Find it hard to stick with an exercise routine? Alexia Santamaria finds out how to turn those good intentions into everyday habits that will make you feel healthier and happier.
Sometimes it seems as if there are two types of people – those who can’t live without their daily run or gym session and those for whom exercise is a once-in-a-while thing, squeezed in (if you’re lucky) between work, socialising, chores or whatever else is more interesting or pressing at the time. It can seem as if you’re either born to love fitness or born to binge Netflix – and there’s not much in between. Fortunately, that’s not the case, and it is possible to become one of those people who exercises regularly, even if you’ve been inactive for a really long time. We all know moving more is good for us – for maintaining a healthy weight, slowing age-related degeneration or reaping the endless mental health benefits. And it’s never too late to get into exercise, even if you’ve spent your entire life at the sedentary end of the scale.
The right reasons
Roderick Crichton knows all about this. The musician and owner of Roddy’s Cakery is 29kg lighter than he was at the beginning of 2021.
Despite never having been able to stick to any exercise regime for more than a couple of weeks, he has been going to his F45 sessions faithfully five or six days a week since May. Even in lockdown he’s worked out daily and family and friends laugh about the fact that he says the thing he’s missed the most in lockdown has been the gym. “No one could ever have imagined me saying something like that at any point in my life,” he laughs.
For Roddy, the difference between previous attempts (name any diet or exercise challenge and he’s tried it) was addressing his why. “I’ve been very conscious about size and weight my whole life and in 2020 I hit rock bottom. This year I decided I had to do something, but realised it had to be holistic – addressing my mental, emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing at the same time. I was isolated and my self-esteem was low, and that had a huge flow-on to my mental health. I started looking at my eating, but knew exercise needed to be a huge part of the picture too.”
For Roddy it was a set-up, in the nicest possible way, that started him on his journey. A friend who works at F45 in Auckland’s Grey Lynn invited him to “coffee with friends”. The friends turned out to be her gym buddies and Roddy was surprised to see they were all different shapes and sizes, and that there were a “couple of Island guys” just like him. He was persuaded to go along to a session and has never looked back. “For me, I think it was the social element and feeling safe that helped me stick to it. The first class was so ugly and so hard, but being around a group of people who cheer you on and make no judgements was amazing.”
Roddy loved the fact that his F45 family celebrated even the smallest of wins and “hit him up” if he was late, or not there. Being part of a community was a game changer for him, and the mental health benefits were as significant as the physical. “I haven’t felt this good as a person for as long as I can remember – I can even do box jumps and burpees! I am definitely in this for the long run.”
The first hurdle
But what if you find groups intimidating? F45, CrossFit and boot camps aren’t for everyone. Les Mills personal trainer Claire Bellingham has helped clients with their fitness for 16 years and is almost at the end of a post-graduate diploma in psychology. “After a decade and a half working with people’s exercise habits I’ve noticed that those who stick to it are often the ones who can push through the initial barrier. It’s that barrier of discomfort where it seems very difficult – difficult to schedule, difficult to actually do. Once they push through that they start to gain momentum with their motivation which makes it much easier to keep going.”
Claire says the most important muscle for exercise success is your brain. “Exercise increases blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to your whole body, including your brain’s prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain helps you keep track of your goals and supports you to override the impulses and excuses that stand between you and achieving them. So your exercise programme is the beginning point for development of healthy habits in other areas.”
She says some people are fortunate, and fall in love with a certain type of exercise. This often happens to people who enjoy the camaraderie of a high-energy group dynamic. However, some people never fall in love with exercise, and that’s okay too. Super-enthusiastic or not, we all need the basic physical functionality and protection from illness that an exercise regime provides, so it’s all about finding ways to make it work. “If people have struggled before, I find it can be helpful to encourage them to aim low rather than high. If they think they can walk three days a week, then I get them to initially aim for two and then over-achieve on it. It’s far better than not going at all, and the feeling of achievement and raised self-esteem can spur further exercise.”
Little and often
Cate Grace, of Whānau Whanake in Christchurch, is a true expert in taking up exercise from a standing start. A qualified personal trainer who lives every day with the ups and downs of rheumatoid arthritis, she works with many people who also have chronic health conditions or disabilities. “Many of the people we work with have some major challenges, but by working in small steps they can actually achieve big things. Sometimes you have to start really, really simple, like walking to the end of your street once a day and drinking enough water. Dehydrated muscles can really make you feel like you’re dragging yourself through mud so it’s way more important than people realise.”
Cate is a big advocate of exercising little and often. She says it might only be a 10-minute walk, but doing it often will almost always lead to adding a few more minutes on days when energy levels are high.
“We find one of the most important things is teaching people to connect their exercise with something they enjoy and can hold on to. If flowers and trees are their thing, walking where there are plenty of them will increase enjoyment and make them more likely to want to do it again. Same with listening to an audiobook while they jog or do some other form of exercise; it makes them look forward to getting out and getting into that next chapter. For some, it might be using exercise as a way to catch up with a friend or doing something they really love, like dancing. It’s important to connect positively to the concept of exercise.”
The Whānau Whanake team also encourage their clients to be prepared so they get ahead of barriers that can arise – to have their phones and earbuds charged if they want to listen to music, to make sure their exercise clothes are clean and easy to find, to have their water bottles filled and shoes by the bed. All these things make it so much easier to get out the door rather than find an excuse not to exercise.
“What’s really important right now is that people go gently and are kind to themselves,” says Cate. “Covid has definitely taken its toll and caused some people to do much less than they might have hoped over the last 18 months. By starting where you are, and not jumping straight in the deep end, but rather committing to do whatever you can manage every day, you’ll have a far better chance of going the distance and getting into exercise habits that will stick.”
How to make it happen
- Be kind to yourself. I spent a lot of time not talking to myself in a very kind way and that was a big part of the problem. Celebrate all your wins, no matter how small you may think they look to other people.
- Don’t look at exercise in terms of weight loss and trying to lose the most weight in the quickest time. I did that for years and it only led to burnout and perpetuated the self-hatred I was already experiencing. Seeing exercise as part of an overall health picture was game changing.
- Identify your barriers – name and shame them if you need to. Most people who are out of the habit of exercise have a well-established repertoire of excuses they’ve fallen back on in the past. Those excuses often involve things like time restraints or needing to focus on family and work commitments. It’s easy to convince yourself that housework or emails are more pressing than exercise. Pay close attention to the triggers that consistently derail your routine and work to create habits that you don’t constantly break.
- Assume the identity of an exerciser – this might mean buying some new shoes or comfortable workout gear you really like. Show yourself you mean business this time and you’re worth it. Regular exercisers don’t debate whether they should exercise any more than they debate whether they should clean their teeth each morning – workouts are just a fact of life. They don’t use up emotional energy summoning willpower to exercise – they do it on autopilot and use mental capacity for other tasks – this can be a great attitude to adopt.
- Do what you can every day – whether that’s a full-on workout or 10 minutes of stretches. Do something, it’s always better than nothing. We use the MIT and BAM systems with our clients. Every week they set their MITs (Most Important Tasks) and BAMs (Bare Ass Minimums). Even if it’s a low goal, it’s good to set what you will commit to doing even on tough weeks.