With the risk of pure contradiction and justifying someone's slackening off for no good reason, this article is about getting back into exercising and turning the motivational cog again. Understanding the mindset and persuading ourselves to not only know regular exercise is good but to want to exercise regularly is what I explain in the following post (two parts) . In other words, how do we psychologically approach getting back into exercise after a lay-off.
Motivation sometimes meets a stop point – mixed message (image above)
Whether young or old, professional athlete or novice, everyone leaves their exercise routine lapse occasionally throughout their lifetime. They stop running, riding, weight training, walking, swimming, cycling, or whatever, and replace it with inactivity.
Consistency with exercise is always the best approach and stopping for long periods or stopping and starting intermittently is unproductive…even dangerous. Truthfully though, lapses in our exercise routines are completely normal and we shouldn't beat ourselves up over it – we're only human after all.
When I was a young soldier, I hated missing my daily exercise and I would go through extreme lengths to ensure I kept my routine. Time after time, I would be away from home without a gym or familiar running track to use but I improvised and usually found a way to get my daily workout done.
Some places where I've exercised
The pluses definitely were the odd and amazing places I exercised in – here's just some:
All over outback and northern Australia,
Waikiki Beach Hawaii (admittedly I did more “eye exercise” than physical);
Chased by wild dogs in the opal fields of Coober Pedy;
Cape York and doing laps around Thursday Is, North Queensland;
Jogging through Kakadu National Park and up Uluru in the NT;
Around the streets of Dili East Timor (whilst armed); and
Sahara Desert – many fun-filled, extreme heat, dodging mine field, jogs (including a 10km UN sponsored race, which I came third).
Dumb story about nearly dying whilst exercising (relevant point at the end)
Once, I nearly got hit by a 4 carriage road train in the Northern Territory near a small roadhouse township on the Stuart Highway called Dunmarra. We were on the way to a military exercise and stopped for the night at Dunmarra, which is really between the middle of nowhere and the black stump. Naturally, I had to take the opportunity to exercise so faced with a roadhouse and a long outback highway, I chose the highway and decided to go for a run.
Unfortunately, by the time I had finished my tasks it was well into the evening and dark. Those who have ever travelled along the Stuart Highway would know what a long and lonely road it can be and the trucks long-hauling this stretch are huge. Still, nothing (not even darkness) deterred me from my stubborn desire to run along this thoroughfare 5kms out and 5kms back.
Initially, the jog was ok as the highway was lit from behind me by the lights of the roadhouse and street lamps; however, after about 1 kilometre (just over ½ mile) the lights faded and I began running into blackness. Worse still the constant sounds of the busy roadhouse faded also and after awhile, not only could I not see anything, but I could hear nothing except for my own breathing and running shoes hitting the warm bitumen road beneath me.
In the early 90's, I had never heard of a headlamp for running (that's something miners and cavers used) and running with a torch (flash-light) wasn't something an “invincible” young soldier does. Therefore, I stupidly continued along the blackened road to nowhere somewhat apprehensive, and hoping I wouldn't accidentally step on a snake, but still keen as ever to get my workout done. Being a bit of a horror movie buff, I recall spooking myself by imagining something coming out of the night at me or feeling hot breath on the back of my neck as someone caught up behind me but even that couldn't convince me to turn back.
At about the 20 minute mark and almost at my estimated halfway point, I noticed a slight haze in the distance which helped to slightly light the road side ahead of me (no, it wasn't a UFO). It seemed to take ages, but slowly this haze turned into headlights, and then, just as if Jesus and his angels appeared in a blinding heavenly light the whole world was lit before me and I realised what was coming.
I had enough time to move as far as I could to the edge of the road without falling down the steep camber; however, the truck wasn't giving me the same courtesy and whether by accident or murderous intent the left front guard of the vehicle veered towards my position and missed me by inches.
There I was standing on the side of the Stuart Highway in the middle of the night being buffeted by the slipstream of a road-train which came too close for comfort thinking what am I doing here? After the incident, it quickly went back to black (except for the white spots in front of my eyes from where the halogen lights imprinted my retinas) and I promptly about faced to return back to the roadhouse. Needless to say, my return jog was much faster than the jog out – I made sure of that.
Exercising at all cost isn't good
I learnt a good lesson that night and it was – by all means exercise when you can but don't exercise at all cost or the cost might be your life.
