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Consistency and Exercise

Four months ago, I decided it was time to do something about my diet and fitness. Over the prior six months or so, I had lost track of these issues, eating food that was bad for me (and too much of it), and exercising inconsistently at best. I can't say what led me to make the change, but looking back, I'd say it was a feeling that grew, the growth unnoticed like a child you see every day until suddenly you look up one day and realize they're taller than you. I woke up one otherwise unremarkable day and knew it was time.

Starting that day, I began rigorously keeping track of my diet and staying within guidelines I set for myself. I also began exercising five days a week, a mix of cardio work at the gym, a weekly soccer game, a weekly bicycle ride with my daughter, the occasional long walk, and lifting weights here and there. The results were good, but after a few weeks, I began to think I might feel and do better if I could exercise every day.

For as long as I can remember thinking about exercise, I've always assumed that days off were necessary components of an fitness regimen. Everything I can remember reading about exercise programs preached the idea of days off for all except elite athletes. But is that really good advice? Do we really need days off? I found myself not so sure, and wondering what would happen if I exercised daily without fail for an extended period of time. And I had always assumed that if I tried to exercise every day, I'd be setting myself up for failure. But is that true?

As it happens, other people have been thinking similarly. One blogger writes:

The first few times I tried to install exercise habits, they fell apart. Attempting to exercise three or four times a week, simply didn't stick. What eventually did the trick was making it a daily habit. It may seem counterintuitive that exercising more frequently is an easier habit to install, but when you look into the mechanisms that create habits, it makes sense.
And other blogger writes:
The problem with trying to make exercise a habit, and it's something that we've all faced, is that you usually try to exercise 3 or 4 times a week... and that makes creating a new exercise habit difficult. The reason is that the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit.
These entries were written after I made my decision, but it was nice to see people agreeing with me after the fact.

So, 12 weeks ago, I began exercising every day. I didn't make any other radical changes to my exercise habits, with the exception that I set a goal of lifting weights three times a week as part of my program. A typical week might look like this:

  • Monday: soccer game
  • Tuesday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer
  • Wednesday: elliptical trainer
  • Thursday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer
  • Friday: elliptical trainer
  • Saturday: weightlifting, elliptical trainer, walking
  • Sunday: bicycle ride
(I should note here why it is that running isn't a part of my program. I enjoy running, and ran my first half-marathon early last year, but have been suffering from a persistent case of tendinopathy in my left knee since then. Supervised physical therapy hasn't helped. After reading through the latest medical journal articles, I'm trying eccentric patellar strengthening at home, which seems to be helping, but very slowly. Until it's better, my orthopaedist's advice is to avoid impact activities as much as possible -- so the only running I do is during my soccer games. which I refuse to give up.)

At first, my goal was to see if I could go three weeks in a row without missing a day -- I couldn't remember doing that since I was in the Army over 20 years ago. When I reached three weeks, my goal became eight weeks -- I figured the longest stretch of daily exercise I might ever have had was that long, while I was in basic training back in 1980. Now I'm at 12 weeks and figure it's time to blog about what I'm doing.

So far, the results have been great. I'm losing a pound a week. I'm wearing clothes I hadn't put on in a few months. I have more energy. I'm sleeping more consistently. I'm feeling faster during soccer games and on bicycle rides -- I assume partly because my cardiovascular fitness is improving, and partly because I have less weight to move around.

I've also seen good results from the weightlifting. I had been lifting now and then for a couple of years, but never with consistency, and never tracking what I was doing. Now I'm lifting three times a week, and keeping a log of everything I do. I push myself to make progress -- even a little -- every session. I think I'm stronger than I've ever been, and I'm starting to see muscles appear in new places, which is nice.

All that said, I think the most important change has been in my attitude towards exercise. I don't think of it as something that I need to try to work into my day; I think of it now as a given, as something I will do no matter what. It's not always easy, I have to say. It means going to the gym at 5:00 AM because I know I'm going to be busy all day, or going at 11:00 PM because I've just flown in from a long trip. It means planning ahead, ensuring that no matter where I am, no matter what I'm doing, I have the opportunity and ability to exercise. Sometimes it just means exercising when I what I really feel like doing is going home, having dinner, and crawling into bed. But I always feel better for having exercised, both physically and mentally.

I wrote about the goals I've had: three weeks in a row, eight weeks in a row. I find myself no longer thinking in those terms. I don't feel like I need a goal like that to motivate myself on a daily basis. As one of the bloggers mentioned above wrote, "the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit". Daily exercise is a habit for me now, something I don't consider skipping. Of course, the day will come when I'm sick or injured and simply unable to do anything physical. I'm not looking forward to that day, but at the same time, I don't worry about it being the first step down a slippery slope. If I can't help missing a day or two, I believe I'll get right back out the next day and keep going. It's what I do now.

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