I’ve been trying to get back into working out (with varying levels of success) for almost three years. I hit my fitness prime in undergrad — I never turned into a star athlete, but I exercised daily, sometimes several times, and went to the gym at least 5 days a week, even if it meant only going there for a half an hour on my lunch break. Granted, I was a little obsessed with it — all of this fit-ness grew out of an unhealthy body image and an eating disorder that also saw its prime in my undergrad days. Even after my disordered eating balanced out a bit, I still exercised, and I still liked exercising, though, even if I wasn’t doing it constantly.
Near the end of grad school, though, I started gaining weight inexplicably, and no matter how much I exercised, my weight kept climbing, and then I tore a ligament in my leg from falling on the ice (thanks, Ohio!) and got plantar fasciitis in both of my feet (thanks, coffee shop floor tiles!), which pretty much made exercise impossible. Of course, the lack of exercise and the weight gain also made plantar fasciitis worse, which in turn led to even less exercise, and thus began the cycle of slothhood.
A year or so after grad school, I went through a devastating breakup (grad school kills all that is good) and lost 30 pounds, which seemed to take care of the plantar fasciitis, so I started exercising more in hopes that a new, better body would somehow reignite the flame that my partner used to have for me that grad school had doused out.
It didn’t. I was too sad to focus on my body, and I became pretty reclusive — my only good friend in the area moved away to grad school (meanwhile, I prayed for her marriage) and I had to up my teaching load to make up for the half of the income that my partner had contributed to our living expenses previously, so if I wasn’t secluding myself purposefully, I was forced into seclusion. Exercise took the back burner for the next year or so.
By the time I started thinking about exercising again, I was too scared. I had kept the 30 pounds off, and was actually losing weight without trying (some of the weight gain was due to medications, etc.), but I was still too fat to subject myself to public spectacle. When you’re overweight, you overthink what people are going to think of you if they see you anywhere in public, much less a gym. They might pity you, or think at least she tries, or think no wonder she’s here. They might judge how hard you’re working, how much you’re sweating, how quickly you get tired, what you’re wearing, whether or not you’re using a machine correctly, how big of a dumbbell you can lift. Whether or not they’re actually thinking these things doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that they might be.
Up until now, I drove myself crazy with these thoughts and others, trying to get myself to the gym. I’d think about going to the gym. I’d talk about it to my therapist. I’d put on my gym clothes and drive around, trying to make myself go there, sometimes for hours, sometimes into the parking lot, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. I would either think myself out of it or I would take so long that the ambition I had to do it left.
Last week, I made the leap — I went back to the gym. Here’s how I overcame the fear and other negative feelings that kept me from going.
I didn’t let myself think myself out of doing it.
One of the biggest barriers I noticed to getting myself to the gym was thinking. My brain is my biggest asset and my worst enemy, all at once — I overthink everything, from texts to TV shows to highway billboards to why my dog might be peeing on the floor. The gym was no exception. I’d weigh the pros and the cons, and if the cons didn’t outweigh the pros already, I’d have thought so long that my ambition to go had passed. I’d think of other things that seemed more important to do — work, chores, even napping.
So, to change, I basically decided that next time I wanted to go to the gym (I actually do think about going on a daily basis), I would get ready to go and do it the minute I thought if it (I usually only think of going to the gym when I’m at home and have a free minute). I wouldn’t let myself think too long on whether I should go or what would happen once I got there.
Mel Robbins has some thought-provoking ideas in her Ted Talk “How to stop screwing yourself over.” In the talk, she discusses how we can get what we want — how we can quit procrastinating and stop analyzing our way into putting up our own obstacles. She discusses what she calls an “inner snooze button” in the talk. “You have these amazing ideas that bubble up,” she says, “and every time you come up with an idea, what do you do? You hit the snooze!”
Robbins is trying to wake us up, here (pun intended) — she shares that when we want to make a change in our life, we are never going to feel like it. Thus, she asserts, hitting our inner snooze button — putting something off until later, when we might feel like it — is going to bite us in the butt, because we’ll never get to it. She basically tells us that we need to force ourselves to be uncomfortable and get unstuck — our feelings are screwing us.
Her most important point, at least to me, in all of this, is her “5-second rule.” She told us the problem, the “what” (our feelings are screwing us over), but the 5-second rule is the “how” in overcoming that, and it’s part of how I overcame my fear/procrastination of going to the gym. She shares that once we get an impulse to do something — a mental pull, an idea — we need to “marry it with an action” toward that something or we won’t do it (or doing it will, at the very least, become much more unlikely). We kill the idea.
This is what I imagine was happening to me — I’d get the idea to go to the gym, I’d take too long to take action, and I’d kill it (and put myself through a lot of self-inflicted mental abuse in the process). So, when I was wanting to go back to the gym last week, I thought of this video. As soon as I had the idea, I put on gym clothes and my shoes and left.
Now obviously, not everyone can just get up and go to the gym whenever they think of it because of other kinds of commitments, but Robbins isn’t saying you have complete the idea; she’s saying that you simply have to take one action step toward completing it. If I couldn’t go to the gym that second, I might pack a gym bag and put it in my car for later, or something, for example.
Try something similar. Don’t think yourself out of it. Don’t kill the idea!
