My sinuous road to regular workouts

When growing up I never took part in any organised or regular physical exercise. Many of my friends played soccer in a team, went to track and field practice, or maybe orienteering. I never did any of that. The closest I came to regular physical exercise was my one year of karate classes twice a week in high school (after growing up on Karate Kid and miscellaneous Jackie Chan movies, who wouldn't want that kind of superpowers?).

So after moving to Stockholm and starting to become interested in physical exercise, I had a lot habituation to do to be able to exercise regularly without it feeling like a chore.

When I began working out a typical cycle looked like this: I start to feel disgusted by my unhealthy lifestyle filled with junkfood and lacking exercise routines. This triggers me to start reading some forums on training, and in a couple of hours I am really, really motivated and pumped up.

I draw up a schedule where I plan to train really hard 4-5 times a week. On pure motivation I am then able to actually pull it off the whole first week. I feel like I'm on top of the world.

Day by day however, I notice that I have more and more trouble keeping up the effort required. One day about two weeks in I feel a bit lazy. I think "I've been so diligent for the past two weeks, so maybe today I'll skip my workout – I've earned it".

The next day, as it's time to go to the gym, I am a bit stressed about work, and I think "maybe I'll just skip the workout today, I really need to get this project finished by the end of the week. And besides; it must be good for the body to rest a couple of days in a row sometimes". Before I know it, I have broken my training schedule, and I immediately feel like a failure. This is where all the motivation runs out, and the cycle is completed. Then it goes a few more months before I build up enough self-disgust to try again.

The solution for me has been to start over with the assumption that there is a really, really big risk that the above scenario will happen. This is something I have learned after trying the above cycle a few times. When realizing the very high risk of failing, the next realization is everytime the above happens, the 2-3 weeks I put into training is totally wasted, and the net result is that I spend yet another year or so in an unhealthy lifestyle.

After that follows realization #3: If I would just exercise once a week, or twice a week, that would be infinitely more healthy than zero times a week. And working out twice a week should be an easy goal. To lower the threshold further, and make it totally fail-proof, I can do a workout that I find enjoyable and easy, like swimming.

I decided to go swimming two times a week for a month. That was my goal. When I'd been doing that for a while I felt really content with myself, and proud that maybe for the first time in my life, I'd set a goal for physical exercise that I didn't only reach, but actually enjoyed pursuing. After continuing to do it some more, the next phase for me was when I started to feel an inner urge to do more. Calm breaststrokes didn't feel enough. My body wanted more intense training. The key here is that the motivation came from within. It was more of an instinct than something I had planned in my head. It came from my elephant and not from the rider.

So that's how I sowed a seed of regular exercise a few years ago that not only sprouted, but has slowly but steadily been growing into a robust and healthy tree!

I started running twice a weak instead of swimming. When I'd been running for a few weeks I felt I loved the intensity of it, but that my body wanted to do even more. So I started going to the gym every now and then, lifting some weights. Still without any further goal than just doing it. When it comes to lifting weights, I was content with just going to the gym. I usually didn't do much more than three different exercises, staying in the gym maybe 30 minutes or so. All this to minimize the risk of the workouts becoming a chore – something that would be guaranteed to kill the habit within a few weeks. I had the same rules about running – no timekeeping and no "minimum limit", if I'd just go out running, even if it was only for 20 minutes, that would be a workout.

Then came december 31st 2012, and I felt like making a new year's resolution. I decided to set an easy goal that I would be almost guaranteed to reach with minimal effort, a goal which still would be infinitely better than doing nothing in terms of exercise. So I set the goal of doing at least 100 workouts during the year of 2013. The nice thing with this goal is that it is not focused on doing X workouts every week, a goal that is easy to fail if you feel a bit under the weather, or if you are travelling etc. With the nice round goal of 100 workouts during the year, I can easily catch up if I miss a couple of weeks of workouts, and I avoid getting discouraged when failing to do workouts for a shorter period, which will inevitably happen.