Whilst I'm spilling my guts here and telling the world how stupid I was I may as well tell some more about my manic exercise obsessions – just to educate and illustrate what not to do. Like I explained, I would try to not let anything interrupt my workout routines and this included working out with an illness, injury, or disruptive event (like work/social). Unless I was bed ridden and seriously ill or physically had no time due to a particular event, I would find a way to manage exercise into my day.
Now, some would say, “that shows commitment,” and others would rightly say, “I was unhealthily obsessed with exercise.” So why tell all this? Well… Obsessive exercising is the opposite to not exercising enough, both are bad and I'm experienced in both. As with many aspects of life, the middle ground is often the right place to be or strive for and this principle applies perfectly when planning an exercise regime for the vast majority of people. By explaining the risks of obsessive exercising, I can better explain how getting back into exercising is not a big mountain to climb but more like a chair lift, which one needs to be motivated enough to catch to make the first step.
Having a break from exercising is not bad
What I eventually realised (whether by maturity or chance) was natural breaks in my exercise routine wasn't all that bad and I recognised I could achieve my fitness and health goals without strict adherence to routine or even intensity. In fact, short rests from a fitness training routine can help performance and is indeed a recognised training tool in training athletes (recovery). Where I went wrong was believing the hype in magazines and by physical training instructors demanding unrealistic commitment to exercise and striving for body image beyond my genetic physical capacity.
It's normal and a good sign to feel a little guilty when a person misses their regular training routine; still, this guilt needs to be kept in check otherwise it can turn us into obsessive exercise freaks or turn us completely away from fitness altogether.
After I was free from the burden of having to exercise I actually felt happier about exercising – weird hey? Also, once I re-assessed my goal for exercising as being for general health and well-being rather than image, shape, and competitiveness, I found the motivation to train came easier. Of course, being in the military at the time I still had physical fitness parameters I needed to keep due to the nature of my job, but certainly after retiring from the military this mental approach has definitely helped keep me motivated.
Why do people stop exercising regularly?
What can impede or even stop people from continuing their regular exercise routines? The reasons for stopping our exercise schedule can be many and some common ones are:
injury or illness,
muscle fatigue and joint soreness, or
simple lack of motivation.
Novices and exercise
Whatever the reason/s for stopping exercising, the most important aspect is planning the comeback and resuming your exercise routine as quickly as possible. Sadly, what often happens with novice fitness enthusiasts is one or more of the above reasons, or something else, happens and the fitness routine stops dead and stays that way either forever or a long time.
And what is it that prevents novices from getting back on the “bike?” I think the main reason is they don't feel the work they have done so far has made a difference to their bodies and they aren't convinced they personally have the commitment required to exercise enough to make that difference happen. Therefore, they persuade themselves that fitness training is just not for them and totally give up exercising at all.
Imagine there was a magic exercise, which when done, immediately turned our body into a fit and healthy specimen. But here's the catch – in 24 hours our body would revert back to its fat, unhealthy state unless we exercised again the next day (and so on). How many people do you think would do that magic exercise daily? Probably most of the Western world! Who would want to be the only unfit looking person at work or in the nightclub? If you didn't exercise you'd be pointed out in seconds, “hey, look, that guy's a porker, obviously he hasn't worked out for 24 hours!”
Now think about this, many people do maintain a healthy and fit looking body and there's no magic tricks or short cut. The daily (or regular) exercise they do now, just maintains their health and fitness because they once took a methodical journey, which over time produced the results they have today. The daily magic is still kind-of there and it's real; it isn't as dramatic as my magic exercise fantasy example, but it works just the same.
Forget about how your body looks
Noticing a real physical result from exercising when someone first starts or returns to exercising can take weeks and even months; this can be disheartening for some people. Depending on the exercise intensity, seeing major changes in body shape and physical fitness can take longer than several months but I would argue long term results are better to aim for than short term. Reason being, fast weight loss and over exercising is just a fast track to injury and a sure way to lose motivation. Easing into exercising is the best approach, especially if the person has never regularly exercised before or hasn't exercised for a long time.