I didn’t make the goal about weight loss. In fact, I didn’t make a long-term goal at all.
I didn’t notice this until I rewatched Robbins’ video for this article, but she also said something on point with what I was going to say, but she says it better:
“Being healthy will not get your ass up on a treadmill. Losing your manboobs so you can hook up with somebody will.”
Robbins is onto something here. “Being healthy” is nebulous. It’s far in the distance, and it’s hard to quantify. As Robbins says, it “sounds good to other people.” “Losing weight” is similarly self-defeating. It can be quantifiable, but it feels like it’s for someone else.
Every time I’ve ever started exercising again, I made it about losing weight. This time, I went for a few reasons: I don’t feel comfortable in my body, I want to do things I used to be able to do, I feel like I’m not actively living my life, and I want my arms to look different so that I can get tattoo sleeves. These reasons might not sound noble, but they’re mine, and they’re sufficient, and they’re manageable. You can’t lose 50 pounds or 100 pounds or however many pounds in a way that’s healthy quickly, and weight fluctuates up and down anyway. But muscles tone up fast, and if it’s not fast enough, I can just focus on a different reason for being there.
Even the tattoo reason, though, is a little too long-term for me. It’s just something I’d like to do. I am bad at rule-following, and I am basically the physical manifestation of Freud’s concept of the id. I need instant gratification and I seem to be incapable of committing to long-term goals/considering long-term consequences. I know, everyone likes short-term gratification; I just seem particularly challenged (or confined by) “the long term” because it might not ever happen. Weight loss might not happen, the tattoos might not happen, I might not live to see another day. Plus, if I do set long-term goals, they tend to be unrealistic and they start to feel unmanageable/unachievable and I disappoint myself and lose hope and end up back on my couch anyway.
Thus, it’s been really, really important to me in considering what role going to the gym has in the here and now.
Which brings me to my next point:
I focused on doing things that I like, or on starting with things that are relatively painless.
One of the main reasons, I imagine, for avoiding the gym is because we think it’s going to suck once we get there (or at least I do). I’ve successfully avoided the gym sucking since my return because (thankfully) there are things I like doing there. I can guarantee that even if there’s not something you like at the gym, there’s probably something you can tolerate doing.
You can take me for an example: even when I was in my “fitness prime,” I could not run to save my life. I’d be one of those people who’d be f*cked in the zombie apocalypse and serve as a sacrifice for my friends. I like running, for a block or so, but I’ve come to understand and accept that running isn’t my thing, at least not for now. I’ve heard tips for getting around this — sign yourself up for a marathon, then you’ll have to do it! No, no, no. I’ll end up losing $50 because I won’t do it. You never have to do anything, besides die, which would probably be likelier to happen to me while running than sitting.
Instead of forcing myself into torturous huffing and puffing on a treadmill, then, for cardio, I bike. I will either bike outside (yay nature!) or bike on the machines inside. Pro tip: if you are used to say, sitting in a chair, if you want to get into exercising, consider exercise that allows you to assume your natural position. You can move out of it later using Robbins’ 5-second rule.
Seriously, though, it seems simple — if you hate treadmills, don’t hop on a treadmill first thing at the gym. But it’s not that simple — we seem to have this complex that we have to do certain exercises in order to be successful at the gym. We force ourselves into running on treadmills or doing other exercises we hate until we’d rather be eaten by a zombie hoard because someone has told us that it’s the best thing to do to get our best bod.
If you do this, though, you’re going to start building negative connotations with the gym. Instead, find a machine that looks fun (or tolerable) or one you haven’t used before. I found a machine that allows you to bike by pedaling with your hands (no legwork) and I was so fascinated that about 10 minutes went by and I had hardly noticed. And, now I feel more confident in my ability to potentially walk on my hands someday. The point is to do something new or something that you don’t entirely hate — try to pair the gym with positive experiences.
This all boils down to basic behaviorism — if you associate the gym with positive experiences, you are reinforced to go back. You start to associate the gym with a reward, rather than a punishment. The more immediate the reward, the better.
If the gym feels instead like a torture chamber that you go to 5 times a week, of course you’re going to be less likely to go. The solution, then, is to minimize the torture and feel good not just about having gone, but about the place and activities themselves. It’s basically like trading out a bad job for a one you’re content with. You’ll start to enjoy the time you spend there, which will give you incentive to go back and make you feel weird when you miss a day.
If you don’t like anything at your gym, find one with stuff that sounds appealing (some gyms even have cinemas in them, for f*ck’s sake). I lift weights because it makes me feel powerful even if I’m lifting 5-lb dumbbells. You can find your thing too (even if it’s not a gym). The point is to make your experience with the gym/exercise something you want to do, rather than something you have to do.
I stayed in the moment
Part of my returning to the gym and making it a positive experience was overcoming the fear I had of other people. I still have this fear; frankly, I just ignore it. I try to focus on myself, what I’m doing, how it physically feels, what I’m going to do next, the song in my ears — anything except what others are thinking of me. Plus, I try to remind myself that everyone there probably has some kind of insecurity — some could be insecure about weight, some about strength, some about penis size, whatever. Everyone, ultimately, is there for themselves.
I remember that I should be there for myself, too.