by an ancient guy named Edward Stanley. He said “Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” If you’re reading this magazine, you probably already understand the connection between taking care of your body and being in charge of your long-term health. But beyond that, exercise will improve your emotional and psychological health. You think more clearly, you literally create new brain cells, you set off a whole network of long reaching hormone, antioxidant, immune and metabolic effects, and you significantly boost your mood. Recently, the medical literature has been calling exercise a “first line” treatment for depression.
Exercise Has Other Benefits
Exercise helps regulate cortisol, the hormone that jumps when you are stressed out and is often dysregulated when you are depressed. Too much cortisol is hard on the body and can dysregulate your sleep, your blood sugar levels among other problematic effects. Exercise in order to help manage your cortisol levels. Exercise reduces inflammation, a potentially causal marker of depression. Exercise improves sleep and sleep is causally connected to depression. Exercise is also one of the most effective ways to manage blood sugar. It’s far more effective than insulin, which simply stores excess sugar as fat. Exercise lowers blood sugar by using it up, not by storing it.
Try Exercise Differently
So this year, let’s try to do things differently. Instead of focusing on losing 10 pounds (or whatever it is you tell yourself every year), focus merely on showing up for an exercise session every single weekday. After all, you don’t want to reinforce the habit of skipping exercise. So do it five days a week. (Any weekend exercise can count as a bonus.)
Identify something you can realistically do. Be very down-to-earth here. Maybe you need to commit to a 15 minute session with YouTube because you know you can reliably access that wherever you are. Don’t strive for the ideal, just find what will work.
Make a Commitment
Then make a commitment to do it. Track your progress. Ignore your failures. Reinforce your successes, no matter how minute they seem. Focus on building commitment behaviors, and not on pounds or minutes spent exercising. This is your good start. Once you get good at showing up for exercise, then you can start in on improving the quality of your workout.