No-Fail Fitness

New Year, new plan, right? Great, but don’t just hop on the first workout train out of the station. Instead, step back: Examine your goals, your desires, your personality, your life. A little self-awareness now could prevent exercise derailment down the track.

Here, in the land of plenty, magazine racks overflow with advice. This time of year, especially, they offer guidance on how to compensate for too much plenty. Angling for the attention of the millions who are trying to slim down, shape up and fly right, the headlines seem so, well, optimistic: “Get Head-Turning Abs – in Just Four Minutes!” “Be Like Lance!” “Have the Body You Always Wanted With These 5 Easy Exercises!”

Chances are the New Year has at least one well-intentioned, one-size-fits-all fitness plan with your name on it. But you don’t have to bite. You probably already suspect your life can’t just be plugged into some weekly workout grid printed in a glossy magazine. And you’re dead right.

Think about the different personalities out there: One person likes to get to the gym and follow a strict routine; another wants to lace up his or her shoes and wing it. One person trains after a predictable day job, the other struggles to find time in between punching the clock. There’s a huge range of characteristics and preferences and capacities to accommodate in any program. As a result, one-size fitness solutions tend to fit almost no one at all.

This may be one reason why half of all exercise plans are abandoned within six months. According to research on exercise participation, the factors that predict this so-called exercise relapse include negative emotions, injury, poor social support, low motivation, “high-risk situations” (changes in your work hours, season, etc.) and stress.

These are all understandable bailout factors, but since they’re also part of almost everyone’s life, any workout that falls prey to one of the above workout busters was probably also, at core, the wrong one for you.

So how do you find a workout you can make your own? You need a strategy to pinpoint the various “Ws” in your life – Who you are, What you want, Where you are in the decision and When and Where you can reasonably move forward. To do that, you need to begin by looking in the mirror.

Changing Your Change Status

Making lasting changes is something most people can only implement in steps. Sports psychology refers to this as the transtheoretical model of change, which says you make changes based on what you believe you can do. The progression through the stages looks like this:

  • Precontemplation (you don’t exercise and you don’t even think you need to)
  • Contemplation (you know you need to exercise but you haven’t decided how)
  • Preparation (you exercise but only intermittently)
  • Action (you exercise regularly but have only done so for less than six months)
  • Maintenance (you have exercised more than three times a week for six months or longer)

Researchers say these stages are cyclical: You can move forward and then back, even cycle back and forth between the same two stages, but you are always in one of them. Your job upon beginning a fitness program is to find out where your mind is in its decision process, if only to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

“It helps to know that exercise is something of a case of one step forward and two steps back,” says Bess Marcus, PhD, director of physical activity research at Brown University Medical School and an expert on the psychology of exercise initiation. “It helps you to stay positive and not expect too much too soon.”

As a psychologist who directs her training toward maintaining fitness, Marcus has a unique perspective on the way barriers to training can move back and forth between the real and the imagined – both of which are of equal concern if they keep you from moving toward your goals.

Time and place barriers aside, she explains, “a lot of people make mental barriers for themselves, because they view training too rigidly,” explains Marcus. “They think, ‘I have to pick one thing to do and do it all the time.’ If you can get them to see that anything that gets them moving counts and is OK, that can be very empowering.”

This same rigid thinking style can cause you to become easily discouraged when you drop off course for a day or two. “If a person has a rigid perspective on how to do things but they can’t stick to a plan,” she adds, “they take the attitude that says, ‘If I didn’t get there on Monday, what’s the point of going the rest of the week?'”

In the psychological world, this is called the “abstinence violation effect.” It’s also known as the “what-the-hell effect” – the same one that causes dieters to throw in the towel if they happen to break ranks with their plan and eat far more for dinner than usual. They figure they already blew it for the day, so, you know, “what the hell.”

In reality, of course, no permanent change is without its setbacks. The hallmark of real change is to find a way to return to a program after a lapse. Since nothing refutes a false belief like actually experiencing its opposite, some psychologists even recommend that athletes undertake a “planned lapse” in their exercise – just to know that they can screw up and get right back on the horse, so they might as well stop worrying about it.