At the end of the year, I had done around 80 workouts. After each workout I had a celebratory ritual where I noted it in a Google Form that I had a quick-link to on my homescreen in my smartphone, so that I could follow how I was doing. So I failed reaching 100 workouts, but I was still very happy that I had done 80 workouts – infinitely better than zero, which have been the number of workouts most other years in my life.

Inspired by this, the next year, 2014, I set the goal to do at least 120 workouts. I ended up doing 110 workouts, again failing to reach my goal of 120. But it was still 50% more workouts than the year before, and I had still managed to do it without it feeling like a chore – I had enjoyed every workout!

For 2015, I set the goal of doing 110 workouts again, as I felt that it was a pretty good level do keep decent health, and to gain all the feel-good benefits of regular workouts, ie. endorphins and serotonin, which I find you get plenty of just by doing two workouts per week.

What happened during 2015 though, which I neither planned nor expected, is that I ended up doing a lot more than 110 workouts. When summarizing the year, I found I had done:

  • 78 powerwalks, in total 700 km
  • 72 running sessions, in total 430 km
  • 55 gym sessions lifting weights

Which is a total of 205 workouts, meaning on average four workouts per week! That is 86% more than the year before.

What happened that increased the number so much, is that I think I got over a certain threshold, two workouts per week, where I started to get addicted to working out.

Another thing that I think increase the total number of workouts a lot, is that I read Fredrik Eklund's excellent book The Sell. In an exceedingly inspiring fashion Fredrik describes how he goes up early every morning, and does a workout as soon as he is out of bed. Even before breakfast. I was neither a morning person nor someone who would train in the morning. But I remembered that I had done a pre-breakfast workout once or twice before, and that I had felt fantastic the rest of the day.

I had felt good not only because of the endorphins lingering in my body until after lunch. It is something remarkably de-stressing about coming to work before everyone else, getting a head start and being able to plan the day in a calm fashion before it furiously takes off when everyone else comes into the office. I tried this habit for a few days, and then I was really hooked. I not only succeeded in going up 05.45 every day, going out for a run at 06.00 – I even looked forward to it when going to bed early each night.

The morning run before breakfast-habit is a bit tougher for me to do now in the winter, but I definitely will pick it up again as soon as most of the ice is gone from the streets and as soon as the thermometer shows positive numbers, and I can warmly recommend it to you, dear reader. Especially if you lead the kind of busy life that many white collar workers do nowadays, where it feels hard to know where to fit your workout into the day, and often find yourself down-prioritizing it out from the day in favor of work or social events. If you do the workout early in the morning, when most others are sleeping, nobody can stop or interrupt you, and you have no other excuses!

This was a brief summary of how I went from chronic couch potato to someone who exercises at least four times a week without thinking much about it, and without seeing it as a chore or "necessary bad", but instead with a healthy addiction.

You might wonder why I classify powerwalks as workouts. One might argue that walking is something we do every day anyway, and it isn't nearly as much effort as running or lifting weights, thereby making it almost cheating to label a powerwalk as a workout. My reason is partly strategical – it is a piece of the puzzle to make my whole system described above work. The nice thing about a powerwalk is that it can be had under almost any circumstance. You don't need any special equipment or clothing. You can do it even if you feel a bit under the weather. You can do it any time of the day. You can do it if your legs are really sore from the workout the day before. So it is a great low intensity workout you can do when you for some reason have a good excuse not to do a higher intensity workout.

Powerwalks are a great way to get some endorphins, burn some calories (around 450 kcal for 8 km which is my usual distance!) and above all; to get the feeling of contentment for completing a workout and keeping up the habit of regular exercise. Keeping up the habit is key here. If I have a bit of a cold and feel too weak to do regular exercise, powerwalking daily for a few days might be the difference between keeping up the habit of regular exercise and breaking it.

That's all for now! Thanks for taking the time to read this fairly lengthy post, and have a glorious day!

Thanks Pascal for the header photo, licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal.

Micael Widell

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