Forget Resolutions - Make Fitness a Lifelong Habit

Yesterday I went to my gym and it was jam packed. Crowds of people were trying to work off those extra calories consumed over the Christmas holidays. Dozens of new people wanting to join were being shown around by the gym staff. A swarm of personal trainers was just waiting at the door to sign old and new members up for expensive training sessions and boot camp classes.

It's a shame that after the initial flurry of activity, so many people will just fall into their old routines and not show up anymore. What a waste of money and time. Fitness for me and my family is something that is built into our lifestyle, and I can't imagine not having it as a priority. Fitness can become a habit and a routine, just like taking a shower. After a few days without a shower or bath, most people start really feeling crummy and will do anything to fix that situation. After a few days without a workout, I feel the same way - I get cranky and unpleasant without my fix.

Exercising for fitness is a process or a discipline, not a result. After all, we take a shower every day to be healthy and clean, but we know the result (a clean body) is short-lived and we're going to have to take another one in a day or so. Yet we don't complain about having to re-clean ourselves regularly! We just do it. Exercising is the same way. But many people really complain about having to do it. They're focused on the result (losing 10 pounds, etc.) and not the process. There's a subtle shift in approach that differentiates the ones who make exercise a habit, and the ones who give up their resolution two weeks into the New Year.

Identify Personal Incentives

Experts say that to make a big change in your life you have to have a compelling incentive. Without this, you can make resolutions til you're blue in the face and still not change. I have a couple of compelling reasons - see below.

My incentives

As an older mom, I want to be around and healthy as my kids grow up. I want to be able to do stuff with them. Not only that, my husband and I want to pass on a legacy of healthy living habits to our children.

My secondary reason to stay fit - I value my independence.  Sadly, one of my incentives is to watch an older, overweight person having trouble moving around - I do not under any circumstances want to be like that person if I can help it!  I don't want to be some frail old lady that can't even walk up a couple of stairs without aid.  At least until I'm in my 90's!

Exercise with a Buddy

I started going to a gym a long time ago, in the 1980's when aerobics classes were all the rage. The thing that started making it a regular habit for me was that I joined with a friend, so we would have "dates" to go together. Backing out is much harder when someone else is counting on you. Starting with that initial gym, I just started making fitness a habit. My interest in working out has waxed and waned over the years, but the mentality is now hard-wired into my head - what can I do today for exercise?

Here's what else has worked for me over the years.

Try Different Activities and Mix It Up

Try different things and don't be self-conscious! I like to try out the different classes they offer at the gym: aerobics, pump and flex, kickboxing, Pilates mat and yoga. I have even tried the dance classes for fun - I don't worry about how much of a klutz I am. Don't be afraid to raise a hand and let the instructor know that you are new, because you might get some extra tips and advice on how to do the moves, and you feel like you've got an excuse for being so uncoordinated.

In addition to the gym, there's always something you can try in your local area. Yoga, tai ch'i, martial arts, ballroom dancing, whatever you like. For older people, the senior center in the community usually offers lots of good classes.

If you don't mix up your workout with new things, your body gets used to the same old routine and will hit a plateau with no improvement. Plus it just gets kinda boring. 

Always check with your physician before starting a new exercise program or activity - get any questions about your health and safety answered.

Stretch and Warm Up to Prevent Injury

Make sure you reserve time to stretch/warm up before and after any exercise. I try to work in yoga 1-2 times a week. It's very relaxing, but it's also very challenging.

Push the Weight Training

Learn how to do the weight training. In my opinion, weight training is the single most important factor in losing weight and/or maintaining weight. Plus it has bone health benefits especially for women and older people. I went for years and years just doing cardio without seeing much external improvement. I'm sure my heart and lungs were in decent shape, but my body shape never changed that much and I still wasn't very strong. I couldn't even do 10 pushups in a row (on my feet that is, not cheating on my knees).

I started taking a pump and flex class - Lisa was the teacher. She was an animal! We women were bench pressing 40-60 lb barbells, doing squats, plyometrics and all kinds of killer exercises. I was so sore after every class, but finally could do pushups. Later, after springing for a 6-week stint with a personal trainer (not Lisa), I really started pushing myself on the weight training. Now my pants are a bit looser, and I can actually see muscular lines on my arms. Still no six-pack abs though, working on it. But I can do 3-4 sets of 10 pushups each now! And I am no spring chicken!

The best part is that I think the higher metabolism from having more muscle mass in the body is really there. I can cheat occasionally each week (by cheating I mean like eating a fast food meal) and still not worry much about it.

Have Alternative Workout Options

If you can't get to the gym, have a backup. I must say that living in Southern California makes exercising that much easier. The weather is almost always fine for a hike, jog or bike ride. Our garage is crowded with bikes and other sporting paraphernalia for the whole family. We live close to some of the best hiking trails around. In my single days, I would go rollerblading for miles on the strand at Santa Monica Beach. Another alternative I have is exercise DVDs. Now they even have workout programs on the Nintendo Wii. We keep some hand weights, stretchy bands, a mat, and a big ball for at-home workouts.

The other factor that gets me outside and walking every day is the dog. Research in the UK shows that dog owners log in more physical activity than even the average gym member, who doesn't actually go to the gym regularly.

Another Exercise Incentive

Please Take Me for a Walk!
Please Take Me for a Walk!

Pay Us to Exercise?

It's too bad the health clubs can't adopt a different business model that would really give members an incentive to stay with their exercise programs. Here's an idea. While we all pay to have access to gym membership, how about a gym that pays us to come? What if people could get a rebate for every time we actually used the gym; I bet we would come much more often. They could do the rebates to reward the behavior over the long term. For example, if you come 3 times a week, that's a small rebate. If you come 3 times a week for the whole year (or maybe 48 out of the 52 weeks of the year to account for sickness or being out of town), you get a big bonus rebate at the end of the year. They could apply the rebate to the next year's membership fees, special classes or personal training sessions, which would then keep you coming to their gym.

Or they could do the reverse and penalize people for not going - how about for every week that you don't show up at least once, you pay an additional "non-usage" fee! Gives a new meaning to "use it or lose it."  That would really shake out the membership rolls, don't ya think?

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