18 June 2014

Exercise - Part 3: Establishing a habit

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Once I'd decided that I wanted to exercise regularly I had to define what that meant. For me, it meant that at least 3 times a week I'd do something that raised my heart rate and got me breathing heavily for at least 10-15 minutes. I would, in the words of my doctor, push myself. That was my only requirement - that I felt like I was making an effort.

Walking was the simplest option, but I also did things like wash the car - it didn't take much to get me sweating, at first. (I'll talk more in the next post about the various workouts I do.)

I resolved to exercise first thing in the morning for a few reasons:
- it was the hottest part of the year and I wanted to work out before the day became too warm
- if I got my workout in first thing then I would be able to check it off for the day and not worry about something coming up later, or the weather turning to rain, or anything else that might result in missing a day
- I wanted to enjoy the full benefits of exercising with a day of feeling good about myself, and any increase in energy that might take place

So, first thing in the morning I would roll out of bed and immediately take off my pyjamas and put on my workout clothes. In the beginning this was a regular pair of shorts and T-shirt, with my (one and only) sports bra and (decent quality) running shoes. (I'll talk more about gear in a future post.)

I had to get dressed in something, so it might as well be gear that I was ready to exercise in. It made it convenient to walk out the door and begin, and it was linked to another habit (getting out of bed).

One of the roadblocks to exercising can be that it's just a hassle. It's a pain to have to get changed, and round up your equipment, and go to wherever you work out. I knew that if I was going to establish the habit then it had to be convenient to do or I wouldn't make the effort.

I set out my workout clothes on a little cabinet in the corner of my room, so that they were the easiest clothes to grab in the morning. I didn't even have to think about it. I also chose a walking route that began at my home so I didn't have to go anywhere.

Once school started I would occasionally walk with my friend Carley. I'd do the school run in the morning and drive straight to her home, which is near one of the schools, and we'd walk a route from her home.

Linking to another habit
One way of establishing a new habit is to piggy-back it onto another habit that is already routine for you. Click here for an excellent blog post explaining this. (By the way, that blog is an amazing source of information on habit establishment, as the author is busy writing a book on the subject.)

You could link your walking routine to the school run, or fit it in while waiting for your child's after-school class, or lift weights while you watch your favourite TV show each evening. Try to squeeze some activity into your day in a way that is prompted by something else that you do.

Now that my exercise habit is established I still keep my workout clothes on the little cabinet. I stack them like this: bra, top, pants; bra, top, pants (and spare tops at the bottom) with my shoes and socks next to the stack. It's easy to just grab an outfit and gear up.

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Prepare for loopholes / identify the problem
I know myself well enough to know the kind of excuses that I'd allow to derail my habit establishment. I highly recommend this post about loophole spotting - a little awareness goes a long way. I made a point of putting solutions in place so that my loopholes would not turn into excuses.

Loopholes or excuses are also sometimes what keep us from starting in the first place. Take a moment to try to identify the problem and proactively come up with a solution. Here are a few "problems" that are really just excuses.

"I don't have workout clothes"
Well, do you have regular clothes? I started exercising in regular clothes before investing in some (inexpensive) workout gear. If you can walk around your house in your regular clothes, you can walk around the neighbourhood in them (okay, maybe some might not be decent, but it won't kill you to take a walk in a pair of jeans, is my point). Sure, they might not be ideal but once you establish an exercising habit you will want to invest in it and you can pick up the clothes that you will need. Or, you know, just go and buy some gear before you start.

"I don't want to exercise / I don't feel like it"
Well, do you want to have less energy and sub-optimal health? I promise that you will start to want to - you just need to get moving first. Sure, you don't feel like it but you know it's in your best interest so maybe just put on your big-girl panties and just do it anyway.

"The weather is bad"
Is it raining? Do something indoors. Is it cold? Wear light, warm layers - you will warm up as you work out. Is it too hot? Go swimming or do something inside where it's air-conditioned. Seriously, you're letting a little bad weather be the boss of you?

And sure, you might sometimes get caught in the rain, but you might even find it refreshing.

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"I get bored when exercising"
Load it up your phone (or an MP3 player, which is inexpensive on eBay) with music. Or download an audiobook onto your phone to listen to. (I love listening to audiobooks while I walk, and they are free from my library through the Overdrive app.) Or meet up with a friend and work out together. Or start playing a team sport. Or go walking in a new area.

