Archives For Fitness

Working out makes people feel amazing. But it stresses lots of people out. Something so good seems out of reach for so many people—70% of people don’t exercise at all. Only 15% of people regularly exercises a few times a week or more. There’s a huge disconnect between what people want for themselves and what they actually do.


Back when I was meeting with new health club members to talk about their fitness goals, I would ask them, “So what’s stopping you?”

“Time.” That was the answer 9 out of 10 times.

But is that the full story? For a single mom with three kids and three jobs, of course. But for the vast majority of people, “lack of time” really means something else.

I used to say that it means exercising doesn’t rank as highly as other things on the priority list, or that there is a struggle with motivation. Those may be true, particularly for somebody having trouble getting started. But when it comes to difficulty sticking with exercise over the long haul, it boils down to one simple thing:

Working out hasn’t become a rock solid habit yet.

No matter who you are, you’re busy and have lots of other things competing for your time. No matter who you are, you aren’t always in the mood to exercise. It’s only when something is etched into you as a habit that you consistently put in the time and effort despite the many possible distractions and barriers.

I’ve been on both ends of the fitness spectrum in my life. I spent many years working out regularly, but let it slip in a major way. I went through a period of years where I stopped exercising completely. I eventually regretted swinging so far in that direction that I decided to work my way back into fitness as a way of life.

I did it—I’ve been working out 5-6 times a week regularly for many years now. And I became so committed I went back to become a personal trainer.

But at that low point, I was starting from nothing, just like the many people I interviewed as a personal trainer who told me their barrier to working out was “time.”

I learned many things during my transformation and many more working with other people. The real secret to getting in the habit and staying in the habit boils down to two things.

Secret 1:  Reduce your expectations and increase your expectations simultaneously.
This was the game changer for me in creating momentum. Prior to my multi-year workout hiatus, I would go to the gym for an hour a few times a week. Sometimes I would stay for 90 minutes… my logic was that I had dragged myself all the way there, so I could put in some extra work and give myself an extra day off in between. (Surprised I failed? That attitude pretty much says it all.)

So when I wanted to get back into exercising, I initially carried that same level of expectation of 60+ minute workouts. And I struggled.

Then I changed the recipe. My new goal became working out every day for 15-20 minutes. Just a 20 minute jog. Or 15 minutes of push-ups, chin-ups, and situps. It was so much easier to get over the motivational threshold to work out for 20 minutes. It was so much easier to find the time. It was so much harder to come up with excuses.

Pretty soon I was working out regularly.

And a shift took place. Working out went from mostly feeling like “pain-in-the-ass work I have to do” to something I enjoyed. Not always, but most of the time.

The good news is that with the comeback of High Intensity Interval Training, 20 minute workouts are now in vogue and backed up with even more evidence of their effectiveness. (To be clear, my initial 15-20 minute workouts were not HIIT. They were still somewhat lazy. And that was helpful for me in sticking with them.)

So reduce your expectations to short workouts, but increase your expectations to working out to at least 5 days a week, and preferably 7 days a week. Build momentum. Get yourself to the place where missing a workout gnaws at you and makes you feel off.

Secret 2:  Build yourself a portfolio of fitness options.

I am busier than I’ve ever been. But I’m better about working out regularly than I’ve ever been. Part of that is because I’ve built up a habit. But I wouldn’t have been been able to do that if I hadn’t used this “portfolio” tactic. And I think the portfolio tactic is critical for everyone, even people who have already built up a solid workout habit.

The basic idea is this: Give yourself a wide variety of places and formats in which you can work out. The minute you limit your definition of a successful workout to just one thing, you have created a barrier. If you only feel you’ve succeeded if you’ve brought yourself to a 1-hour yoga class or gone to the gym for a full workout, you’re exponentially more likely to fail at sticking with your habit.

Too many things can blow up your ability to get to your class or get to the gym. A busy work week. Travel. A child who is home sick from school. And any time you don’t squeeze in a workout when that is your intent, your habit loses just a little bit of its strength and momentum.

These days I give myself a ton of options. I am fortunate enough to have free access to a gym at work. But it’s not open 7 days/week, so I also belong to a gym. I can justify that because it’s only $10/month. I also own a decent pair of running shoes. I also play soccer in the warm months. I also have access to YouTube and can watch someone lead me through some yoga sequences. I also have a collection of stuff to work out with at home, which I’ve built up over time:

In the beginning, all I had were three things that I used for my 15-20 minute workouts that I credit with getting me back into the exercise habit:

  • $30 door frame chin-up bar (leaning against the pillar)
  • $15 exercise mat (which isn’t a necessity if you have carpet)
  • $20 push-up thingies (which aren’t necessary for push-ups, but allowed me to do dips with my feet on a chair)
  • Running shoes
  • Some killer tunes

Over time, I gradually added to it:

  • $80 adjustable bench
  • $20 stability ball
  • $15 medicine ball
  • free power blocks I found on the side of the road (lucky, I know)
  • free hand-me down weights from the 80’s — I had to supply the Duran Duran

(I prefer to run or play soccer, but the elliptical in the picture runs for about $900.)

