Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something

By Michael Krueger

It is not in dispute that everybody needs exercise. That is not to imply that we all actually do the exercise that we know we need to do. Many nonexercisers insist that because they have tried and failed numerous times, this somehow now exempts them from needing to exercise. You may as well get used to it–failure is simply part of the process. Through trial and error, you will eventually find a mode of exercise that you are willing to do. This isn’t quite success; but this is where the path to success begins.

The Problem

Most people begin a new exercise program in one of a couple of ways. One way begins on a Monday morning with your alarm going off an hour or so earlier than normal. For a moment you don’t recall why the alarm is ringing at this ungodly hour. Then you remember the new exercise program.  You slowly get out of bed, lace up your shoes, and head out to run for the first time in recent memory. You make it a little way down the street and stop, with hands on knees, gasping for breath. You remember this feeling and how much you hate to run. On the walk back home, you are alone with your thoughts and your latest failed attempt at fitness.

Another common scenario is making a pact with someone to meet at the gym. This one usually takes place after work or over the lunch hour. You go to the health club and change your clothes. You wander out onto the floor and look for your partner among the sweaty patrons; of course, you can’t find him. He didn’t show up. You feel ridiculous. You don’t want to do this alone, so you take a lap around the gym trying not to look conspicuous, return to the locker room, change clothes, and go home.

There are numerous other ways this scenario plays out, but in the end the result is the same: The program ends before it really begins.

Personalized Programs

The basic components of an exercise program don’t vary much from person to person. The program needs to include elements of strength, endurance, and flexibility, and it needs to be progressive. Most importantly, it must fulfill your hopes and desires as well as address your needs. How you put these diverse pieces together so that they work for you is much more in the realm of art than science.

Go to any bookstore and look at the number of exercise books that are available. Turn on the TV and you will inevitably see at least two, three, or more infomercials while channel surfing. Anyone you know who exercises will tell you how great their particular program is. This almost unlimited number of options can cause confusion and a feeling of impending doom.

The confusion arises because it is difficult to ascertain what might work when up to now nothing has. You look at all the choices and hear the testimonials of successful devotees, and you think to yourself that you would like to look and feel that way, too. Some programs tout they are so simple and easy that anyone can do them to great success. Others try to attract you by stroking your ego, saying that you have to be really tough to do their program.  Don’t worry, though, because they know that you fit the bill in that respect. Everyone hears the disclaimers about how these are extraordinary results and that your results will vary, but by now you are so excited that you think to yourself, “My results will be even better.”

The feeling of impending doom kicks in after you’ve handed over your credit card info and you remember all the times you have failed.

The Simple Solution

The way to get past this is to quit worrying and try whatever strikes your fancy. Sometimes you will waste a bit of cash, but that is the unavoidable price you pay for learning what does and doesn’t work. Check out garage sales and eBay and you will see that you aren’t the only person who saw the infomercial and thought they might give it a try.

Other options in exercise don’t cost you much more than an investment in time and humility. Running, swimming and calisthenics are all simple and cheap ways to begin, though certainly not sexy or easy. Who knows, any of these may suit you, or you might move on to something different.  Along the way you will be exercising and thus picking up some benefit just by trying them.

You can try working out with someone you know or join a class of strangers; either can work depending on your personality. Other people much prefer to exercise on their own. Some like to listen to music, while others prefer silence. Some even watch TV while they do it. There is no certain and perfect path.

Case Study

I tried beginning a running program at least twice a year for three years before it finally took. Each time I tried doing something different. One time I ran in the morning, another in the evening; I did it with friends and alone, on the track and in the street. Same with weight lifting–I went to a gym, I lifted at home. I tried a partner and I tried alone; nothing seemed to work.

I knew that failure wasn’t an option, because I really needed to do this and I had the desire as well. I just couldn’t seem to get all parts of the equation to come together. I’d start, struggle, quit, and begin again. During these years, success sure seemed unlikely, but I kept plugging away at it nonetheless. I’m glad that infomercials hadn’t caught on yet, because I’m sure I would have spent a lot of money trying those programs as well.

Finally I found a combination of time of day, activity, intensity, and just enough interaction with other exercisers to make it work. In the intervening decades, because of changes in jobs, homes, income, friends, family, and goals, I have switched back and forth between all the modes of exercise that I had attempted before and failed. Everything that hadn’t worked before worked fine at another time in my life due to the change in my circumstances. I had learned that it wasn’t the activity alone–it was the activity plus my current place in life, both physically and mentally, that caused the outcome to be either positive or negative.

It’s Not the Program

One of the hardest parts of beginning an exercise program is accepting your past failures while believing in the possibility of future success. Look at your life now and see how your circumstances have changed compared to the last time you failed to maintain an exercise program. You’ll be amazed at the effect an honest review can have in effecting a change in your outlook and how that new perspective will have a positive effect on your prospect for success.

The next thing is accepting that there is no perfect program. It’s not the program, it’s the person. You are a unique individual, and finding what excites and motivates you is a quest that you will have to go on alone. Along the way you will encounter those who will help you and those who will hinder you, but the end result is ultimately dependent on you and your desire to succeed.

Your Fire Life

As a firefighter, you have little option but to be strong and conditioned. It is a job requirement as well as a life requirement. You can’t just give up and say that you haven’t been able to find anything that works and leave it at that. You must find a way to achieve and maintain an exemplary level of fitness.

Can you imagine a firefighter who says that he really doesn’t like to handle hoses or climb ladders, so he’s not going to do it? That is the way some firefighters approach strength and conditioning. They say they find it difficult, they don’t like it and, besides, they are good enough, so they’ll pass. This negative, defeatist mindset is destructive not only to the individual but to the department as well. It creates a conflict between those who believe in aggressive physical and operational training and those who don’t.

Your Whole Life

Exercise is an important part of a full and active life. Without it, you will live a life of diminished capacity and slow death. I can’t think of a sadder end than simply “rusting out.” If you have had problems finding and maintaining an exercise program, try everything that is out there. Once you find something that you can do consistently, you will begin reaping the benefits of exercise both physically and mentally. You will abandon the judgments and boundaries you’ve imposed on yourself due to your previous failures and, from that point on, the sky’s the limit.

You might even give running a try … again.

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 



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