For those of us whose relapses come naturally, the same lesson still applies: Expect it; accept it; learn from it; then get back on and ride. Figure out where you are in terms of “change status,” then decide where you want to go from there. (For more on mastering “The Art of the Relapse,” see page 82).

Name Your Motive

“There are all sorts of broad-stroke exercise rules – the idea that says you must work out 30 minutes a day four times a week at a hundred and whatever beats per minute,” says Eric Harr, triathlete and author of The Portable Personal Trainer (Random House, 2001). In terms of optimal hypothetical results, that may be true, Harr notes, but there’s also a practical reality to deal with, including your current comfort level with exercise, and your motivations for becoming more active.

“Everyone is different,” says Harr, “and in order to stay with any program, you have to connect with your own sense of purpose. Most people are not very clear about what they want to get out of exercise. You have to be really clear on this. You have to write it down.”

Maybe you are training so you can look better, feel better or manage stress. Maybe you are training to become more versatile or successful in a given sport. But even these reasons are vague: If you want to look better, does that mean looking stronger or leaner? If you want to feel better, do you simply want to feel more at ease about your clinical health profile, or do you want to have more energy throughout your day? If you want to perform better at a sport, is it so that you can do well in an organized race, or simply get more satisfaction out of an athletic pastime?

All of these are different goals that may result in a different emphasis to your training. Some goals may be served by technical components like periodization schedules and heart-rate training, but others may be unnecessarily complicated by it – at least to begin with.

If you’re facing steep weight or fitness challenges, just starting to build confidence and learning to feel better about yourself could lead to training for other goals. An overambitious fitness program might be the last thing you need. Or, depending on your personality, having goals that are supported by a formal, technical plan might be ideal. Knowing that you need to train 30 minutes a day at however many beats a minute might be just the ticket. It all depends on you, your mindset and what you want to achieve.

If your goal is to improve your health, for instance, the guidelines are fairly clear: According to data from large fitness associations and governmental agencies, a brisk daily walk (the length is less important than the consistency, but a half hour to an hour is best) coupled with both a weight-circuit and a flexibility routine twice a week is adequate. If you want to improve your sports performance, however, a standard workout will only leave you feeling disappointed.

Bottom line: Don’t just start “going to the gym.” First, sit down and ask yourself precisely why you are going. Knowing your goals at the outset will not only increase your motivation, it will also improve your clarity and confidence about what type of program is most likely to deliver the results you desire.

Name Your Bliss

Your second step to customizing your workout is even simpler: Ask yourself what you like to do. “Some people think, ‘All I can do to get in shape is run – but I hate running,'” says Marcus. “At a minimum it should be something you don’t hate.” In other words (and obvious as it may seem, this still bears saying), if you don’t like to run, then don’t.

Avoid getting caught in any mindset (or any program) that says you don’t have choices. Take running. While it happens to be a highly efficient form of aerobic exercise (which is why so many trainers advocate it), running is hardly the only form of aerobic exercise. Walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, wall climbing, stair stepping, elliptical training, rowing, jumping rope, mat classes and light active sports can all help lower your resting heart rate and improve your oxygen consumption. The heart has no preferences or prejudices about how you work it, just that you do.

As for strength, lifting weights may be a highly efficient way to build muscle, but if you hate the vibe in the weight room, there’s no need to spend time there. Chin-ups, pushups, Pilates, power yoga, sit-ups, plyometric hops, medicine balls and every other variation of lifting or holding in place the weight of your own body can substitute – indoors or out, at the gym or in the home.

“You need to listen to your inner messages about whether or not something is working for you,” says Harr. “People tend to shut their mind off to what they are doing. The more awareness you have, the better.”

Are you just trying to get started after a long period of little activity? Maybe jumping into a triathlon plan isn’t the best fit. Perhaps a 10-minute walk after each meal makes more sense. (Activity is additive, and three 10-minute walks equals one 30-minute walk, as far as your heart is concerned.)

Then there is the matter of your personal style. For instance, someone highly organized and analytical might respond to a training plan that uses specific heart-rate training zones. If you welcome solitude, maybe a spinning class isn’t right for you. Gear head? Get into cycling. Nature lover? Trail riding.

