Before you make a plan (and more on those details later), you need some good reasons to keep you going. Why make it a priority to get regular exercise at all?
Obviously, there are lots of reasons (I'll list some in a minute), and different people will have different sets of reasons. But whoever you are, I would like you to cross one reason off your list.
I do not think it is a good idea to exercise "so that you can lose some weight."
Here is why I think this is a destructive, unhelpful, ultimately un-motivating motivation: It does not work very well for many people.
That is, exercising more, harder, or more regularly is far from a sure-fire means to take off pounds.
Possibility 1: the plateau. Increasing exercise might drop some weight, but once a few pounds are lost you might find yourself in a situation where to drop more weight through exercise alone, you need to exercise still more. Sooner or later you will run out of spare time you can devote to more exercise, and that will be the limit. This may set you up for feeling that exercise has failed to "deliver." This in turn may set you up for quitting.
Possibility 2: the appetite. Increasing exercise may make you hungrier, or may make you desire food more, or may make you feel entitled to more food. In this way your body (which is really good at moderation, i.e., MODERATING your food intake to match your activity) prompts you to take in more food to "pay" for the energy burnt in the extra exercise. Perhaps you won't notice and will be befuddled by the unmoving needle on the scale; perhaps you will notice that you're eating more or suffering more from hunger. In either case, exercise has failed to "deliver" or has even apparently defeated your efforts to be less gluttonous. Once again, you're set up for quitting.
Possibility 3: misunderstanding weight fluctuations. Adding exercise will probably change your body's daily and weekly weight patterns. Water might be gained and lost at different times of the day. Muscle might be added. You might, as noted before, eat more. You could easily see wider swings in weight and even weight gain. If you already know you tend to overanalyze the number on the scale, the different patterns you'll see when you start exercising might mess with your head. Once again: you could be setting yourself up for discouragement and quitting.
So I'm not saying merely "have some other motivation for exercise besides weight loss." I'm saying, get the weight loss-related motivation completely out of your mind. Do not exercise to lose weight: not primarily, not secondarily, not at all.
Yes, that's a bit harsh. The good news? There are plenty of reasons to arrange your life such that you get regular exercise, reasons that have nothing at all to do with weight loss.
I will begin by swearing, Scout's honor, that I did not start exercising in January '08 because I wanted to lose weight. I did not expect it to cause me to lose any weight. By then I was completely convinced that exercise plays little if any role in weight loss through burning more energy.
And I will swear, Scout's honor, that my weight did not change at all for the first five months of regular exercise. Not until I altered my diet did I lose even a pound.
So---If I didn't start exercising to lose weight, why did I do it? Here are my reasons:
- I wanted to see myself as a fit, active person. I saw my husband as an athlete; I admired that in him; I wanted to be one, too.
- In the same vein: I knew he would appreciate having a fitter, more active spouse. I wanted to give that to him.
- I wanted to develop some self-discipline. I was tired of being a quitter.
- I knew that exercise, independently of overweight, is associated with a longer life that's freer of chronic illness and injury. Here is a Google sampler about prevention and management of various diseases: Heart disease Vision loss Diabetes Colon cancer Endometrial cancer Breast cancer Lung cancer Alzheimer's disease Osteoporosis Migraine
- I expected that if I got more exercise, I'd feel less winded by everyday activities like climbing the stairs and mopping the floor.
Those were my reasons. That's it. The top one was really my primary reason. I wanted to reinvent myself as "a physically active person," rather than "a person who occasionally enjoys doing something physically active." I mean, I've always enjoyed bicycling, hiking, and downhill skiing. But I've hardly ever done those things frequently enough to call myself a cyclist, a hiker, or a skier. I wanted to be the kind of person who gets exercise. So I imagined a person who was like me in every way---33 years old, homeschooling mother of three, likes to read and cook and try new restaurants --- like me in every way except that she was "physically fit and active." What separates her from me? I thought. And then I tried to do the things I imagined her doing.
Those were my reasons. Would you like some more?
- You'll set a good example for your kids---moms, especially, for your daughters. Sure, you may start out by placing your children in the gym's child care center while you get a workout in. But as they grow older, perhaps they will join you! (In recent months, my 10-year-old friend Meira has been joining me for Saturday morning swims while her mom, another friend of mine, uses the elliptical trainer.)
- You will likely do your friends a favor. Sedentary activity and obesity appears to be socially contagious. Perhaps the reverse is true too: you may inspire other people around you.
- Talk about a self-esteem boost! You can learn how to do something you never did before. That feels really good.
- You might find a new way to treat yourself to "me time." When you find an activity that really works for you, you may come to relish that workout as a welcome break in your day. And then something you love and something that's good for you will be happening at the same time. It's efficient!
- You'll get stronger. It's good for carrying suitcases at the airport, moving furniture, lugging recalcitrant children, all that stuff.
In addition to what I've mentioned before: Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic:
- Exercise improves your mood. "Exercise stimulates various brain chemicals, which may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed than you were before you worked out. You'll also look better and feel better when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem. Exercise even reduces feelings of depression and anxiety."
- Exercise strengthens your heart and lungs.
- Exercise helps you sleep better.
- Exercise improves sexual function (particularly in men).
- Exercise increases stamina and reduces fatigue.
- Exercise helps you ward off viral illnesses. "Aerobic exercise activates your immune system. This leaves you less susceptible to minor viral illnesses, such as colds and flu."
- Whereas I was concerned with preventing chronic illness, exercise also helps manage many chronic illnesses.
- Exercise helps you maintain mobility as you get older.
- Women who exercise during the three months before pregnancy report feeling better during the first trimester.
- Physical inactivity in parents strongly correlates to physical inactivity in children.
The experience of getting regular exercise has taught me a great deal about what it means to love myself the way we are supposed to. Recall that the Great Commandment is to love your neighbor "as yourself" -- indicating that there is, indeed, an appropriate and rightly ordered self-love. Doing what's necessary to give my body the physical activity it needs has required sacrifice, obedience, discipline. It has required me to be motivated at least in part by love of others: because I wanted to be fit to strengthen my marriage, because I wanted to share as fully in my children's lives as I can. It's required me to learn humility, to ask for help. It's required me to keep promises that I had to make. And because I've made mistakes along the way, it's helped me learn a little bit how to distinguish "care of the self" from "caring too much for myself." There are times when I've demanded too much from my family, and other times when I've realized I needed to ask for more. I have learned a little bit more how best to walk that line.
So. Stop exercising "to lose weight." Forget about that reason. Do it for any or all of the other reasons. Because the truth is, even if exercising were to cause you to gain weight---and who knows, it might---you'd reap all the other benefits, and they are totally worth it.
ADDED: Interesting related thoughts from Waltzing Matilda.
When I practice "induced exercise" as Erin describes, my whole day
tends to become more active. When I allow myself to become sedentary, I
tend to stay that way. When I let myself get sidelined from exercise
due to illness or a busy schedule, I find it harder to jump back into
it. When I have become sedentary for a long time, it usually takes a
big push on my part to get me back into the routine. So, what does this
all mean? Well, after almost 4 weeks of regular exercise,
my weight has actually gone up! And I am OK with that. Like Erin said,
someone who was only exercising for the purpose of hoping that number
would decrease would be very disappointed. I fight that temptation by
saying that I am working on getting healthy, not thin. There are plenty
of thin women who aren't healthy and plenty of women who weigh less
than I do who aren't half as strong. Thin is an impossible dream for my