The point is that for basically no money, you can get in a solid workout at home or outside. If you don’t believe me, I’ll go over to your house and give you the best workout of your life with nothing but a floor, 4 towels, and 5 five of your favorite songs. Don’t make gym memberships, equipment, training advice, or anything else a barrier. You’ve got options, baby. Use ’em all.

Of course there are so many other things that can help you build momentum. Find a workout buddy. Make a bet with your friends. Find a type of exercise you actually find enjoyable. Get a coach or a personal trainer. Sign up for a race.

But don’t over-complicate it. Just do the two essential things: Commit yourself to 15-20 minutes every day. And redefine success to include a wide variety of possible workouts.

There isn’t anything you can do that is more important than consistency. There’s nothing else you need. There’s nothing I can offer as a trainer that’s more valuable than your consistency. Maybe they’ll come try to rip my certification away for saying that. But it’s true.

Start with consistency. End with superhero.

Your Body Image

March 29, 2016



Recently I kicked off a one-month exercise and nutrition regimen. And if I’m honest, I’m not exactly sure why. Luckily, that won’t hinder my discipline for following through. Unluckily (if only that were a word), that’s because my discipline is founded on a good chunk of compulsiveness.

But this all got me thinking.

To begin with, I have so many vices and personal failings, but for whatever reason I’m good about exercise and eating well. I’m pretty passionate about wellness, enough so that it drove me to become a certified personal trainer a few years ago. I was exercising regularly and eating well back then, but this gave me the ability to do so more effectively, as well as help others in doing the same.

Anyway, back to my one-month exercise and nutrition program. It is focused on gaining weight. (Hopefully muscle.) Why? Good question. Maybe it’s because I just got over the stomach flu and lost some weight. Maybe I just enjoy experimenting with what’s possible because of my training background–I do really like exercise and this gives me a specific goal to work on. Or maybe it’s because I still have this self image of being a scrawny kid, an image so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I might never shake it regardless of how close to the truth it actually is at any given time. It’s probably a blend of motivations. But if I were a bettin’ man, I’d put most of my chips on option three.

However, if you were to rewind to about a year ago, I hit a point where I decided I needed to lose body fat. I changed my regimen and focused on that.

And if you were to rewind to a year before that, I was feeling scrawny and kicking off a weight/muscle gaining program.

What’s remarkable about all of this is how big these swings in self image have been… much bigger than the outward reality. In fact, I’ve paid attention to this pretty closely and I see that my body image often changes on a daily basis.

If I had to guess, I’ll bet yours probably does too.

In my own case, one day I might see myself in the mirror and decide I am too scrawny. Another day I might be feeling fine about how I look. Another day I might be thinking I could shed a few pounds. The next day I’m back to being relatively satisfied.

You’d think there might be a clue in all of this oscillation. My body certainly isn’t changing in any meaningful way on a daily basis. If these thoughts are shifting daily, how could they possibly be trustworthy enough to pay them any attention? But I do.

As a personal trainer, I had the privilege of interviewing lots of people about their fitness goals. It’s generally how you start off a relationship with a potential new client… you have to understand what they want so you can design the right program for them. To state the obvious, if they want weight loss, you’re going to guide them to exercise and eat a certain way. If they want to gain muscle, you’ll advise them in a different way. If it’s athletic performance, it’s often sport-specific and looks pretty different. If it’s for overall health, it looks different.

But more importantly, in these interviews, you have to understand why a person wants what they want. Because that’s the source of their motivation. And people don’t always wear that on their sleeve. It’s sometimes even the case that they don’t really know why they want what they want. They might think they do, but they haven’t really looked into the root of it.

For example, many times I would ask a person why they wanted to lose weight, and they might say something like “to be healthier.” That’s almost never the real why. Or they might say “because my wife wants me to lose weight.” That could be the truth, but that’s not a strong enough reason to keep them from giving up.

Eventually, after they get more comfortable opening up to you, you get to the heart of it. Because my boyfriend left me and I want to show him what he’s missing. Because my son told me he is worried about me and doesn’t want me to die young. Because I want to look good and have more sex. Because my doctor told me if I don’t lose fifty pounds and get my diabetes under control, I might not live to see my grandchildren. 

