Ever try to go to bed without brushing your teeth? I just can’t do it. Some kind of awful little plaque alarm in the back of my head starts going off and refuses to stop until I’ve done something, even if it’s just smearing some toothpaste around in my mouth with one finger. Part of this could be because I’m absolutely terrified of the dentist and will do anything it takes, up to and including ritual animal sacrifice (no, not really) to guarantee that I will never have a cavity again.
The bigger root of my tooth brushing obsession is probably just the fact that it’s been a nightly routine almost as long as I can remember. Routine plus desperate desire to fight tooth decay wins, apparently.
I bring this up because we’re animals, and animals like routines. I’d like to think I’m slightly less neurotic than my cats when I miss giving them their morning treat and idiot talk, but I’m still a slave to my daily habits. This is a fact I’ve tried to turn to my advantage for exercise.
I also admit that I had a lot of help getting it going, in the form of severe jetlag.
I was in Germany for almost three weeks. My first night there I managed (somehow) to stay awake until about 9 PM, at which point I collapsed like a badly made souffle. The next morning, I woke up at 5 AM entirely on my own. I’d already discovered that there was no gym in the hotel I could use, so running was my only option. And I also realized that I probably wasn’t going to feel like running after working for ten hours. So I warmed up, put on my running shoes, and went for a 30 minute run along the banks of the Weser in the pre-dawn dark.
Same thing the next day. And the next. And at that point, I was on a real streak and it seemed a shame to break that, so the next and the next day…
For those three weeks, I was able to break out of my habitual pattern of staying up late, and I got used to getting up every morning and going for a run before breakfast. There were a couple of days when it was too cold to run outside, but I still got up, stretched, and did the few exercises I could do in my hotel room.
By the time I got back home, I couldn’t not get up and do something. Despite the fact that the return to high altitude just screwed my lungs for the first week.
Because this is the thing. For all I talked about finding some sport/fitness activity/game/etc to do that you think is fun and awesome, almost nothing is fun and awesome 100% of the time. There are always, always going to be times when you just don’t feel like it, and you need to be able to make yourself do it anyway. Making the exercise routine really helps in that fight against your own inertia. If you get up at x time and do y every day, you’ve got one more weapon to fight your own excuses: “Yeah, I’m tired, but it’s 8AM and that’s when I run.”
Trying to get into a routine sucks, I’m not going to lie. If you’re me, about five days in you’ll be questioning your own sanity and wondering why you wanted to do this so badly anyway. After the first two weeks, it starts getting easier. But this is your brain trying to lull you into a false sense of security, to convince you that it’s okay, just take a day off and sleep late. Don’t trust it. Unless you are physically incapable of doing your routine, do it. After three weeks, you’ve built the foundation for severe psychological discomfort if you stop doing your routine. But don’t even give yourself a break then. The whole point is that you keep pushing yourself until every time you think, “Don’t wanna,” the thought is immediately followed by, “But that’s what I do. So… yeah.”
How exactly you want to build your routine is really up to you. I used to just do evenings. This getting up in the morning and exercising is a very new thing for me, and I don’t think I could have managed it without a healthy helping of jetlag to get me going. But this is what you do:
– Pick your exercise.
– Do it every day at approximately the same time. Even on weekends.
– Don’t stop.
– I mean it.
– I don’t care if the bed is warm and your cat is purring.
I will add a caution, though, to the every day plan. Particularly when you’re starting out, trying to go hell bent for leather every day is honestly not a good idea. It’s rough on your body. You will need to take a day off from your activity of choice every few days to let your muscles recover. That’s perfectly okay, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But taking a day off shouldn’t mean sleeping through your exercise time or using it to watch reruns of Castle. It’s still your exercise time, so do something with it. Take a walk. Play Dance Central. Or at least stretch while you’re watching your Castle reruns.
Because there will be times when you genuinely cannot exercise, for a multitude of reasons, and possibly even for an extended period of time. Etching this routine into your brain so that it can never be removed will help you pick things back up afterward.
I also understand that for a variety of reasons, you may not be able to do an every day at the same time routine. Maybe you have a weird work schedule, or classes screw with you, or whatever. Routine building still works when it’s not every day.
I had a routine before Germany as well. I went to kung fu on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday (and I ran on Thursday and Saturday). Even when I didn’t feel like it, I made myself go to kung fu because I knew I would broil alive in my own neurotic wibbling if I didn’t. Unfortunately, that particular routine got destroyed by a shoulder injury in November. I was struggling to keep going with exercise, and then Germany came along and that put me back on track.
I will say one thing, comparing the two routines. It’s easier to stick with one that is every day as opposed to just on set days of the week. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and you have to do what you can.
If your schedule is so random and awful that you can’t put together any kind of routine at all, you’ve got it the toughest out of anyone. That means that when you are fighting your own inertia to try to exercise, all you’ve got is ‘do it’ without the added push of habit. It can be done, though. I believe in you.
But if you’re in the latter situation – and please, don’t think I’m judging you because I have no idea what your life is like – before you tell yourself that you just can’t have a routine at all, take a good hard look at things. If you want to do this exercise thing, you need to carve the time out of your life to do it, because it’s important. You don’t exercise when you have time, you have to make time to exercise.
If you think about it that way, maybe you can carve out time to create a routine after all.
Exercise being fun helps you get through that first month of building the routine. After that first month, then it reminds you why that was a good idea.
Hi, I’m Rachael. I’m a fat nerd. I also run 3-4 miles a day and have done kung fu for eight years. I’m not writing this because I want to be some kind of fitness guru. Hell no, that would be ridiculous. I’m writing this because I’ve got a lot of friends that struggle with the [metaphorical] Fitness Demon and I’m hoping my experience might make things a little easier for them. I’m also writing this because it’s a lot of stuff I wish someone had told me, back when I was making attempt after unsuccessful attempt to get into this exercise thing. If it helps you out, great.