"I don't have time to exercise"
Really? Not even twenty minutes out of your day? Every single day of the week?? Okay, I know it can become more than twenty minutes when you factor in taking a shower afterwards, but if you shower in the morning anyway then try to squeeze in 20 minutes of exercise beforehand. I promise it will not kill you to wake up 20 minutes earlier. Or do some press-ups and cruches and lunges every time there's a commercial break while you're watching TV, or lift some dumbbells during your lunch hour, or park further away from the school and walk your child the rest of the way. If you're looking for excuses then not having enough time can be one, but if you're looking for solutions I know you'll find them.

"I have no energy"
I promise that you will have more energy after exercising. I know it doesn't make sense, but that's the magic of it.

"I've injured my ankle / knee / whatever"
So pick another activity that doesn't rely on that body part. If you have an ankle injury you can still lift weights and do crunches. If your arm is in a sling you can still walk. Stop being a wuss.

"It's dark out when I get to walk / run"
So pick a route with street lighting if possible, and wear reflective gear and (if necessary) a headlamp. Or do something indoors at home or at a gym.

"I don't like how it feels / I feel crappy when I exercise"
That's good! That's what creates change in your body. And guess what - as that change happens, you will stop feeling so crappy while you exercise. I used to get winded and my heart would thump before I was halfway down my street. Now I have to run down my street and another block and a half to get warm and breathe heavily. It astounds me how quickly I was able to establish some fitness - far quicker than I had expected with how unfit I was and the mild exercise I've been doing.

I think you get the picture. I'm not saying that you have to exercise. I'm not saying that you have to do it every day. What I'm saying is that if you decide that it's important to you then it's up to you to plan ahead and overcome the excuses / loopholes and protect your habit establishment. I'm also not saying it's easy, but I promise it will be worth it.

Using a tracker 
I found it helpful to track my exercise, and I'll talk more about the app I use in a future post. It really helped me to see the days that I did exercise and the days that I didn't. Sometimes a week can go by and you won't realise it's been that long since you worked out - that doesn't happen with a tracker.

My tracking app marks days that I do exercise in green and days that I don't in red. While establishing the exercise habit I hated to see too many red days in a row and would make the effort to correct the trend.

Here are the months that I tracked (I was exercising for a few weeks before I began tracking.)

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Another, more hard-core tracker and habit-establishing website is called stickK. From the website: "stickK is designed to promote a healthier lifestyle for you by allowing you to create "Commitment Contracts." A Commitment Contract is a contract that binds you into achieving a personal goal."

You commit to your habit, and choose an optional penalty if you don't do it, and stickK will make it happen (you do have to be honest in your tracking, obviously.) For example, if you commit to exercising 5 times a week and only log 4 workouts then your penalty might be to donate $10 to a charity of your choice. There are monetary and non-monetary penalties. There are also features that allow you to use a referee and you can involve friends for support. And guess what - it's all completely free! I haven't actually used the site myself (and am not affiliated with them in any way) but thought it was genius when I first heard about it, and wanted to mention it here.

When establishing an exercise habit you also need to decide if you will be able to establish the habit easier by yourself, or by relying on someone else or a class. I chose to rely on myself because then I wouldn't be derailed by my exercise buddy cancelling. I knew that I'd take it as an excuse for a day off.

But you might find that being accountable to someone else, or having to show up to a class that you've booked, or being depended on as part of a team makes it easier for you to stick to a programme.

I now work out every day (with the exception of a couple of days a month, as you can see above - life happens). I used to take a rest day once a week but found that I feel so much better on the days that I exercise and don't want to have a day where I feel worse, so every day it is. For those who observe the Sabbath I'm not talking about doing an hour spin class, or running a marathon - fitting in a walk with the family keeps things reverent while still fitting in some beneficial activity.

I also no longer exercise just in the mornings. I can now trust myself to make an effort to fit it in, unlike when I first started. I know that if I plan to walk in the afternoon and something comes up I will still fit something active in. If I'm going through a particularly stressful time then I like to exercise in the afternoon because I can be sure I'm flushing out all of the stress and setting myself up for a good night's sleep (tip: don't exercise within 2 hours of going to bed or it might keep you awake).

Please be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit for what you do, even if it's just a little. You might not think it's worth it if you're not running five miles, but every little bit you do makes a difference. Own every minute of effort you make, and be proud of yourself.

Please come back in a couple of days for the next post in the series, in which I talk about the various kinds of exercise that I do (all without a gym membership, and with minimal spending).

Edit: I just came across this video, which you may find helpful :)

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