What do you think of when you hear the word “exercise”? You might have flashbacks to gym class and running laps in the freezing cold with a coach barking “encouragement” at you. Maybe you think of marathons, triathlons, and all those Olympic sports. Or imagine dead-lifting in a Crossfit gym until you yourself feel like dying.
Then, think about why you should exercise. You probably get a mental replay of every fitness guru and commercial you’ve ever heard. Get slim! Bulk up! Burn fat!
How much of it actually sounds like fun? And how many of those goals actually sound attainable when you’re suffering from chronic illness? It’s no wonder exercise is an intimidating concept for most of us. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. If you’ve been struggling to get moving, if the mere thought of exercise makes you want to squirm with anxiety and self-loathing, this post is for you.
If you don’t already exercise, any activity will help.
Do you work at a desk all day, then come home and watch TV from the couch? You don’t have to launch straight into an intensive weight-lifting routine or start running miles upon miles to get any benefits. Simply spending more of your day on your feet will help. Try using a standing desk if you can or parking further away from the building so you have to walk a bit more. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Go for longer walks with the dog. Small things like that can add up.
Then change things up.
If you do the same thing every time you exercise (or have exhausted all the ways to incorporate more movement into your regular day), you’ll eventually hit a plateau. If you want to keep getting the benefits of exercise, change up how long you do it, the types of movements you do, and the intensity at which you do them. If you usually walk, try jogging or carrying weights. If you like to swim, throw in a few days of biking or strength training instead. Short on time? Do a 3-5 minute session of HIIT. And if you already exercise intensely, mix in a few days of gentler movement to avoid repetitive strain injuries.
Find an activity you actually enjoy doing.
If you find yourself dragging your heels and cursing the heavens every time you get up to exercise, you’re probably not going to stick with it. The type of exercise you do is less important than finding exercise you want to do. Whether it’s walking the dog, playing with your kids, cleaning the house, tending your garden, dancing to your favorite music, or biking instead of driving, if it gets you moving and you don’t mind doing it, that’s the exercise for you. Keep exploring!
Don’t make your weight your only marker of success.
Contrary to everything you’ve been told about it, exercise isn’t just about burning calories, losing weight, or building muscle. Diet, sleep, genetics, and health conditions all play a role in weight loss, so if you start exercising and don’t see the pounds melting away, don’t give up. The real benefits of exercise go way beyond the waistline. First of all, it releases endorphins–hormones that make us more resilient to stress and pain. They also help regulate our other hormones (including insulin, cholesterol, thyroid, and sex hormones) and help us sleep better at night. Exercise has also been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and even certain types of cancers. And it can help stimulate your digestion if you suffer from IBD or related conditions. These benefits may not be as visible as weight loss, but they’re far more likely to happen–and far better indicators of your overall health.
Find ways to reward yourself that don’t involve food.
How many times have you heard or said something like “I worked out today, so I can totally have pizza.” It’s tempting to reward ourselves for good behavior, but we need to find rewards that aren’t going to undo all the good work we just did. Instead of reaching for cookies and ice cream to celebrate your week of workouts with a “cheat day”, treat yourself to an evening with your favorite book or TV show. Go see a movie or spend a day out in nature. Consider getting a massage or have an an at-home spa day with a warm bath, candles, and relaxing music. Make yourself a big meal of your favorite meat, vegetables, and fruits. Or just take a moment to be profoundly impressed by all you accomplished, reaffirming your commitment to do it again next week!