Sex and survival, sex and survival, sex and survival.

Not to over-simplify things, but that’s generally what it boils down to. Sex applies most to the younger half of the people (in truth it applies to just about everyone until a certain age, and even then, it sometimes still continues to apply). Fear of death or fear of some other negative health outcome associated with old age usually starts becoming an important motivator for people once they finally get to a certain age.

The other significant motivator besides sex and survival is an inner shift–one based on confidence or self image. The same way a person may feel that their clothes are sending a message to the world about who they are, we see our body and appearance as conveying something about our inner self to the world. So with this as our motivator, we want the outer transformation because of the inner transformation we intuitively feel it will bring to us. This is more nuanced and often this motivator kicks in after somebody has firsthand experience of how fitness supports the inner shift.

Many people feel like the sex / “look good” motivation isn’t a noble one, so much so that they are ashamed to admit it and may even hide it. You generally can’t fool yourself anyway, but regardless, it’s one of the most common motivators, it’s real, and it does work.

Your real driver is the only thing that will sustain you, so it’s so important to get in touch with your why, to understand it, and to keep it in the forefront of your mind. It’s easy to give up on that day you’re feeling too tired to get off the couch. It’s easy to get lazy during your workout when you’re feeling low-energy. But your real why is critical to getting you through those moments and ultimately to your goal.

For me, I’ve found the most potent motivator to be about inner transformation. But it isn’t always my primary driver.

If I go all the way back, somewhere along the way I got locked into this notion of being skinny, scrawny, and little. I spent most of my childhood years shorter and smaller than other kids. Eventually I grew to 5′ 9″, which is essentially average, but I still saw myself as small and not masculine. And not masculine is easily equated with not desirable. I started working out in high school and became more athletic-looking, but I really never shook the scrawny thing from a self image standpoint. It still comes up for me.

I also grew up with a mother who struggled with anorexia when she was younger and has had a strong degree of focus on her weight for her entire life. On a daily basis, often multiple times per day, she would talk about her weight, how many calories she was eating, needing to go on a diet, and so forth. Undoubtedly I also absorbed many of those same tendencies… both the good and the bad… they just manifest in a different way for me. So some of what compels me is ingrained at an unconscious level.

Sometimes self awareness is enough to liberate unconscious tendencies. Other times, as I’m demonstrating pretty plainly to myself right now, it’s not. I have noticed this shape-shifting body image of mine. I recognize I probably picked up some unconscious habits from a pretty early age, both at home and from the constant societal bombardment about looking good that impacts all of us. But in spite of knowing these things, it would appear the compulsion still rules me much of the time.

I know I’m at my best when I’m both satisfied with my body and still driven to exercise regularly and eat well for other reasons.

Sometimes that reason is simply that I’ve built up the habit so well that it’s part of my routine. Do something enough and you build enough inertia it becomes hard to stop.

But usually getting to that point starts from a conscious recognition that doing so is central to keeping me energetic, clear-headed and balanced– it’s one of the keys to the basic upkeep of body and spirit. (See James Altucher’s TED talk or visit his blog for another person’s take on something I found to be true for myself long before I had ever heard of him.)

Sometimes, however, a different motivator sneaks in. And it’s often this mix of poor body image (not masculine enough) and compulsiveness.

The thing is, compulsion actually works as a motivator. But it doesn’t feel particularly good. A poor body image also works as a motivator, but it doesn’t feel particularly good either. It might be an okay place to start, but it’s not a good place to stay over the long haul.

I’ve seen some amazing transformations. Many amazing transformations start because of poor body image and are seemingly focused on improving one’s body.

But the essence of the most amazing transformations has less to do with how many pounds a person has shed or how smokin’ they look by the end. It’s about the inner transformation that takes hold. Something gets ignited within. A person who was previously filled with shame or unworthiness gradually sheds that and becomes palpably confident and happy. A timid person plagued by fear begins exuding a sense of power and quiet nobility. Somebody with a rotten body image finds what very few people ever get in touch with–they become comfortable in their own skin.

This is one of the things I love most about fitness. Few things offer such a clear recipe for personal transformation. Follow the routine with enough consistency, and you will get results. It’s within everyone’s power to do so. And with enough knowledge and hard work, I believe amazing feats are possible (i.e. just about everyone could even have the body of a superhero or a fitness model if that was their desire… body change is one realm where nurture can overpower nature.)

But I think it’s important to remember where the real value in all of this is. Body image is a flighty, changeable thing. Self image morphs on a daily basis (and probably more like a moment-to-moment basis). It’s only loosely tied to the actual outward form of your body. So the outer changes are wonderful, but it’s the inner transformations that have the real power. That’s what makes you a true superhero.