Lest you think otherwise, when it comes to training, everyone has a preference. Those who say they don’t care are simply not putting the effort into evaluating. So, how do you really feel after 15 minutes of running/stair climbing/cycling/ swimming? Exhilarated? Bored? A klutz? How about when you row? Do you feel Ivy League? Or bush league?

“You want to pick things to do that are fun,” adds Jay Blahnik, trainer and author of Full Body Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 2003). “I know it sounds simple, but a lot of people don’t consider it. They just pick out the workout that burns the most calories. You want to try to find something that works with your attention span and psychology.”

Pondering your feelings about different sports is well worth it if it gets you moving in a sustainable way. (Harr, for one, says his triathlete training would fizzle if he didn’t enter the group cycling rides that play to his competitiveness.)

The main lesson here: Those people who stick to a training plan aren’t necessarily any more disciplined than the rest of us. What they are, it seems, is more attuned to what they most enjoy.

Open Your Mind

Now for the flipside: For any training approach to be successful over time, it can’t just be about doing what you already like. It also has to include the opposite of familiarity: novelty.

“You need to expand your horizons,” says Harr. “It’s hard to know what sport is right for you if all you have ever done is walk on the treadmill.”

The first part to staying adventurous is progression. The body changes through the experience of doing something new and strenuous. Training is the art of spreading out that experience gradually – and also consistently. Too slow and your body won’t change; too fast and it won’t recover adequately.

So keep in mind, no matter how much you might like doing a particular activity, you will need new physical challenges and experiences to keep your fitness program balanced and moving forward – and to prevent it from stalling out altogether.

Even if that weren’t true physiologically, it would be psychologically: Even elite athletes get bored doing only their core sport. In the off-season, most try new and different things, not just to cross-train, but also to work on their ability to focus.

Once you do get on a reliable track toward fitness, Harr says, you want to be cautious about becoming a “minimum maintainer” – someone who only does the minimum required to stay fit. The reason is simple: This minimum level increases as you age. Without exercise, you lose muscle at a rate of 1 percent a year after the age of 30, making increasing levels of strength training necessary just to keep ahead of the decline.

Also, don’t get trapped into exclusively doing any one sport or activity. Take up something new from time to time that forces you to use muscles you may be ignoring, as well as challenge your balance and coordination, much like you did when you first put on roller skates in the third grade.

Finally, make sure some of these new challenges are deliberately outside your comfort zone. “If you are afraid of heights, go to a wall and climb 10 feet,” says Harr. Just facing your fears, even as a small-scale, conscious practice, helps ensure that future barriers won’t be so immutable.

“It’s important to respect who you are,” adds Harr, “but it’s also important not to be afraid to challenge your weaknesses. You get a double benefit by doing so – the activity of the experience and the facing of your fears.”

Name Your Obstacles

Even the best-laid plans can hit a bump in the road at some point, which is why sustainable fitness requires that you anticipate obstacles. Sometimes it will be an unexpected pile of work tossed on your desk a half hour before you were supposed to leave for the gym. Other times it may be travel that throws off your routine for a few days, or even a couple of weeks. In times like these, you should always have a backup plan, according to Ed Jackowski, author of Escape Your Weight (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004).

Jackowski asserts that creating a dependable safety net involves considering a variety of factors, including lifestyle, medical background and beginning level of fitness.

Lifestyle. Just as you need to assess how you feel and what you like, sustainable training requires you to think through how you tend to spend your hours – every week and throughout the month. Do you front-load your day? Then maybe you need to train at lunch. Do you end-load your day? Then a morning workout might work better.

“There is no one ‘best’ time to exercise,” says Jackowski. “The best time is whatever time of day allows you to be consistent.” If you travel for business, sustainable training will mean learning a low-tech workout, one that won’t fall apart when the hotel gym proves to be less than adequate. And if you can’t make it to the club on certain days, you should explore a lower-tech routine to do at home.

Medical Background. Every- one should check with his or her doctor before beginning a training plan. Odds are that if you are in generally good health, you’ll receive a medical thumbs-up.

