Thursday, January 1, 2009

Establishing the Exercise Habit

I wonder how many people have made a New Year's resolution that includes starting an exercise program or, more specifically, that includes starting to run. I would guess it's a pretty large number. I haven't been to the YMCA for a while, now, but in the last 3 New Year's that we have celebrated in the US, the number of people in the Y balloons in early January only to taper off sharply by February or March. Lots of people make that resolution but it seems that most don't stick with it.

That's been my personal observation but a blog and an article that I read today both confirm my observations: a blog on Diet Blog, Making Exercise a Habit, and John Bingham's article in the current Runner's World magazine, Up and Over. Ali Hale, in today's entry on Diet Blog, says that three times as many people join a gym in January as in December ... and lots of them won't be back again after the first of February. She goes on to give some excellent suggestions on how to transform a desire to exercise into a habit of exercise.

Bingham talks about a tipping point in a beginning exercise program -- a point at which you can't imagine not lacing up your shoes to go out for a run. He says that the failure rate for beginning exercisers seems to be very high. They start with faulty expectations and unrealistic goals, and they fail miserably and give up. They don't stick with it long enough to get to their tipping point.

After 5 1/2 years of running, I think I have the habit established. While I enjoy my planned days off, if I miss running on a day on which I would normally have run, it's rarely a good thing. I think there are lots of ways to get the habit established. Hale's 4 suggestions are excellent:
Fit exercise into your day
Make it regular
Keep track
Involve other people

Those have been the things that have helped me make running a habit -- well, those and my natural obstinacy.
Fit exercise into your day: Early, early morning is the best time for me. There are no meetings scheduled for 5:15 am, I don't get caught in the office at that time of day, I'm not generally mentally or emotionally exhausted at that point. The only downside is that I have to either get to bed at a decent time or run on less than optimal sleep.

Make it regular: This is where my pig-headedness works to my advantage. I made up my mind that I was going to run and I just do it. Regular doesn't have to mean sameness. I have made running a regular part of my activities -- I run 4-5 days per week, sometimes 6 -- but I try not to run the same route twice in any given week. I normally don't run the same distance on any two days in a week. This week, for instance, I ran 4.6 miles on Tuesday, 9.2 miles on Wednesday, 8 miles today, and will likely run 10 miles on Saturday -- no two routes are anywhere close to being the same. I'm always looking for a new route or a new twist to an old route so that I don't get too settled or bored. I probably have 150+ bookmarks for various running routes in Short Pump. On the other hand, some people like to run the same route or a small number of routes every day. They don't have to think about it -- they just get out an run.

Keep track: Again, I've been pretty obstinate about this but I keep a pretty meticulous record of my running -- distance, time, pace, weather, route, brief notes, monthly totals, annual totals, totals since I started running seriously (again), averages, etc. For the last 2 years, I have used an online Google Sheets spreadsheet to keep my records. Before that, I had designed and used a ClarisWorks/AppleWorks spreadsheet and an Excel spreadsheet. This allows me to see my progress and is a real motivator.

Involve other people: I've done that in various ways. There are a few people who at least act like they are interested in my running. I talk with them about running (I try, more or less successfully, not to talk about running with those who really don't care). There have been a couple of people over the years with whom I have run occasionally but in the last year, I've joined up with a group of runners in the Short Pump area of Richmond and that's added a wonderful dimension to my running and has helped me gain some new friends. For a couple of years, I participated regularly on the Beginners' Forum in the Runner's World forums. I got a lot of encouragement from that and was able to give encouragement. Over the last 2-3 years, I've participated, more or less regularly, in the running blogging world. This blog, though initially started so that I could record those non-running related thoughts and contemplations that I have while running, has become my external accountability for running. It's as much for me as anything else but writing about my running is a motivator.

Those things have helped but I don't think they're enough to keep the average beginning runner going. They would not have been enough for me. Bingham, I think, has hit the nail on the head. Most people start running (or any other fitness or weight control program) with unrealistic expectations and faulty assumptions -- they don't get to the tipping point.

I think that one thing most people either don't realize or forget is that exercise is not fun at first. Those of us who have made exercise a habit talk about it in glowing terms -- I love running; I feel so energized after a run; Man, the feeling you get when you hit the "runner's high" is awesome!. Professional athletes make it look easy -- we see the end results, not the very hard work that they do to get to that point. We're bombarded by the hype of infomercials about instant results without any effort. Then, when we start exercising we find out that it actually takes effort. While I almost instantly liked the results of walking/running, it took a full year of running before I could say that I liked and enjoyed the running itself. Health and fitness are not pursuits with instant gratification.

Running is hard. Sometimes it hurts. Lifting weights or swimming or the elliptical machine or the stationary bike or aerobics or Pilates or eating right are hard. Sometimes they hurt, often they're inconvenient, usually you have to give up something else that you really like in order to do them. Even eating right is hard -- loading up on HFCS-laden soda, eating a bag of chips, eating chocolate cake, fast food all taste good (OK, there might be some argument about some fast food but I think Taco Bell's Crunch Wrap tastes really good) -- and at first, when you cut calories, you sometimes get hungry and just want to eat something you know isn't good for you.

That fact catches people off guard -- it surprises them -- they can't figure out why it's so hard, why they are exhausted after a run and not rejuvenated, why they are huffing and puffing so hard after just a few dozen yards. They then conclude that running (or eating right or something else) must not be for them and they quit.

If you have resolved to get in shape this year, go for it! I'm with you. Just stick with it long enough to get to the tipping point. That means taking the long view -- it may take a year before you can say that you like _____________ (you fill in the blank with whateer you've resolved to do) so hang in there awhile. Once you pass that tipping point, you'll be glad you did.

Run well, y'all,
Bob
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