So you’ve made the decision. You’re going to get fit. Congratulations! I’m impressed, but not as much as your own Future Self is. Working out is rough for the first three weeks or so, but if you push through the bad part, you’ll be on your way to an easier life. The magic really starts to happen when you loosen up the kinks in your neck and back and figure out where your muscles are.
I want to share some insider secrets. For the first 30 years of my life, I would have spit on the idea of any kind of workout. I started out as a bookworm with less than zero interest in any form of physical activity. I was the proverbial “last kid picked” for every game (that describes approximately one in 30 of us, if there was one in every class) and I had the caricature of the world’s worst, meanest, most out of shape gym teacher. He singled me out and ridiculed me for five solid minutes in class one day. It’s sad, but true, that PE nightmares cause many of us to opt out of exercise for the rest of our lives. Don’t let rude, incompetent teachers or other childhood bullies determine your choices. They’re just Dementors at this point.
One of the main reasons that 40% of Americans do no form of regular exercise is that we have no idea how many different kinds of workouts there are. We’re forced to try a few things in grade school, they don’t suit us, and we quit the minute we can. Personally, I am never going to play dodgeball again. Exactly NONE of the disciplines that have brought such passion to my life were ever introduced to me in school. I love ballroom dance, backpacking, adventure races (like mud runs), yoga, the elliptical, and cycling. I really enjoyed taking self-defense classes. When we ran in class, we had to run in a pack; I didn’t discover my inner marathoner until I was able to run at my own woefully slow pace. There are a bunch of things I “hate” or find too annoying to do. I can’t stand running on a treadmill; I can’t stand holding a water bottle while I run; I suck at step aerobics; the downward dog pose in yoga makes my hand go numb; working with a trainer makes me want to run right out the door. I quit my last gym because they kept playing Katy Perry. Most workouts are not going to satisfy me or hold my interest. Different gyms have different atmospheres, and some will suit one individual while others will not. Keep sampling and asking fit friends to give you a tour of their favorite workout until you find something that clicks for you.
The gym is not your only option. It’s pretty common for people to feel afraid to go to a gym because we don’t want to be stared at. Look. When you walk in the door of the gym, and you see fit people, you’re only seeing them in one frame of their movie. What you won’t know unless you ask is that many of us were motivated by illness, injury, or weight issues. Every gym is full of cancer survivors, former fat kids, the elderly, people recovering from car collisions or surgery, and more. When those of us who weren’t always fit see a non-athlete walk in the door, we cheer. We’re rooting for you. Often we see ourselves in you. If you don’t want people to judge you for your appearance, don’t do it to athletes either. Be open to new friendships and ask us what we can teach you.
The first thing to know is that doing at least two completely different sports or types of workout reduces your chances of injury by 50%. Cross-training means more than working to be good at more than one thing at a time. It means balancing the load on different physical systems. That reduces the chances of strain and overuse. I learned this the hard way, when I over-trained for my marathon and wound up with tendonitis in my ankle. Think long-term and be good to yourself. Start with two-thirds of what you think you can do and work upward from there.
Types of exercise are like the branches of a tree. When you start from zero, you’re at the root, and you work your way up the trunk for a while before choosing a branch. The trunk is general fitness. When you are functionally fit, you are prepared to pursue any type of activity. At that point, it’s time to consider whether you simply want to maintain that functional fitness level, or if you’re curious about more specialized types of challenge. It’s like getting your general education requirements out of the way before choosing a major. The workout you would do to be in a soccer league is different than the workout you would do as a triathlete, although there’s no reason you couldn’t do both.
If you’re working out to lose weight, I want to tell you something that I wish someone had told me. You’re not going to lose weight at the gym. Weight is not lost at the gym, it’s lost with your fork. Exercise alone will not reduce your body weight. Have I rephrased that enough ways? I am an extremely stubborn person, and I refused to believe that the way I ate had anything to do with my percentage of body fat. I refused to believe it until after I succeeded at losing weight by keeping a food log, and then regained a big chunk of it while training for a marathon. It is a hundred thousand times easier to lose weight by changing the way you eat than it is to try to burn it off at the gym. For me, I have to run 38 miles to burn one pound of body fat. Who knows, though? Maybe you’re right and your metabolism is better than mine. Good luck.
