“Should I go to the gym today?”
“Is there time to work out with my busy schedule this month?”
“How can I exercise more?”
“Why can’t I get motivated with fitness?”
There’s one huge mistake that we make with this whole “getting in shape and staying healthy” thing, and those questions above are a clue to the error. Erasing this single mistake opens a whole new world of actually getting fit — and liking it. But what IS the mistake?
Before I continue on to explain this breakthrough, however, let me introduce myself, and specifically my qualifications to write this. Yes, I’m a travel writer, middle school teacher, and mother of two young kiddos, but what I haven’t talked about much on this blog — until now — is the foundational role that exercise has had in my life.
I’ve been working on this article for about 4 years, observing how my own fitness routines, frustrations, and benefits shifted over this extended time. I didn’t want to hit “publish” on this piece until I knew that the concept I’m about to explain could work and be sustainable in my own life, and that it could actually work for others. Now I know it can! So without further ado…
Here is the fundamental mind-shift needed to fix our fitness: EXERCISE IS NOT A QUESTION. The mistake we make is that punctuation mark. Huh? Stick with me to get the massive path this concept opens.
WHY is exercise not a question?
We do not question our need to eat, breathe, or sleep. Yes, there may be a day you ask, “Will I pull an all-nighter?” but we know ultimately that we need to sleep to live, and so we do. But when fitness becomes optional in our mind, any questions asked about it — “Should I go to the gym today?” — simply invite the answer: “Nope!”
I mean, it’s possible to live long and happily without it, right? Well, no. In a 14-year study that was recently released, adults who hit the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week proved 31% LESS LIKELY TO DIE prematurely.
We will dive deeper into that science next, but let’s first look at what is immediate and concrete.
For those of you reading who have experienced a time in your life where you did truly exercise, and have also experienced a time when you did NOT adequately exercise, you know the difference full well: Exercise keeps humans feeling physically and mentally great. When I don’t work out enough, things get bad on all levels.
Upon realizing that I am an angry rage monster without regular fitness, I began saying the following to my husband to schedule workouts in our busy lives: “I need to get my sanity today.”
Declaring that exercise is “my sanity” and that I am going to get it one way or another in the next 15 hours has a very different effect than asking questions to my spouse like, “Is there time for me to work out today with everything we have to do around the house?” or, “Is it ok if I exercise while the kids are napping?”
Using a declaration removes the underlying implication that fitness even is a question. It is not a question. It is a waste of time to treat it as such. I need to work out to stay functional, so my communications around exercise must be statements.
Do we have dishes piling up, and dinners that need to be cooked? Yes, but I am going to that exercise class for one hour anyway, because I am far more efficient cleaning the kitchen without tears of feeling awful clouding my vision.
But how do I fit exercise into my busy schedule?
This brings us to time logistics. No, it is not convenient to eat every day, but we find a way to make it happen, because eating food is not a biological question. If exercise becomes a given, like food, time must and will be made.
One day when I was in a frenzy of exercise withdrawal — exhausted and over-booked from two jobs and two kids — I suddenly realized that instead of taking a bus then a train from school, I could just walk the three miles home. Magically, exercise then fit into that afternoon.
Since that realization, I’ve done the walk home almost every day. I now have figured out how to add organized exercise classes to my schedule, too, but that daily hour walk home has become the base of my physical happiness, providing quiet solo time with nature, and a reminder that exercise is functional. (Thank you, legs, for saving our family the cost of a second car!)
Long, purposeful walks are not an option for most people, but this is just one illustration of how we can and must jam in physical movement, by whatever means necessary, into the nooks and crannies of our packed schedules.
The Science of Exercise Saving Your Life
Let’s examine exercise science now. The body of research on the superpowers of exercise is becoming un-ignorable. The New York Times article called, “The Closest Thing to a Wonder Drug? Try Exercise.” details the sprawling array of physical and mental benefits to fitness.
Exercise reduces death by heart disease and stroke and slows aging. It eases arthritis, hypertension, chronic fatigue, effects of cancer treatments, and Parkinson’s disease. It speeds healing to the point of hospital discharge, thus saving countless dollars. Exercise is literally a matter of life and death. Exercise is not a question.
These health benefits stretch FAR beyond just looking cute, but do take a moment to acknowledge the glory of toned muscles. For anyone who has experienced the total life shift of feeling truly splendid in one’s own body, it is no question that it’s worth pursuing. It is not mere vanity — it changes everything.
