I will make a frank admission: I hate exercising.
That sounds like a weird thing to say, given that I’m a health and fitness guy. I’ve talked to loads of people who love it- they love getting up, going to the gym, running, the whole package. I have a friend who spends two hours exercising every day.
I don’t like it. I do, however, love the health benefits and overall feeling of wellness that it brings me. To steal a phrase from the novelist Frank Norris:
I hate exercising, but I love having exercised.
I tried going to the gym every day once, right after I got out of college. I dragged myself out of bed at 5 AM every work day morning, determined to get my hour workout in before work started. I had to will myself to do it, hated every moment of it, and the seconds I spent in the gym seemed to pass agonizingly slowly. This routine lasted about a month before I abandoned it, and I didn’t go to the gym for months after that.
I had burned out.
Fast-forward: it’s five years later, and I have been exercising every day without fail for over a year. It’s not a struggle, I don’t have to think about it- in fact, I often don’t think about it. I just do it, and it comes easy and naturally.
So how did I go from hating exercising to loving it?
Easy: I didn’t. I still hate it. But I just switched it to autopilot.
I made it a habit.
Humans operate on habits. It’s a fact. Up to 40% of our day is on autopilot in some cases, according to recent research. This is a good thing- things like getting dressed and brushing our teeth simply don’t need the mental power, and so we don’t think about them. They’re just things we do- we don’t have to convince ourselves to get dressed or brush our teeth (except on those really, really lazy days).
Habits have some flip sides too- they’re hard to break, which is bad for bad habits. And they’re hard to make, which is bad for when you want to make a new, good habit (as was the case for my exercising).
Making a habit isn’t as easy as just starting to do something every day. You’ll notice that I failed above at going to the gym every morning- despite trying it for over a month, it never became a habit.
So what gives? Why didn’t that stick, but my small training regimen every day did?
The answer is simple. Think about your habits: you get up, you brush your teeth, take a shower. Maybe you’ve got some bad ones- maybe you bite your nails, or pick your nose, or something else.
Good or bad, what do all of these things have in common?
They’re small, nearly effortless actions- and that means repeating them and building on them is easy!
Start small and work your way up
So you can’t start big. The crazy big gym workout? That was never going to work for me- it was simply too big for me to force it to become a habit. In fact, it was actually a counterproductive goal:
The trick is to start with something small, something you can do really quickly, preferably in 5 minutes. For me, it was 10 pushups and 10 situps, and I did them right as I woke up. No ifs, ands, or buts- I got up, took a sip of water, and did my 10 pushups and 10 situps. I did this for a few weeks. I didn’t enjoy it, I was never inspired to do it, and I was never excited to do it.
But I did it. That was my goal every day, and every time I completed it, even though it was super easy, I felt a little burst of pride and accomplishment. I did it until I no longer had to think about it and no longer felt the pride or accomplishment- it was simply something I did.
And then I built on them with other body weight exercises (which I took from Nerd Fitness’ excellent guide here) little by little. I added lunges one week, then jumping jacks the next, and after a little over 2 months I had a fully formed 20 minute workout I did every morning without thinking about it.
Focus on doing, not results
I know what you’re thinking- it’s what I was thinking too.
“But 10 pushups and situps won’t do jack for me.”
You’re right. It won’t. That’s not the point here- the point is to start yourself setting a good habit by starting small. Look at it a different way: instead of doing 0 pushups, you did 10. Or 5. or 1. What matters is that you did more than zero! And that more than zero will eventually turn into a habit if you nurture and grow it.
What you’re focused on here isn’t the results- this isn’t a get buff quick scheme that aims to take you to Superman status in 30 days or less. What you’re doing instead is nurturing a long-term habit that will allow you to build a base of consistency that you can build off of.
For example: let’s say you’ve gotten to 20 minutes of exercise in the mornings, but you’re lacking in aerobic exercise. So you combine the 20 minutes with 5 minutes of running. Then after a few weeks you add another 5 minutes. Then another, making sure to layer your good habits and build on them. By the end of a few months, you’re doing body weight exercise for 20 minutes every day and running for 20 minutes every day, and I defy anyone to say that won’t have measurable effects on your health and well-being.
Exercising is tough. Remember: I hate exercising. I love having exercised. And if you make exercise a habit, little by little, you won’t even have to deal with the process of exercising: you’ll just do it on autopilot, and the results will come flowing to you!