“Nothing’s better than the wind to your back, the sun in front of you, and your friends beside you.” – Aaron Douglas Trimble
By Leo Babauta
While getting in shape has been a start-and-stop-and-start-again affair for me over the last couple years, over the long run, I’ve become fitter than ever.
I’ve dropped more than 30 pounds altogether (or about 2 stone 6, for the British-inclined among you), I run regularly, I’ve become more consistent with strength training, and I’ve dropped several sizes in clothes.
I’m not saying all that to brag. If you saw the details of how I got here, it’s nothing to be proud of — I ran a marathon at the end of 2006 and then did a short triathlon but then stopped exercising altogether for awhile. I became a vegetarian and was eating very healthily (is that a word?) … but then I slowly started eating more junk food and gaining weight.
Recently, I dropped sweets from my diet (cakes, pies, donuts, candy, CHOCOLATE!, sodas, etc.), and surprisingly I don’t really miss them. I’ve been exercising with my sister and my wife on alternate days and it’s been great. I still have more pounds to drop, but I can’t complain. I’m healthy.
The ups-and-downs of my fitness efforts have highlighted some important points for me. Key among those points: don’t quit. If you mess up, and stop for awhile, that doesn’t mean you should quit altogether. Just keep going. You’ll get there eventually.
And during this journey, which hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop, and I’ve learned a lot over these last couple of years, about what works and what doesn’t.
What follows are some of the more important truths I’ve learned, in the trenches, that I’d like to share with you. Take from them what you will — everyone will find different things that work for them, but I think just about all of them are important to share.
“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” – Buddha
- Small steps. That you get fitter in stages, as you exercise more, is pretty obvious I think. You might start out just walking, but as you get fitter, you might add some slow jogging to your routine. And then eventually you’re running three miles, several stages later. However, this really applies to everything, including diet, and many people don’t realize that. You shouldn’t try to change your entire diet overnight — do it in stages. Small steps, one thing at a time, and you’ll get there. Just start eating more fruits at first, for example. Then cut out sodas. Then eat more veggies for dinner. Then change your white bread for whole wheat bread. Then cut out candy at work. And so on. The thing is, you get used to each thing after awhile, and so the changes don’t seem drastic. A year later, and you’re eating extremely healthily (that word again), and you can’t imagine going back to your old diet. Small steps — this is extremely key, to both diet and exercise.
- Find short-term rewards. Most people quit their diet or exercise program because they’re looking for immediate results. And they’re discouraged when they don’t get them. But you won’t get immediate results. One fitness trainer said something like, “After a month, you’ll start feeling some results. After two months, you’ll start noticing results. After three months, others will start noticing.” And that’s pretty true — it takes months before you start to see the results you want … but in the meantime, you have to look for other things to keep you going. Those shorter-term rewards could be simple things like the great feeling you get after a workout — that helps me stay motivated. Or you could give yourself a treat (something healthy, preferably) or buy a book or something like that.
- Track your progress. The scale is probably the most popular way to see your progress, but other ways include measuring your waist, or taking photos of yourself each month. You could also track your performance — for example, do a 5K every month to see if you’re getting faster, or log your miles to see them increase. However you do it, you should have some kind of objective way to see your progress over the weeks and months. Otherwise, you might not really notice the difference — but the numbers or pictures will.
- Enjoy yourself. Very very important. If you see your exercise as extremely difficult, or painful, you won’t be able to sustain it for long. You’ll quit. If you see your diet as very restrictive, or torture, you’ll go back to junk food in a short while. You must find exercise that you enjoy, and find healthy foods that taste good to you. Maybe not chocolate cake good, but good nonetheless. Experiment with new recipes until you find ones you absolutely love. (Try my soup and chili recipes for example.) Above all, enjoy the whole process. It’s what’s kept me doing it — I love my new life.
- Never ever give up. Maybe the most important truth on this list. If you give up, you won’t get to your goal. Very obvious, I know, but the problem is that people don’t put this into action. Messing up by falling back into junk food or stopping exercise — that happens. Life gets in the way. No one is perfect. Just forget about that stuff, and move on. Learn from your failures, adjust your plan to prevent the same thing from happening again, and start again. If you stop, that’s OK — just start again. Always start again. If you do that, there’s no way you won’t eventually get to your goal.
- Get a workout partner. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s been the key to my most recent exercise success. I began running with my sister, Katrina (who btw is an incredible inspiration — she’s come a very long way in the last year), and even though we’re at different levels, we really enjoy our runs. When we agree to meet at 5 a.m. for a run, I have to be there, or I disappoint her. And sure, once in awhile we cancel appointments, but most of the time we’re there, and we run, and that’s the important thing. These months of running with her have really gotten me in much better shape. Now I’m also running with my wife, so having two workout partners is taking me to another level. Get a workout partner. Best move I’ve ever made.
