By Michael Krueger
The most common reason I hear for inconsistency in an exercise program is the ubiquitous “Something came up.” It might be said in reference to a missed workout or a missed week worth of workouts or even a multiyear break. I can understand missing a single workout, but how do you lose a year of your life to “Something came up”?
Continuity is different than consistency; you can be consistent without a sense of continuity. Continuity goes beyond just not missing a workout; it is a thread that runs through your life, giving it meaning and giving you something to hold onto in an ever-changing world.
I know people who have an unbroken streak of running every day for years and years without missing a beat. I know a number of people who haven’t missed a scheduled workout of any type in decades. These “streakers” come in all sorts of flavors. Some are compulsive while others are just dedicated. When it comes to injuries, some of these folks are sort of bulletproof and never get injured. Others who were streakers should have taken time off because of an injury or illness and simply refused, got really hurt, and are now physically limited because of the long-term damage done by their blind devotion to their streak. I’m not a streaker, but I seldom miss a workout unless I had it previously scheduled off. I don’t remember the last time I just “didn’t get it in” because something more important came up.
I’ve been a runner since March 13, 1983. It has been the one constant through three decades of my life. No matter what was else going on, running was there for me. I ran on my wedding day, 8 miles in 1:02.57.89, and on my 25th anniversary, 4.5 miles in 30:40.29. I ran on the day my Dad died, cross country hills 6 miles in 43:12.31, with the comment, “I can’t run hills and cry, so I stopped crying.” I ran when my son Nick was born, 5 miles in 37:28.56. I ran when my Mom died, 4 miles in 29:23.28. I know the time and distance because I looked them up in my logs, but even without the log entries, I knew I had run because I always run—happy, sad, good, or bad.
Once I started, exercise has always been nonnegotiable in my life. If I was invited out to a party after work but had a run scheduled, I would go after I ran. If I had scheduled a morning run, I left early enough to get a good night’s sleep. At first, my friends would tease me that it wouldn’t kill me to miss a day and I would heartily agree and then go do it my way. Eventually, they accepted that “that’s just Mike,” and that was the end of the comments.
Often you’ll hear people say that once exercise becomes a habit, it is easy to do it. Exercise has never become a habit for me. To me, habit suggests a mindless routine or a compulsion. This isn’t the case for me. Working out is something that I consciously do. I think about it, plan it, and then execute that plan. I wouldn’t get the same mental and emotional benefit if I did it mindlessly; I would lose something very important to me. It would be like taking a good friend for granted; sooner or later, the relationship would fall apart.
Exercise returns so much more than it demands. It requires only a few hours of effort per week and then gives back all day every day. Because of exercise, you sleep sounder, perform physically at your highest level, think clearer, metabolically function more efficiently, and feel and look great.
When you develop a solid exercise program, you look forward to working out–OK, maybe not absolutely positively every time. But even on that rare day when you might not feel totally stoked, you know that once you get going it will be great. OK, maybe not great, but you’ll get it done because you know you really want to and that you will in fact be happy you did.
A Tough Road
I’ve had clients who really do enjoy working out. They rarely miss and work hard even if they complain about it. Then there are clients who do miss workouts, who don’t always give it their best, and who never develop that inner strength and that strange relationship between discipline, effort, and results that it takes to become really fit in both mind and body.
For the beginner it is very difficult to imagine ever truly enjoying exercise, much less looking forward to it; or even stranger, to wax poetic about its virtues. If you want it bad enough, all you can do is tough it out, knowing that eventually it will change. The positive benefits will slowly overtake the perceived negatives. How long this might take is anybody’s guess, but if you stick to it and make adjustments along the way, it will improve–imperceptibly at first–but over time, it will become an integral part of who you are.
If you begin exercising “just to lose weight” or “to get really huge” simply to feed your ego or to pass a test, odds are it will never become a fundamental part of your life. Additionally, while short term you may see some success, long term you will return to your previous lifestyle.
As with anything really worth doing, you somehow simply know that it is something you have to do. Your body wants to move; it’s your mind that gets in the way. Our culture allows us to get through our day without ever breaking a sweat, and this isn’t natural. Running, lifting, climbing, hunting, and gathering food, this is what we were made to do. Instead we sit, ride, and eat processed junk food. No wonder we don’t feel well and perform even worse.
The problem with an exercise program is that can be hard to get started and even harder to maintain. Then if you keep at it, after a while something interesting happens. Eventually that magical day arrives when fitness becomes such a defining part of you that you can’t imagine a day without it. Once this change occurs, it is as natural and normal to exercise as it is to sleep or breath.
When you are five years old, time means nothing. When you are 17 years old, you just want it to hurry up so you can get on with what you want to do. Once you hit 30, you begin to wonder why time is passing so quickly, and by the time you are 50, you start to wonder where your life has gone.
Being fit allows you to live without making limiting concessions to age. You don’t need assistance to get around, and you can fully participate in your life and the lives of your family and friends. All this because you took a little time each day to maintain your body and, by extension, your mind and spirit.
I have been a fitness athlete for more than 30 years, and I can unequivocally say that I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without every mile that I have logged and every pound that I have lifted. I am a runner and a lifter, I am fit and strong, and if I were to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t regret one moment or one drop of sweat that I spent on fitness.
Don’t assume that just because you are young and strong today that you can put off exercise until later. Don’t assume that because you are older and not in the best of shape that you can’t benefit from beginning a fitness program today; it’s never too late.
The major influence of the continuity of fitness in your life is that it’s always there for you. No one can take it away from you since no one gave it to you; you earned it day by day, year by year, and decade by decade.
This is what living is all about.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.