Whether you want to get back in shape or you're focused on getting in shape for the very first time, fitness begins with starting where you are and then setting reasonable goals you'll truly enjoy working toward.
I recently received an email from a listener who said:
I found your podcast and YouTube channel and really appreciate your work. But here’s the problem: I haven’t really exercised since I was in college and I don’t know where to start! Every time I have started a workout program in the past few years, I have ended up injured, frustrated, or both. Can you help?
I completely understand this listener’s dilemma. It is a complaint I've encountered often, both as an endurance coach and from the people who are just starting the Weighless program. Some haven't ever been interested in exercise, but they were suddenly faced with a doctor telling them they need to get in shape or else. Others were fit years ago, maybe in high school or college. But once they stopped competing in team sports, they never found a replacement for that physical activity.
These are similar but slightly different issues.
Never being fit (or interested in being fit) can lead to not knowing where to start.
Having been previously fit but letting it slide for several years can lead to trying to jump back in where you left off.
The good news is that you can address either of these challenges by adopting the same mindsets.
We are all good enough. And at the same time, we're all works in progress.
Start where you are
In a previous Get-Fit Guy episode on functional movement screening, I wrote about a test that can identify what areas of fitness you may want to work on first.
Chances are, if you're reading this article right now, you aren’t a complete couch potato. That means me telling you to simply “move more” isn't going to help. So these types of tests can give you a good indication of where to start.
But even more important than identifying the gaps in your overall physical fitness is to identify the mental gaps in your thinking. You need to ask yourself if you're telling yourself an unhelpful mental story about what you should or shouldn’t be capable of. Are you “shoulding” yourself into either not doing anything or “shouldn’ting” yourself into doing too much, too soon?
Start where you are—not where you want to be or where you were, but honestly and sincerely where you are.
It doesn’t matter if you used to be able to run a 40-minute 10k or if you could hold the Bird of Paradise yoga pose for 60 seconds. It also doesn’t matter if the workout you downloaded off the internet says that you should do three sets of 10 reps of all of these exercises. What matters is that you respect what your body is capable of doing right now. Let go of the judgment and tell your inner drill sergeant to hit the bricks. Then go for a walk, do some modified chair squats, or break the burpee down into easier-to-do chunks.
What matters is that you respect what your body is capable of doing right now.
Do the workout program that suits your, pleases you, and challenges you without leaving you broken and exhausted.
Set process-based goals
I know, I know. We live in a fast-paced world. We want faster cars, faster internet, faster food. But where has all this speed gotten us? According to researcher Ashley Whillans, “while technological advancements allow North Americans now to have more free time than in the 1950s or the 1980s, they feel more pressed for time than ever before.” I propose we stop focusing on the shortest possible path to an outcome and instead set goals that revolve around the ongoing process.
Be able to complete a 10km road race next summer.
Do yoga twice, go for a jog twice, and do at least one bodyweight strength session per week.
As you can probably guess, the outcome-based goal can easily lead to rushing into an overly ambitious workout program that's not suitable for where you are in your fitness journey. This could leave you injured, burnt out, or just plain disappointed with how long it takes you to reach your goal.
On the other hand, the process-based goal:
- Gives you a sense of accomplishment every time you don’t miss a workout
- Allows you to work at your current fitness level
- Will gradually get you to (and keep you at) your goal of being fit.
Measure your progress
Similar to the way a process-based goal allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment along the way, not just at the finish line, measuring your progress can do the same.
As I said in my episode about how fast you can get fit, fitness isn't something you can just check off your list and call "finished." It's not like you can achieve fitness and then rub your hands together and say “OK, done!” I think people who are interested only in getting fit as quickly as possible forget that fitness is a lifestyle and not an end game.
Instead of thinking about how quickly you can get in shape, think about how long you want to be able to move your body through the world in the ways that bring you joy. Instead of focusing on how little time you can get away with dedicating to your fitness improvement, focus on how much you enjoy moving your body in new and exciting ways. This can be helped along by measuring your progress with specific challenges or tests.
There are many different ways to test your fitness and measure your improvement. It’s up to you to determine which way makes sense for you. It could be as involved as a CrossFit baseline workout of the day (WOD), which involves these activities, all done "for time":
40 bodyweight squats
Or it could be as simple as timing your walk around the block, aiming for a quicker time than you had last month.
Again, it is important to not get hung up on the “shoulds” when you're testing. The only should I would encourage you to follow is that each day you should strive to move more of your body, more often, in more and more interesting ways.
You are where you are in your fitness journey. Use your testing information as data to inform you of what's working and what's not. Don’t use it as a judgment of your self-worth. We are all good enough. And at the same time, we're all works in progress.