But even if you run into a physical roadblock, like weak knees, a tricky back or asthma, keep in mind that there is a training plan for every health condition. You just have to be willing to assess your full range of options and be open to doing activities outside of your usual routine.

Ideally, you should be comfortable doing at least two or three different activities. “Otherwise, a person who just likes to run will, if they can’t run because of an injury or other health challenge, probably wind up doing nothing,” Jackowski says. A recumbent stationary bike, for instance, is perhaps one of the best pieces of aerobic fitness equipment for those with any orthopedic concerns. “You can do it with both a bad back and bad knees,” he says. Even if you have ailments like a heart condition or diabetes, you can design an adequate program around your limitations.

Beginning Level of Fitness. “People tend to either work out too intensely or not intensely enough,” says Jackowski. “The key is to start slow enough, if you are a beginner, so that you don’t get injured, and aggressive enough, if you are more conditioned, to see results necessary to staying motivated.” For beginners, being mentally prepared means knowing that a novice struggling to string together 10 minutes on a treadmill is usually working just as hard physiologically as an elite athlete performing much longer bouts of jogging or running.

“A lot of people won’t start working out because they’re not capable of doing it for a long time,” says Jackowski. “For any out-of-shape individual, even if you can only do five minutes, that’s OK, provided you stay consistent and increase from five minutes to six, 10, 12 and eventually 30 or more as you get stronger. That’s what’s so powerful about proper exercise – anything you do fitnesswise will reap benefits as long as you keep increasing the intensity over time.”

Even those who exercise regularly can wind up stalling out because they are under-challenged. Perhaps you’ve been running three 12-minute miles for several months and haven’t felt the workout “get under your skin”. Chances are your entire physiological response would change – along with your energy level and motivation – if you began interspersing your standard three miles with sets of 30-second sprints.

The same goes for strength training: If traditional lifts aren’t getting you anywhere, move your bench lifts to a fitness ball and substitute dumbbells (chances are you will have to lower your poundage considerably). If you have been moving slowly for too long, try incorporating power-oriented drills like plyometrics, medicine-ball throws and clean presses.

Time and Priority. One of the most daunting barriers to maintaining a regular fitness program is rooted in how you perceive time commitments. Think you don’t have time to exercise? You do, actually; it’s just that you choose to allocate your available time for other things. “We can all make the time for what’s important to us,” says Marcus, “so the real challenge lies in getting people to make fitness more of a priority.”

In other words, challenging your thinking is the key to challenging your schedule. Consider how improved health and fitness would serve the other priorities or obligations that are currently eclipsing your opportunities to exercise.

If you aren’t strong and healthy, you probably aren’t being nearly as effective or successful in the other areas of your life as you could be. You also have to consider where your choice not to make fitness a priority is likely to lead you in the future. If you aren’t planning exercise into your life now, you are passively planning a future in which you are out of shape, in poor health, less able to manage stress and more prone to all sorts of other crises. Not a good plan.

All that said, it’s also important to be honest about how big a priority fitness can be in your life, and needs to be, in order for you to be happy. Maybe you don’t need to look like the guy in the Soloflex ad, or to have the cardiovascular capacity of Lance Armstrong; you just don’t want to look and feel like a slob.

Great: There’s no point in launching into some overly ambitious, seven-days-a-week program you’ll never be able to keep up past Feb. 1. Better to design a program that builds gradually, that’s sustainable, given your tight schedule, and that tolerates a few lapses here and there.

“I am inclined to have clients observe the ways they have handled lapses elsewhere in their life,” says Brown University’s Marcus. “Maybe they were not able to keep up with work around the house, but they always came back to cleaning it at some point.”

Understanding the cyclical nature of change is important, Marcus believes. “You’re talking about something you’re asking yourself to do for the rest of your life, so you want to give yourself permission to be human,” she says. “Be realistic. Tell yourself ‘maybe I’m going down to working out three days a week now, but when this chapter in my life changes, I will be back up to five.'”

Combine that attitude with an activity plan that reflects where you are in terms of your level of fitness, your level of commitment, your need for novelty and growth, and your likes and dislikes, and you will be well on your way to making fitness much more than a New Year’s resolution. It will become an integral part of who you really are, as well as the person you intend to become.

Paul Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota.

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