Meanwhile, a growing number of studies have also highlighted the effectiveness of exercise in helping fight depression. A recent investigation highlighted weight-lifting in particular as a powerful tool for mental health.
Exercise is increasingly — and correctly — being referred to as “The Magic Pill.” If the benefits of exercise were actually in a drug, people would be clamoring to buy it. What stands between us and those benefits now are the mental and logistical blocks.
But I can’t afford to work out!
This brings us to the next element: Money. If exercise is not a question — and in fact is a foundation of physical and mental health, more important than most medicines — then money cannot be an object.
Now, a disclaimer: Money is tight for most. I am not suggesting that people have hundreds of dollars lying around for the most expensive fitness options out there, but I do maintain that humans far underestimate our ability to financially budget in exercise.
Further, we do not take into account the massive future savings on the health complications of NOT exercising. If working out is the “magic pill” that researchers are revealing, we are preventing untold thousands of dollars in medical bills through investing in exercise NOW. It is always worth it.
Finally, if exercise is not a question, and thus money and time cannot be an object in making it happen, be honest about what is worth it.
• A $10 a month gym membership that you never use — or use just once a month — is worthless.
• Three sessions with $70 an hour personal trainer session to pinpoint exactly what your body needs, fix technique to avoid injury, and create a program that you use forever is worth every penny.
• A $30 weight set that gathers dust in your laundry room is worthless.
• A $150-a-month workout program with a community of people that keeps you motivated and attending, and a program that perfectly pushes you fitness development and makes you feel great is worth every penny.
Yes, I said it — even $200 a month exercise program is 100% worth it if it’s effective, you use it regularly, and it doesn’t leave you destitute. And a free or $10 program or workout set is perfect too — as long as you use it. Be honest and responsible in budgeting, but don’t forget that you’re making a major investment in your present and future.
12 Concrete Strategies to Exercise More
Before we get into actionable tips about making fitness actually happen, please understand that it all starts with the mindset, “Exercise is not a question.” Everything else stems from this.
Fitness is happiness versus being a rage monster. It is life or death. It is non-negotiable. Physical health is the foundation of everything you want in your life, from effectiveness at work, to relationships, to being a wonderful parent… to actually being alive.
Now, know that I am not a doctor, and it is up to you to consult your own body and medical professional about what is safe and appropriate for YOU. That said, as long as we are responsible, there is some form of exercise — however small — to fit every human out there.
With that in mind, here are 12 strategies gleaned from both my own experience, and from the thoughts offered by people who generously responded to my queries on social media. (Thank you, all who answered!)
1. Experiment widely.
What works to exercise more is different for every person, and evolves in your own life as time passes. The ideal fitness routine when you have a baby at home is totally different than when kids or older, or if you’re solo, or if you move to a new place. Dance with it and don’t give up.
Poke around the logistics of your schedule, geography of your workplace and home, and edges of your budget. Is there a gym on the map just past your job that you’ve overlooked? Is there a wild new class that inspires and excites you? Is there a way to make the finances or motivation of exercise work by joining forces with other people? If you put yourself out there and ask your network what they recommend, what will they help you come up with? Play with it.
This year alone I’ve tried running, ClassPass, CrossFit, Bootcamp, an independent gym, walking, HIIT training, dance workouts, Bikram yoga, regular yoga, personal training, TRX, kid and parent workouts, machinery at home, a spinning studio, heavy weightlifting, swimming, mountain climbing, and more. It’s taken a while to get into a groove that works, but once that right routine clicks, you know it, and all that matters is that SOME form of exercise is happening regularly.
2. Anything is better than nothing.
Tell yourself that, to get out the door and arrive at your workout spot. If you do 10 minutes on the elliptical, that’s better than not exercising at all. We know full well that the hardest part is actually showing up. Once you’re there, odds are that you’ll do more than 10 minutes.
3. Find your proximal zone of development.
As a teacher, I have to throw in an education term, right? One’s “proximal zone of development” is the very edge of what you can do alone, nudged forward with an instructor’s help. It’s what helps you grow and learn, rather than stagnate, and it’s deeply important to find.
Although it’s better than nothing to do 10 slow minutes on an elliptical as your only exercise, there’s nothing like a trained instructor to push you forward. This may look like a friend working out with you and (responsibly) pushing your speed or lifting, or a bootcamp class, or a personal trainer. Regardless of how, please do sprinkle instructors like this into your life to keep fitness moving forward. The difference in effects is big.