Therefore, the sooner people understand to lower expectations about the results they'll see from training (initially anyway) the better the chance they won't become disillusioned with exercise. TV shows like Biggest Looser where contestants drop weight as fast and as much as possible to win the competition deters more people than it motivates. When individuals in the real world are trying to self motivate, the success they see isn't likely to be as amazing as witnessed by viewers watching Biggest Looser. Time-lapse camera drama television and prizes on offer as incentives can totally distort the truth. Reality TV these days is so unrealistic…
The other point I would like to make is: just because initial results from training isn't evident physically, it doesn't necessarily mean nothing is happening to the body. Adaptation starts to happen immediately a person begins a regular exercise routine and the more regular the routine becomes the more the body realises this as a behavioural change and starts to compensate physically by losing weight, building muscle, and strengthening bones/joints/ligaments etc.
The key to success when getting back into exercising after a long lay-off is not to expect success to come quickly but rather to focus on regularity and technique in training – forget about physical goals.
Once were fit…
There are some fitness enthusiasts who used to be fit and almost (or did) reach their fitness goals but subsequently stopped. These people may not have exercised for years – some may have even been professional athletes who stopped training on retirement from sports or an active career (like the military). I've seen this syndrome many times where people have changed careers and also their active lifestyle, which was anchored to that career, at the same time. For this group of people there's more good news! For them, getting back into exercising is easier than most. And, it's easier for two main reasons: mentally and physically.
Mentally, they've been there before. They know how to train (methods), they know what effort is required to see results (intensity), and they know how to reach goals (motivation).
Physically, their body has adapted to training before. Therefore, their body will react and adapt to exercise faster and better because of muscle memory and the framework which is already present (but possibly not showing due to extra weight gain or muscle atrophy).
A classic example is weight training. Anyone who has seriously lifted weights for fitness over several years and then stops (even for years) will find it easier and faster to regain their muscle fitness when they resume training. Faster than when they first started training with weights. Why? Because the body remembers those years of exertion and keeps a little in reserve in case it needs to adapt back again even after years of inactivity.
This principle alone is a fantastic motivator for everyone, as it proves even when we completely stop exercising not all is lost – our body does not revert back to when we never exercised. So it means the second time around (getting back into exercising) is usually a little easier. Also, it's an incentive for people when they first start exercising to stick with it for long enough to ensure the body has fully adapted so if down the track the regular exercise stops (for whatever reason) it will be easier to resume again later.
The key, for people who used to be fit and healthy, to get back into exercising is establishing a new motivational tool to replace what used to motivate them in the past. For example, a professional Olympic athlete may have been motivated to exercise and keep fit in order to perform and compete at the highest level for his/her discipline. So now in retirement, a new motivational goal might be to remain healthy – simple as that.
Health and well-being, the main goal
For the vast majority of people the most important reason for regular exercise is general good health. Exercising should not be solely concentrated on one specific aspect like: weight loss, muscle gain, aerobic fitness, or strength etc. Focusing on these individual aspects is unproductive for the average person because it narrows exercising down too specifically and encourages obsessive behaviour and unhealthy practices, which can be dangerous.
When we can manage expectations in relation to obtaining results from training and exercising, we can then have realistic goals about what exercising can do for our body. Remember, the main goal for fitness training should be general health and well-being, not for fast weight loss or muscle gain.
With this in mind, here is the whole point to this article – it's never too late to get back into exercising no matter how far gone you think you are because your goal of general health and well-being is always achievable. The very first time you re-commit and commence your training activity you've already achieved your goal.
So your health goals are immediately met, and although there's no immediate physical changes to your body, that's not important as the changes will show in time (as an added bonus). When the mindset is general health and well-being and not on specific physical goals it's easier to become motivated for exercise because the interest is in inner health rather than physical outer results, which can vary greatly from day to day and easily discourage. If we concentrate on inner health and let the exterior adapt accordingly by itself, we can find it easier to achieve our goal and stay motivated because we're not looking for our inner health in the mirror or on the scales every day.
Therefore, if we miss a few sessions through illness, work, holidays, or even lack of motivation, we haven't really lost any momentum and we're not looking in the mirror musing over our growing waistlines in despair, because we don't care. What should matter most is getting back exercising because it's a lifestyle “thing” we like to do to help remain generally healthy – the “looking good” part will follow in time.
I admit this article was a little “deep” and needed careful reading to fully comprehend the underlying message. My apologies, however, to those who were looking for a motivational read to get back into your exercise routine, this was for you…
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Thanks for reading and thanks for your support.
Respect your body and keep it healthy through regular exercise
Mark Valencia – Editor SSM