“After I do my pushups this morning,” I wrote on Wednesday, “I’m going to ride my bike twenty miles, lift weights, and maybe go for a run.”
A couple readers were taken aback. “Do you have a full time job? How can you afford a whole lot of exercise?” Juan wrote. And Mike said, “How do you fit all this exercise time into a day if you have a 9-to-5 job?”
The simple answer is: I quit my job.
Big changes lead to big changes
Sometimes in order to make big changes in our lives, we have to completely alter our daily habits and routines. For years, my biggest excuse for not exercising was that I didn’t have time. Between work, writing, and Real Life, there was no time for physical fitness.
When I quit my job in March to become a “professional blogger” (a term that, while accurate, sounds ludicrous, even to me), I no longer had any excuses. But I didn’t need them.
My first day as a full-time writer was also my first day of regular exercise. The results have been astounding. In the past four months, I’ve developed a dedication to physical fitness that has surprised me.
Small changes lead to big changes, too
Though I had to quit my job before I could make time for fitness, that’s certainly not a requirement. You don’t need to go to the same extremes to make big changes in your life. You don’t need to quit your job to make time for regular exercise. The key is to analyze your own life, to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and to change your habits in small ways that lead to big results for you.
In 1997, for example, I lost 40 pounds by making a few simple changes to my lifestyle. When I got up in the morning, instead of reading the paper, I spent half an hour walking (or, eventually, jogging). I began to bike the six miles to work. During lunch, I’d go for a walk or ride my bike instead of loafing in the break room. I also began to track my calorie consumption. Individually, these changes were only minor alterations to my lifestyle. Taken together, they yielded 42 pounds of weight loss in six months.
More recently, my wife, Kris, has begun to make small changes to her habits. She’s going to bed a little earlier so that she has more free time in the morning before she leaves for work. She uses this time to go for a walk or to practice yoga. (Since our Wii died, she’s been unable to use the Wii Fit for her yoga fix. Instead, she’s developed her own routines which she does in the kitchen while listening to NPR.)
Together, Kris and I are trying to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and we’re making an effort to have fish a couple times per week. (We both like fish; in the past, however, we’ve never thought to prepare it.)
Eight easy ways to change your habits
It can be difficult at first to determine just where you can squeeze exercise and healthy diet into your life. But I’ve found that, with time, it’s surprisingly easy to make the small changes that lead to big results. (And which lead to bigger changes of habit down the road.) Here are some techniques to make this process easier:
- Do what you love. If you don’t like to run, then don’t force yourself to run. If you don’t like broccoli, don’t force yourself to eat broccoli. Find exercises and healthful foods that you enjoy, and then make them a priority. You’re much likelier to stick to a new habit if it’s something that brings you pleasure instead of something that feels like a chore.
- Remove barriers from the things you want to do. If you bring home a bag of carrots, don’t stick it in the produce drawer. If you’re like me, you’ll never remember it’s there! Put it on the top shelf. Better yet, open the bag and dump the carrots into a ziploc bag or other easy-to-access container. Make it easy to do the right thing. Here’s a real-life example: I used to keep my bike and helmet in the garage. Makes sense, right? But that small thing was a huge barrier, which meant I rarely rode it. Instead, I brought the helmet inside and chained the bike to a tree in front of the house. Now it’s easy to go for a ride.
- Create barriers to prevent poor choices. On the other hand, it’s vital to make it more difficult to choose those things that are counter-productive to the life you want to lead. For me, that means not bringing crap food into the house. If I have cookies or ice cream or cold cereal close at hand, I’m going to eat them. If Starcraft is installed on the computer, I’m going to play it. If you, too, struggle with self-control, make it more difficult to do those things that sabotage your goals. (Developing self-control is, of course, the key to long-term success. I’m still working on that.)
- Devote space to the good stuff. If you can, set aside space for your exercise equipment or for your healthy food. Nickel at Fit 36 created an exercise room in his home in which he installed a rowing machine, some dumbbells, and an elliptical trainer. Though we never set out to do so, Kris and I have been gradually converting one room in our house into a yoga/Wii studio. (Yes, we really think of the Wii as a piece of exercise equipment. Dance Dance Revolution is very good exercise.) Meanwhile, I’ve devoted the top shelf of the fridge to healthy food.
- Tap the power of groups. Peer pressure can be a marvelous thing. If I had tried to trainf or the marathon on my own, I would have failed by now. But Pam, knowing her student well, suggest that I train with a group. This has made all the difference. My sister-in-law does Pilates with a group. Jim at Journal of Healthy Living even lifts weights with a group. Many people, of course, play team sports. Others seek group support to develop healthy eating habits. Working with other people can be a powerful motivator.
- Make use of “dead” time. Have a little extra time in the day? Go for a walk. Prepare a salad for the coming week’s dinners. Since my doctor prescribed stretching several times a day, I’ve learned to squeeze my routine in at odd times: while talking with friends after a meal, while waiting in line, while helping Kris in the garden. You might find a way to exercise while watching Lost, or during your lunch break, or first thing in the morning. (For me, using Saturday morning for a long marathon training run is a great use of “dead” time.)
- Don’t sweat mistakes. Everyone takes days off from fitness and diets. We all indulge ourselves now and then. I used to view a couple bad days as failure, and this made it even more difficult for me to return to my healthy habits. This isn’t the case. Diet and exercise are not “all or nothing”. If you make a mistake or take a break, enjoy the moment, then move on. Return to your new routine as soon as possible.
- Get fit slowly. Don’t try to do everything at once. This is difficult advice for me to give — I am the King of Compulsion. When I begin a diet or a fitness regimen, I want to do it full bore. But I’m beginning to learn this isn’t always the smartest technique. Change your habits slowly, starting with manageable chunks. Make more changes as you master the easy stuff.
The best way to begin eating healthy food or to exercise regularly is to make these choices habits. Sometimes it’s possible to make big changes to your lifestyle that yield impressive results, as when I quit my job and suddenly freed time to work out whenever I wanted. But it’s also possible to develop good habits in a normal nine-to-five world. It just takes a little planning and a willingness to make small changes to your lifestyle.