4. Leverage peer pressure.
The majority of us are motivated by other humans, and it takes surprisingly little to use this to your advantage in the fitness sphere.
The people that can change your life with motivation do not have to be best friends — in fact, you can barely know them — but the key is to identify one or two people who are part of the exercise element you want motivation to attend. Ask them if you can exchange numbers (or social media profiles) to do quick check-in messages.
For example, what’s kept me going to a local spinning studio is a group chat I’m in with two other attendees. I’ll message something like, “I don’t want to go!” and they’ll respond, “I’m going at 5:45pm — see you there!” and that simple set of pixels gets me out the door. Thank you, ladies! (Check out this amazing health blog by one fellow workout buddy.)
Another way to do this is to start a bigger local Facebook group (or message board on another platform you’re comfortable with). For example, say you live in a town called Muscleville. Spend 5 minutes throwing together a Facebook group called, “Muscleville Exercise Group” and invite a few of your acquaintances to join, then ask them to invite a few others. Again, the people in this group don’t need to be best buddies — just mutually motivating.
Posts in the group can then share local exercise opportunities and ideas, as well as match people with nearby, like-minded workout partners. As with all online endeavors, please use judgement with safety, but you’d be surprised how well groups like this can work, with quite minimal effort.
For those who prefer to be offline, see what can be combined with socializing. This matches especially well with long walks. Perhaps establish a weekly Sunday morning walk-and-schmooze with a friend, or a 4pm Wednesday date when you walk while catching up on the phone with a loved one who lives out of town. (Inexpensive belts can hold your phone to maintain ergonomics and free hands.) If you’re a high-powered business person, try taking conference calls or even meetings outside or to a local track to walk and talk.
Time to have a tough conversation with a partner or kid? Walking while discussing can take off the pressure of eye contact and thus better open emotions. When arranged effectively, exercise can enhance other aspects of life, not take away from them.
5. Create clear goals.
What motivates us varies widely, but for some people, registering for a race 6 months away provides priceless structure. For others, the goal that lights a fire of fitness is to look stupendous for a specific event or dress.
For still others, the aim is to build up to lifting a specific weight, or to run a mile in under a certain time, or do at least 3 workouts a week. Pick a goal, share that goal with people who can help hold you accountable, and watch the path to fulfilling it spring open!
6. Remember functional exercise and nature.
Some of the best workouts are beyond the gym. Look outside. “Forest bathing” — walking in nature — works wonders for the soul, and hiking (either through a city or up a mountain) is gold.
Meanwhile, functional household activities like vacuuming or playing with kids pump the heart and muscles, too. I would just caution you to remember tip #3: Realistically monitor whether you are hitting your proximal zone of development, and if not, add in that push from a trained instructor. Once you feel the high of a fully pushed workout, it’s hard to forget!
7. Actually do the math.
If you know there is a exercise opportunity that you’ll do and will make you fit and happy, but it just “seems so expensive,” pause and actually do the math. What does your monthly budget truly contain?
Is there something else in your finances that you have you been freely paying for which has NOT bothered you, but which is not nearly as important as the magic pill of exercise? Be honest! Upon really examining the numbers, even $200 a month on fitness may emerge to be both possible and worth it.
This brings us to the question of punch cards versus unlimited memberships for certain gyms. I would strongly encourage you to opt for an unlimited membership versus pay-per-visit. The mind-shift is massive.
When I had a 10-visit punch card at a local bootcamp, the motivation is to “save” the punches and NOT go. “Why waste a visit on a day I’m feeling so tired?” I would ask. But again — exercise is not a question, and thus setting up the, “I need to go as much as possible for it to be worth it” motivation of an unlimited membership is key.
Doing the math works particularly well with unlimited monthly memberships. Say your monthly workout membership is $120. If you use it once in a month, that was a $120 workout. If you go twice, each workout was $60. Set a number in your head for how much you want your workouts to cost, then schedule to go the number of times which mathematically makes it fit. For me, I aim for $10 a workout, which means I’d put structures in place to go 12 times in the month.
8. Consider gear, technology, and food.
Though it’s not my thing, my husband and several members of our local fitness group on Facebook emphasize that specific technologies have transformed their exercise routines. Heart rate monitors, tools to time and chart runs, apps (especially those which bring in positive peer pressure), and specific items of clothing or shoes can all make a difference.
