So you’ve decided you want to get into better shape for the new year, congratulations! Eating better and exercising can not only add years to your life, but better health practices can also extend the number of years you’re able to live independently without resorting to assisted living or nursing home care.
Maybe you’ve made the decision to take better care of yourself in the past and abandoned the effort. I did the same for years before inevitably falling back into old habits, generally before the first week of February.
Here are some tips for keeping your new health and workout regimen going, even if you are a fundamentally lazy person like me who would so much rather be laying on the couch eating Chips Ahoy cookies than running on a treadmill.
1. Start small.
In 2008, I was a completely sedentary pack-a-day smoker with a bad knee who was fond of quoting illustrator Alec Yuill Thornton on the topic of physical exertion.
“I consider exercise vulgar,” Thornton famously said. “It makes people smell.”
When I made the decision to get in shape, I started with walks every day in my neighborhood, then moved up to intervals on the elliptical machines at a gym. Now I run, box, lift weights, do ballet barre training and yoga.
“Start out with small changes,” said trainer Beverly Provost of Athens, Georgia’s All Body Fitness Studio in an interview. “Look at the little things that you can do to improve your lifestyle piece by piece.”
2. Consult a professional.
This should perhaps have come first. Before any person undertakes a new diet or exercise regimen, they should consult their physician to make sure that they are engaging in a level of exercise that is appropriate to their physical condition.
Personal trainers can be expensive, but even one session a week with someone knowledgeable can set beginners on the path to better health. A trainer can help design a safe, sustainable workout plan for anyone.
3. Find something you really like to do.
If the thing you start with is too hard, you won’t keep doing it. It’s that simple. So don’t be disappointed in yourself if you can’t jump right up off the sofa and start running five miles a day. Little changes are the place to begin.
“Run, ride or row are your three best forms of cardio,” said Provost. Exercise bikes and rowing machines provide a good workout with minimal strain on bones and joints. “If running is tough for you, power-walk until you can jog a little, then walk and jog. Then keep doing that.”
4. Set reasonable goals.
You probably won’t have abs like Ryan Gosling this year if you’re not already heavily genetically gifted in that direction. Also, if you get winded running to the end of the block, you probably won’t be entering this year’s Iron Man triathlon.
The good news is that there nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, a common mistake people make is to try to do too much.
“If you try and change everything all at once, that’s not sustainable,” said Provost, “and you’re going to end up falling back into your old habits. It’s setting yourself up for failure rather than setting yourself up for success.”
5. Listen to your body.
A common mistake people make is going at their new exercise routine so hard that they end up injuring themselves. I personally was so excited about getting in shape back in the fall of 2008 that I worked out seven days a week for a month until I ran myself down to the point that I got a nasty respiratory infection.
Provost explained, “Think about your workouts like a bank account. Every workout is taking money out of the account. Every time you do recovery work like stretching, using the sauna, getting massages or taking rest days, you’re putting money back into the account. All these things that feel good, they’re adding to your account. As long as you’re putting more in than you’re taking out, you won’t overdraw.”
6. Let go of how you look in the gym.
Here’s a secret: No one looks good when they exercise. We sweat. Our faces turn red. We move in awkward and unnatural ways. It’s just a fact.
The rule of the gym is a lot like the rule of the dance floor. If people are paying undue attention to what’s going on with you, then they’re doing it wrong.
Here’s another secret: People who actually do look really cool at the gym don’t typically look that cool anywhere else. Have you ever seen one of those huge, bulging guys in his stringy tank top at the grocery store buying toilet paper or standing in line at the bank? Don’t they kind of look like they’re from Mars? I rest my case.
7. Don’t chase numbers on the scale.
Weight can go up and down wildly over the course of the week according to a person’s level of hydration or even the time of day when they weigh themselves. You can experience what I did where you work out for months, take inches off your waist, vastly improve your cardiovascular health and still gain weight. Muscle tissue is denser and weighs more than fat.
Some people believe that body composition tests are a more accurate measure of health, but Provost said that ultimately it’s up to each person to find what works for them.
8. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Everyone’s body changes and responds to exercise in a different way. Some people bulk up quickly. Some people gain considerable strength but stay lean. Some people you see at the gym have been working out since they were teens. Some of them are people who realized as adults that their bodies weren’t in fact immune to the effects of aging and that they needed to do something about it.
“You’re not there for them,” Provost said. “You’re there for yourself. It’s good to have people to look up to, but trying to look or be exactly like another person is not going to work because you are your own person. You’re different. Your body is going to respond differently and you have to listen to it.”
The only person whose results you need to care about, she said, are your own. The only person you’re competing with is your former, out-of-shape self.
Good luck and happy new year!