- Brush your teeth after dinner. This is such a simple thing, but it really helps. It makes you have that fresh, clean feeling in your mouth, and makes you not want to eat an after-dinner snack. For me, after-dinner snacks or desserts are what ruin my diet a lot of the time.
- Vary your workouts. This helps keep things fresh and fun. For runners, for example, don’t just do 3 miles every day at the same pace. Vary the distance, the route, the speed. Do intervals. And do stuff other than running — go hiking, go biking, play basketball, do strength training, swim, paddle. Mixing it up will get you in even better shape, challenging your body in new ways, and making it an enjoyable process.
- Focus. There are always a lot of things we want to accomplish, goals we want to focus on … but by spreading ourselves thin, we lose focus and energy. Focus on one thing at a time in order to really get it ingrained as a habit. For example, for one month, focus on adding healthier foods to your diet (and dropping some of the less healthy ones). After that month, it’ll be ingrained. The next month, add walking or jogging or something like that, and only focus on that. One goal at a time, one month at a time, and you’ll get healthy.
- Rest is important. People who really get into exercise often forget this. Without rest, exercise just keeps breaking down our muscles, and they don’t have time to recover and grow. The exercise puts stress on our bodies, and the rest allows them to adapt and improve. Without the rest, they can’t really improve. You should always follow a day of hard workouts with a day of rest. If you’ve been exercising a long time (and then you probably don’t need this article), you can do hard-easy days, or rotate different types of exercises so that parts of your body are getting rest on different days, but even then always have at least one day of complete rest, or you’ll get burned out.
- Shoot for a year or two, not a few weeks. There are no instant fitness fixes, no matter what that website or magazine promises. Don’t believe them. Getting fit and healthy takes time, and should be gradual. If you’ve got a long way to go, aim to be healthy after a year. Those with a very long way might shoot for two years. Those closer to the goal could try for 6 months. Main thing: gradual improvement.
- Focus on your diet first. I’m a huge proponent of exercise for health and other benefits, but if you’re looking to lose weight and/or fat, the biggest factor is diet. You can cut out more calories from what you eat than you can burn with exercise. Of course, both should be vital components of your fitness regiment, but start on diet first, then add exercise. Don’t think that because you are exercising you can eat whatever you want (unless you’re a marathoner or triathlete or something like that) — you won’t reach your fitness goals that way, most likely.
- Don’t compare yourself to magazine models. Seriously. I’m sure we’ve all done this, wishing we looked like that slim or cut or buff model on the cover of a magazine. It’s natural. However, it’s not healthy. First of all, genetics plays a key factor in how these models look — most of us don’t have body types like that. Second, these models don’t usually look like that — they go on special diets a couple weeks before a photo shoot, so they look perfect for that day. Third, most of these magazines do some pretty heavy photoshopping. And fourth, what’s important is getting a healthy body image, not trying to look like a perfect model. Focus on health, not appearance.
- Find the exercise that works for you. I love running, but not everybody is born to be a runner. Many people enjoy swimming or water aerobics. Many like lifting weights. Many like cycling, or tae bo, or Pilates. Others like sports like basketball or soccer or rugby. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as you’re moving and you enjoy what you’re doing. Also find the solution that works best: working at the gym, going on the road (running and cycling, for example), working out at home (which I do), etc. Choose the one that you’re most likely to stick to.
- Learn to be present. Going back to one of the key principles above, “enjoy yourself”, one of the best ways to do that is to learn to really be present when you exercise and eat. For example, when you run, try to keep your mind in the moment, and feel your body and your breathing, and experience your surroundings as your run past them. As you eat, really taste the food and feel the textures, instead of gobbling it down mindlessly. It makes the entire experience much more enjoyable.
- Don’t let your body adapt too much. Sometimes we hit plateaus, where we’re still doing the same exercise but not really improving. The reason is that you have to keep changing things, either taking your exercise to a slightly higher level (gradually), or giving it new angles or routines. Otherwise, your body adapts to doing the same exercise over and over, and it stops improving. Once you start hitting a plateau, take it to a new level by increasing intensity or length of time in some way.
- Get inspired. Another key concept for me. I like to read blogs or websites that show me how others have been successful. One Zen Habits reader, for example, recently gave me some inspiration with his blog, Fat Man Unleashed. He’s doing a great job, making amazing progress, and it’s inspirational. Fitness magazines, for me, began to seem useless, because they just rehash the same articles over and over. But then I realized that I like to read these magazines for the inspiration, not the information. Find something to inspire you and it’ll keep you going.
“I am pushing sixty. That is enough exercise for me.” – Mark Twain