For women, issues with bust support can be a huge deterrent. Though numerous high tech sports bras exist, what changed the game for me was finding the perfect combination of two bras to layer: on the bottom an everyday wireless like the 18-Hour Playtex bra, and on top a sports bra like a simple Champion with a clasping back so there’s no need to do the wiggle dance of pulling it over your head.
I’m adding food and hydration into this category, because trying to get fit on a diet of junk food instead of quality nutrition is like attempting exercise in high heels instead of sneakers. You know what you need to eat and drink to feel good, and if you don’t know, it’s worth it to get trained help and support to learn.
9. Anticipate injuries.
Whether we work out or not, things happen to our body. It’s a fact of life. Be proactive about this by using correct form in fitness, and investing in the time or money for a trained professional to check it. Budget for massage, physical therapy, personal training, and chiropractors, as they will save huge amounts of money down the road by preventing injuries from occurring or getting worse.
Do not, however, let injuries stop your exercise. Of course, use judgement and doctor guidelines, but even when injured, pool workouts, chair movements, or slow stretching can be possible.
I will never forget the utterance of a personal trainer, as I did a fast ball-slam against the wall and asked, “Isn’t this dangerous?” He replied, “What is dangerous is NOT training your body to handle these fast, strong movements. The injuries that land people — especially as we age — in the hospital are slips which we haven’t trained our muscles to handle. Keep practicing movements like this, and when you trip (as we all do at some point), you’ll have the speed and stability to catch yourself. Thank me later when you avoid a hospital bill!”
10. Get family, roommates, or colleagues on board.
If people around you are regularly exercising, it is hugely motivating to do so yourself. I credit my fit-as-heck spouse for getting me back on the workout train after two pregnancies and a 40-pound weight gain walloped my body. Seeing Colin go run, stretch, and lift made me realize it was possible in our household, despite, all the laundry and diapers, and the “but there’s no time!” trap.
If the people around you are not active, however, look at it this way: You modeling regular exercise could literally save their lives. If you’re able to motivate any of them to start working out, life shifts can occur. While this sounds over-dramatic or exaggerated, it is 100% true — I’ve seen it happen. Be that person who changes the game for others!
If there’s a way to integrate exercise into your workplace with colleagues, it not only helps with motivation and scheduling (get the workout in BEFORE arriving home and collapsing in exhaustion), but it also produces powerful bonding. For a while I was working out regularly with a fellow teacher at my school, and let me tell you — surviving all those planks and push-ups together created massive trust and affinity between us that transferred into a workplace happiness.
If you’re feeling guilty that exercise is taking you away from your kids for an hour every day or two, hurl that guilt out the window. That hour is an investment in being alive long and strong for your children. It is modeling for the next generation how to powerfully self-care and commit to health. It is saving on future medical bills that could burden your family. And remember the corollary to “Happy wife, happy life” is, “Happy Mama, happy baby!”
11. Workshop your words.
For me, starting to say, “I need to get my sanity today” to schedule workouts changed everything, but for you, a different shift of words might open motivation up. Maybe it’s “Me time,” or “Self care.” Maybe it’s, “Hang out with my buddies at the gym,” “Delight in my body,” “Listen to the best music,” or, “Get huge.”
Given the 31% decrease in early death from adults who hit 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, a forceful utterance to kick off a workout could be: “I’m about to save my life.” You don’t have to phrase it or think of it like anyone else — just what makes you feel ownership, grin, and actually take action.
12. Find the addiction point.
This is the gold to shoot for: At a certain point, when you’ve hit a regular groove of exercise, there comes a threshold where you get addicted. This means that instead of dreading workouts, your body and mind will freak out if you DON’T exercise. Once you reach this point, everything becomes 100 times easier. Get there!
How to Exercise During Travel
Exercise doesn’t need to stop when you’re on the road, and in fact it can really enhance travel. Long walks through a new city (using common sense of course) are excellent functional exercise. Just use caution if trying a run — not that I learned the hard way by spraining my ankle jogging in the bumpy sidewalks of Havana, Cuba, or anything…
Of course, hotel gyms exist, too, along with workout guidance apps for your smartphone or computer, in addition to DVDs and subscription online programs. But there’s something many people forget: attending a local class.