Different exercise routines will give different results. It’s good to spend at least a little time on all of them. Here is a brief rundown:
Weight training is the fastest way to get results. It will give you visible muscle definition. I did circuit training (at Curves) and I lost 17 inches the first month, 3 inches of fat off each arm alone! Weight training helps build bone density, which is extremely important for women as we age. Weight training makes you feel powerful and gives you the ability to lift heavy objects, open windows, and do basic chores more easily. There are some risks, though. If you’re not careful, you can hurt yourself. Work with a spotter and be receptive to input. If a more experienced person at your gym comes up to you and offers advice, please don’t be annoyed, offended, or defensive. That person will probably only interrupt you out of concern that you are going to injure yourself. There is also a protocol at every gym, a form of manners that you can quickly learn. I recommend working with free weights rather than machines; I have a tiny frame, and a couple of the machines tend to mess me up because they’re not built for my personal architecture.
Cardio is the fastest way to improve your mood. I speak from experience when I say that nothing fights depression as well as a good cardio workout. Bicycling and swimming are really good options for people with joint pain, although remember to mix it up and rotate between other activities if that’s an issue. Some kinds of cardio endurance training have additional side benefits. Running has the advantage of being an impact sport, which helps build bone density in a way that swimming does not. Spending a day or two on each (swimming, running, and cycling) can lead you to a sprint-distance triathlon in just a few months of training.
Endurance cardio is different than anaerobic cardio. Let me put it this way. Even when I was running 6 miles a day, my stepdaughter’s Wii Fit dance game kicked my butt. I could run for 90 minutes but be wiped out by 2.5 minutes of fast dancing. HIIT (high intensity interval training, like a “boot camp”) and team sports are other ways to build this particular super power.
Flexibility and balance are important parts of functional fitness. Here we’re looking at yoga, Pilates, and other stretching and balancing disciplines. What I want to tell you about yoga is that yoga is not for sissies. The first time I did Bikram yoga (the original “hot yoga,” done in a steamy 90 F room), I could barely get out of bed for the next three days. It’s best to start with just a few minutes of the simplest stretches and gradually build from there. A lot of people do nothing more than a “Sun Salutation” every day, and their yoga quota is done in under three minutes.
Twirling is my little secret. You know when Maria is singing “The Sound of Music” and spinning around with her arms flung out? It is so much fun. The first time I did it, my dog got really excited and started jumping around and I found myself giggling like a kid. The other advantage is that it’s good for the vestibular system. It helps us balance. This is a great idea for anyone, but it’s even more valuable for those of us over 40, because as we get older, the risk of a fall is scarier and has worse consequences. I twirl every day and I hope I’ll still be twirling when I’m 85. First I twirl as fast as I can in one direction, and then I stop for a few seconds and turn around and twirl the other way. Try it! You know you want to!
I work out now because it feels more comfortable for me than sitting. If I sit too long, my neck and shoulders lock up. If I can’t work out for more than a couple of days, my restless leg syndrome comes back to haunt me. I understand why my dog barks at the door and points to his leash when he wants to go for a walk. My legs want to MOVE. I take the stairs two at a time, and if I see a high curb, I try to balance on it. I march in place while I brush my teeth to get in my hip flexor exercise. I feel a strong need to stretch when my calves get too tight. There is no reason to believe that sitting 12 or more hours a day is natural for the human body. I’m still just as much of a bookworm as I’ve always been; I just do more of my reading through audio books or during my workout. I have a tablet clamp on my elliptical, and I used shop tools to make a shelf for my treadmill. I sometimes play podcasts while doing yoga. I have a friend who plays video games while riding his recumbent bike. The only “rules” are those imposed by the biological requirements of the human body, such as the fact that our knees are not designed to bend backward.
Not everything will work for everyone. There will always be a ‘home’ for everyone, a type of physical exertion that leads to a deep-seated craving. It can take a while to find it and personalize it. Like most sensitive, creative people, I responded badly to traditionally macho alpha-male styles of coaching. Introverts and shy people balk at the military style in the same way we balk at team activities, group classes, hyper-enthusiastic music and cheering, and feeling too visible. What we should be doing is choosing our own paths, and then demonstrating them to others of our kind, like I am doing now.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.