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LIFE, UNEDITED: The “Magic” Ingredients in Any Fitness Plan

Our fitness editor explains why, when it comes to sustainable exercise, what you do isn’t always as important as how you do it.

A woman in workout gear raises her hands above her head.

When it comes to exercise, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of specifics. Do THIS and you’ll get THAT, is a common refrain in fitness plans. For instance: Do high-intensity interval training four times per week and you’ll burn fat. Lift weights three times a week and burn fat. Walk 10,000 steps per day and burn fat. Run a 5K every day and burn fat.

The formula for getting in shape commonly includes a specific prescription for exercise and a specific goal that is all but guaranteed — the implication being if you do everything right. (Many prescribed “goals” in the fitness world revolve around burning fat, which is a discussion for another day.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the “do this, get that” approach. Many wonderful programs lay out the rules in a simple, accessible way. They take the guesswork out of figuring out what to do on our own, and often have research and anecdotal experience backing up the claims.

And yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that for many people, even when told exactly what to do and when to do it, sticking to a plan is hard. It almost seems that it doesn’t matter what is being prescribed — when the novelty wears off, so goes momentum.

It’s no coincidence that this week, the first of February, is a common time for gyms to clear out and fitness resolutions to fall by the wayside. After four weeks, we may feel tired, bored, overwhelmed, sore, unmotivated. The promised results are slower to appear than we’d hoped or expected, and life gets in the way. We miss a workout, and then another. Suddenly we feel like we’ve fallen behind; like we won’t catch up; like the effort isn’t worth it; like we’re not worth it.

I think about this a lot in my work as Experience Life’s fitness editor and in my personal life. What I often hear when talking to readers, friends, family, and even strangers is a variation of placing blame for “failure” to follow through — either blame on the program, or blame on oneself.

It breaks my heart, because I was there once, too, and I know how painful it can be. No matter where you place the blame, it hurts to try to come to terms with the idea that we can’t have what we most want.

An attitude I’ve honed in the last few years, and that I have found tremendous success with, is — in the simplest terms — to aim for consistency, patience, and kindness. There is no “perfect,” or even “right,” time to start. It’s never “too late” to begin. It’s impossible to “fall behind” because where you are is exactly where you are. Instead of arbitrarily trying to “catch up” to where I think I “should” be, it’s much more useful to meet myself where I am and do the best I can with what I have right now. With that as my framework, it’s hard for perfectionism, a desire for quick results, and the compulsion to place blame for perceived failures to take hold.

You might be wondering what this looks like. I’ll give you an example: Let’s say I sign up for a half-marathon in six months. I find a running plan that lays out all my runs and cross-training workouts. I start with Week 1/Day 1, and obsessively stick to the schedule. It’s perfect — I’m perfect! — for three weeks. Then, I get sick. Or I have a work emergency. Or my cat needs surgery. Or I wake up one day and decide I’d rather sleep in and get brunch with friends than go for the run. Or all of the above — maybe I get sick, then need to play catch-up at work, suddenly have a pet emergency (because why wouldn’t the universe pile everything on?), and at the end of the week I’m so tired and overwhelmed that I’d rather stay in bed. Now I’ve missed a handful of runs. I’ve “fallen behind.” I think I’ll never catch up in time to reach my goal, and call it quits. I’ll try again next year, I tell myself.

Does this sound familiar? I’ve heard a version of this so many times from so many different people that I feel confident you can relate on some level.

The problem with this chain of events is not that I lacked willpower, dedication, or desire. It’s not that the program was too hard to stick to. The issue, for me, was a mindset around exercise that didn’t take my self and my life into account.

I’m human, and life happens. On an intellectual level, I knew this to be true — and yet I wasn’t giving myself any space to account for this. As if I thought I could control my way to reaching my goals in a specific, prescribed way. In other words, I was allowing the program to be my master rather than my tool. As a master, the program would work if I followed its rules exactly. As a tool, the program would be a template that could adjust to my life and needs. Following the master set me up for failure; following a template allowed me to keep showing up, when and how I could.

Over the years, and through much trial and error, I’ve learned that consistency (not perfection) is critical. The surest path to progress is by showing up and treating myself well, while the quickest way to burnout is to push too hard, too fast, and get down on myself (or injured).

Regular check-ins and self-reflection have been really useful in maintaining that consistency in a nonjudgmental way. It’s a tool I’ve been sharing with my Strong, Fast, and Fit coaching group. The questions are always the same and take about five minutes to answer at the end of each week. Here they are:

  1. Did you complete all the workouts? If so, why? If not, why not? How did it feel?
  2. Did you take a rest day? If so, why? If not, why not? How did it feel?

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these. Rather, these questions allow me the chance to give myself credit for what I’ve done, as well as to address challenges in a compassionate and productive way. This has played a big role in my long-term success and my ability to enjoy fitness — not as a series of strict but short-lived, often miserable phases, but as an ongoing, adaptable, joy-filled habit.

, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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