When (or before) you arrive in a new place, Google around for local exercise opportunities — especially promotions, free trials, and discounts for new attendees.
During the month I just spent in Cleveland, Ohio, I found a bootcamp gym via a Yelp search which had the promotional deal of $37 for an unlimited month of bootcamp classes. I ended up loving it so much that I attended 15 times, meaning each class — classes that would normally be $20 a pop back in Boston — ended up costing $2.47. That’s some awesome math!
Here was the added bonus of joining this fitness center, however: I was able to get much deeper into the new city by meeting and bonding with local people I kept seeing at the classes. Sweating together builds connection and affinity for sure! “Argh — those battle ropes were insane!” is always a good ice-breaker because… battle ropes are always brutal. Hehe.
The Power of Exercise in Education
As a teacher, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the shocking connection between exercise and education. Increasing studies reveal that regular physical activity markedly boosts test scores, improves student behavior (even ADHD), helps calm effects of trauma, and builds positive class community.
Exercise can be integrated into individual classes (ex: a quick running-in-place or stretch break, or an activity that requires walking around the room to complete), but ideally schools will realize how powerful movement is, and budget time, space, and money to make movement, because the next generation depends on it.
Think about it this way: if you were the principal, and a magician told you there was a tool that could raise your students’ test scores, make them happier, and extend their lives, wouldn’t you jump to buy it? Oh wait — it’s just exercise!
Further, there is particularly powerful research around the positive effects exercise and sports have on girls, with regards to self-esteem, time management, grades, pregnancy planning, health, and achievement. I personally credit my high school and college participation in track and field with laying the foundation for my life of fitness.
We learn and achieve best when our bodies are healthy and happy, and fitness is integral to that. No more divorcing the mind from the body! They work together.
Race, Class, Access, and Exercise
For too long, exercise has been seen as a luxury privilege that is only for the rich, or chiefly for petite white women with straight blond hair and fashionable spandex. Thankfully, however, this is starting to change.
Communities of all types are beginning to mobilize around the fact that we ALL deserve health. It cannot be the privilege of just a few for our society to function optimally. While some movements to make exercise inclusive and accessible are springing from individual groups of people, others are being created by employers and even city governments.
In Boston, for example, the city has started an entire program of free outdoor fitness classes around different parks. Our local community center also offers $2 Zumba classes that are out of this world, and our neighborhood boasts a free running meet-up that times each person’s pace around a certain pond each Saturday morning to motivate speed progress.
Still, far too many workout classes remain overwhelmingly white and upper-income, which breeds the viscous cycle of not feeling welcoming for people who do not fit that mold.
It is up to each of us to keep taking action on the following mission: If exercise is not a question, but rather is a fundamental right for ALL people, how do we create accessible, inclusive fitness for every one of us? And yes, that includes YOU. Let’s do it!
Do This Now:
Congrats on finishing this giant article! Now, you may be tempted as a next step to sigh, “Yeah, I should work out more… eventually. Maybe?” NO! That’s not the point. The point of this whole thing is that it’s not a question. It’s not a “maybe” or “eventually,” it’s now.
So right now, take the following step: Open your phone and put an event in your actual schedule that is exercise. Maybe it’s writing in your calendar: “4:00 Tuesday: Walk 30 minutes to the store across town to buy fancy nuts.”
Maybe it’s opening the MindBody app and signing up for the workout class down the street that you’ve been putting off. Maybe it’s texting the friend who’s been harassing you to join her at Zumba, and replying, “Yes. When?”
The biggest happiness this article could bring me is if I learn it leads to actual actions, because each action that’s taken leads to another action, which leads to the exercise addiction point, which leads to a 31% lower chance of premature perishing.
Let’s extend some lives now — including our own!
Exercise Inspirations and Acknowledgements
This article took 4 years and over 4,500 words to write, and I hope it helps as many people as possible. Please add your comments, suggestions, additions, and experiences, and help share this widely with people it might assist.
This piece and my fitness development wouldn’t have been possible without the inspiration and support of numerous people. I would like to thank Marleny for the revelation that exercise is priceless, Angela for teaching that fitness is sanity, Renvil and the REPS instructors for creating such an inspiring workout space, Colin for showing that no schedule is too packed for fitness, everyone who responded on social media to my research questions for this article, my workout buddies for the motivating messages, and YOU dear reader, for making it through this mammoth article and its ridiculously posed photos.
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