How to start exercising again after a break
by Kalyani Prasher
In October 2013, I finally started a walking routine after being sedentary for almost seven years. I still remember that first walk: I could barely go 16 minutes, my face was red, my heart pounding, my legs wobbly and it felt like I would burst a vein through sheer exertion. The next day, I did 18 minutes. By August last year I was walking five km an hour, four times a week, and had done several seven-km walks without a problem. Then I went for a two-month vacation to my sister’s home in England and stopped walking altogether.
I stopped walking because my sibling bought a car. Earlier we would walk the two miles to Waitrose for groceries but now, suddenly, it was too far away and the bags so heavy; plus my niece and nephew wanted to go for drives. After a few days of this, I realised how utterly great just sitting and reading and eating was. Why the hell was I sweating it out? I returned in October, totally satisfied with my lazy holiday, having gained seven kilos and lost the exercise habit.
It took me seven months to start again. In this time, because I am a generous eater of things, I put on another four kilos and had a painful affair with my prolapsed disc. My physiotherapist aunt pursed her lips in her scary way, and spelled out what I already knew: if I didn’t reduce the weight my back has to carry (namely, my stomach), I was staring down a life of being laid up — in my thirties.
This was truly worrying, especially because I am single. I want to earn for at least another 20 years so that I can support myself well for the rest of my life. I can’t afford to be disabled of body or mind. And if I do remain single, I want to able to climb a chair and fix a bulb in my sixties. For this, if I have to invest a few hours a week in my future from now on, well, it’s not ideal, but I’ll do it.
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WHEN to start?
So I decided I had to start exercising again. But we were in May, dude. May is no time to exercise in Delhi, might as well shove myself in a microwave and press start. But each time I try to use bad weather as an excuse, I remember a friend’s reply from October, when I complained it was too hot to start: “Wait a minute,” he said, “you’re waiting to exercise in better weather to avoid sweating?”
The ugly truth is that there is no right time to begin. You can keep delaying it by a day or two, a Monday or two, but whenever you start, it will likely be with reluctance. There will never come a day when I wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey, I feel like going to the gym today!’ Nope. “Stop thinking,” advises Vinod Channa, celebrity fitness trainer. “It is the fat that is making you lazy. Fat makes you inactive and, as a result, you start losing strength, stamina and flexibility. It’s a vicious cycle. Don’t think, just start.”
HOW to start?
There is no fixed equation that can swing you into action. Try your own combination of the following:
Find the trigger: Ideally, I would like to delink weight loss and exercise, but nearly 90 per cent of women who go to fitness experts do it to lose weight. For me, it was my back. This was the third episode of prolapsed disc in my 30s, and I felt disgusted with myself for having abandoned my fitness routine. For Gunjan Singh, 34, running was the cure for the anxiety she developed after the death of her father. “I was going to pieces,” she says. Singh has never really been unfit, so she had never thought of working out, but now it became a form of release. “Running gives me time to clear my mind; those 40 minutes are mine, away from the family and daily schedules.” As a bonus, she lost all her post-pregnancy fat and then that kept her going.
Start slowly: I started again with 20 minutes because, I reasoned, I had only been out of practice for seven months this time. I almost fainted. To avoid such shocks, start with 10 minutes. “Or even five,” says Channa, “Start as slowly as possible.” Setting tiny goals will fool your mind into feeling accomplished — and this really is all about the mind — and that will help you take the next step. Do 10 minutes, three times a week, build up to 15 the next week, then 20 and so on. “Unrealistic goals kill motivation,” agrees Dr Shweta Tandon, sports psychologist. “It’s okay if you don’t exercise daily, start with what is manageable.” Also, she suggests, try to get it done in the morning. “Research has shown that people who exercise in the morning before work tend to stick with it. Obstacles of the day get in the way as evening approaches and the brain is tired and doesn’t want to contemplate another difficult thing.”
Mix it up: Personally, I recommend walking as your main exercise, over the new fad of running, which puts an entirely different level of stress on your back and knees. Then you need to add some strength training, which is not only a solid bore but also one more thing to do. But if you find walking for long stretches dull, break it up with something you like: swimming, dancing, aerobics, Zumba, cycling or even yoga. Dr Tandon says, “Try and find a pleasurable activity that is also exercise… that will motivate you to go back to it.” I really have to struggle to find such a thing, but dancing comes closest.
Use technology: Never underestimate the power of statistics. Apps like Runkeeper give you the digits on your walk/run/cycling in terms of distance, time and pace; they tell you the calories burned, keep track of your progress day after day, and a sweet little voice tells you that your exercise for the day is done. The trick is not to go nuts. I remember the first time I started using Runkeeper, back in 2013, I didn’t want to walk if I had no internet connection because, you know, what’s the point if there’s no record? (Who was I trying to impress? The Runkeeper people?)
Treat yourself: Positive reinforcement sweetens the deal. Fitness freaks will say you must exercise daily; ignore them stoutly and treasure your off days. A nice ultimate goal, say six months from the time you start, by which I mean now, is to exercise one hour a day, five times a week. That’s the maximum. Each time you up your exercise a little bit, treat yourself: make a purchase, call in sick at work, do something small and satisfying. For every month of completing your exercise schedule, give yourself a bigger treat. Treats remind you that this is not some regimen you’re following at gunpoint
In The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests it takes six months to make a lasting habit. I’d add that it takes about two weeks to break it and a month to forget it ever happened. So the trick is to keep going. If you can’t exercise for a week because you were ill, or on vacation, return to last week’s stats and carry on from there.
It’s tough to keep going, though. Each walking day of the week I wonder, why the hell should I go today? Give me one reason, ONE; and then I sigh and go. I always feel great afterwards (this is another guarantee, you always feel your best right after a workout). I ask myself, why won’t I do something that takes one hour of my day and is good for me? Don’t I work for others eight hours a day? Am I less answerable to myself? I even considered paying myself for walking (not joking).
Besides, once you begin, exercising is a self-feeding cycle — the more you do, the more you can do. At the time of sending off this piece, I am walking for 40 minutes, four times a week and looking forward to my 45-minute week that’s coming up. I have set a goal to walk four km this month so, naturally, I will just have to do it. The Runkeeper people are watching.