Fight hard for those New Year's fitness goals

K doing push ups
© C Thomas – The author slogs through a workout last winter

Because someday you'll be old and you don't want to be wishing you had.

Over the holidays I had a conversation with a relative who's worried about how many medications she's taking. I probed about her exercise habits, which I thought could help, but she was quick to give reasons for why exercise is an impossibility. It's dark when she leaves for work in the morning and dark when she gets home. There's a dog she needs to get home to. She lives in the suburbs, far from any fitness classes. And she doesn't like exercise. "You know my thoughts on that!" she said, laughing. "Plus, I have good genetics on my side. I'm banking on that."

Well, I happen to share those genetics, and great though they may be, I'd hardly want to bet my future health on them. It's like saying, "I bought a good car so I'll never need to perform maintenance on it." Still, I listened to my relative's justifications with understanding because that used to be me. I, too, spent years assuming I had age on my side, that I could go on forever eating as I wanted, with the occasional walk and bike ride worked into my week.

Until I realized it doesn't work like that.

At some point my metabolism would slow down and my physical deterioration would speed up, even if it was still in the distant future. All around me I saw middle-aged people whose bodies are falling to pieces, gaining weight, unable to manage stairs, unable to handle a moderate hike, struggling to carry groceries or pick up small children, undergoing major surgeries in an effort to retain limited mobility – and in many cases it's because they didn't maintain their bodies earlier on in life. At the same time I was witnessing my grandmother's decline into dementia while fighting type 2 diabetes, both of which are linked to an overly refined Western diet.

I knew I didn't want to live like that, so I overcame the slew of justifications for why exercise was inconvenient and, slowly but surely, made it a part of my life. Six years down the road, I am so grateful I made that change. The physical changes to my body and health are one thing, but it's the mental shift that I am most proud of – a newfound ability to push myself in discomfort and face physical challenges without feeling daunted. (I also cannot underestimate the value of setting an example for my young children.)

What would I tell my relative to encourage her to start exercising, and to the countless other people who have made New Year's resolutions to get fit and healthy in 2019?

1. Start small.

Don't be overly ambitious with your fitness goals. When I started getting active, I went to the gym only twice per week for some strength training and a 10-20 minute workout to get my heart rate up. I did that for four years and it got me in good shape. Only after that did I step up my training to the 4-5x per week that I do now. Fitness begets fitness.

2. Schedule it.

You must know when you're going to fit it in, otherwise it will get lost in the flurry of other, more immediately important things. My gym schedule is penciled into my planner at the beginning of each week and confirmed by my partner, who'll be on kid duty when I'm out. I advised my relative to start with exercising on weekends when she has two free days. Then, once she starts to feel the benefits of that physical activity, she'll be more inclined to work it into her busy weekdays.

3. Go with a friend.

Accountability works wonders at keeping us on track. Find someone who has similar goals to yours and commit to meeting once or twice per week for a swim, a bike ride, a yoga class – whatever it is you want to do. Find a fitness community that you enjoy so much that you keep wanting to come back. For me, that's the CrossFit gym; it's as much a social outlet as a physical one. But that's not going to be the same for everyone.

4. Find something you like – but realize you might not like it at first.

Unfortunately the most rewarding things in life are also the most challenging. I tell people to try different activities to find what appeals most to them, but always say they should stick with something for at least 3 months before giving up. The development of new skills leads to greater satisfaction and resulting commitment.

5. Consider the other inputs.

Exercise does not stand alone. It is deeply affected by other factors, such as diet, sleep, and stress. Do yourself a favor and ensure these are being optimized, which will make exercise physically easier for you.

6. Set some goals.

Have something to work toward. Whether it's a weight-loss target, a 5K race, a hike you want to do, a competition of some kind, the ability to stop taking certain medications or avoid a fate met by a sick loved one, fight for it. Get yourself some snazzy workout clothes, find the playlist that drives you, and go.

7. Realize it never stops being a grind.

It's a grind on two levels. First is rallying the motivation to go. Some days may feel like a breeze, but most days you'll feel some level of disinclination, particularly at the beginning. That's normal, but tell yourself that exercise is no different than all the other self-maintenance tasks that are necessary in life. Nobody jumps for joy when it's time to brush teeth or wash their clothes, but they can hardly opt out just because they don't feel like it. The second aspect of the grind is the workout itself. The irony of exercise is that, the better you get, the harder you'll push, so workouts will always feel challenging. But that's a good thing when you're pursuing health, and it actually becomes more fun the stronger you get.

Fight hard for those New Year's fitness goals
Because someday you'll be old and you don't want to be wishing you had.

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