How I Finally Made Exercise a Habit

Folding A Fitted Sheet. Copyright 2014.

Folding A Fitted Sheet. Copyright 2014.

It’s that time of year again, when ads for health club memberships, diet pills, and exercise equipment are served up almost as frequently as trays of sugar-encrusted, colorful, holiday-themed confections. I’m certainly no stranger to the allure of a new health and fitness plan. Even though there will be sweat and exhaustion and embarrassingly snug workout gear and awkward usage of gym equipment and the overwhelming desire to quit and embrace enormity, there is something about starting a new goal that feels necessary. Yet somehow the allure of actually achieving said goal isn’t quite as strong after 2 minutes of isometric leg pulses, a quarter mile running on the treadmill, or some days, the effort it takes to get into my spandex workout pants.

In January, 6 weeks after having my 3rd baby, I got the thumbs-up from my doctor to begin easing into an exercise routine, and with this being our last baby, I decided it was time to get back in shape for good. Mid-thirties, extremely busy with a career and 3 children under 5, and often stressed, I finally accepted how important exercise is to other facets of my life than just my physical appearance: Managing stress, improving sleep, strengthening my cardiovascular and immune systems, and increasingly important, setting a healthy example and habits for my kids.

But I’ve tried and failed at exercise regimes so many times in the past. I’ve just never enjoyed exercise, as much as I longed to. I have always been envious of people who seemed to crave it, enjoy it, even love it. Exercise seemed a crucial component of some people’s routine, their life, their personality, but not mine. Each attempt at making exercise a priority was met at the beginning with enthusiasm and an aggressive goal, and at the end, often weeks or even days later, with disappointment, frustration, and loathing, both of myself and exercise.

I breastfed all three of my children exclusively for their first year, so my milk supply was a factor in starting an exercise routine. Impact, support, intensity, and caloric needs influenced my choice of exercise program. And as always, timing, location, equipment, and goals played a role.  But this time, the type of goal would be different from all the times before. Because milk production depended so heavily on my calorie reserve, weightloss wasn’t on the table as a goal for my fitness program. But because I felt overwhelmed a lot of the time during the first year with a new baby, stress-relief was. So I chose an exercise program that centered around stress-relieving yoga, ballet, and walking/running. Since stress-relief can be hard to measure, I focused on making exercise a habit, finally learning to love and prioritize exercise, and make it part of my life.

Some research I read somewhere suggests that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit. So I set a goal to exercise at least 15 minutes a day for 21 days. Even with a packed and unpredictable schedule, it wasn’t difficult to manage. I used a yoga app on my phone and short Youtube workouts from FitnessBlender.com and did them in my living room or bedroom. After a couple of months, I found myself wanting to do more each session, and started adding 10-15 minutes on days I felt like it. After 3 months, the beginner workouts on my yoga app got easy and I started to do the intermediate workouts. I noticed my mood and sleep patterns improve and I enjoyed the challenge and reward of fitting in a workout on days I didn’t think I could. It meant yoga before bed some nights, but I found it helped me sleep anyway.

Because I wasn’t focused on weight loss, I focused more on my form and breathing and using the workout for what it was designed: relaxation, strength, flexibility, balance, sometimes all of the above. I could see a drastic improvement in those skills in a few weeks.  After about 6 months, I felt like adding something to my repertoire, and running with my husband seemed like a great way to get cardio, exercise outside, and quality time with my hubby all into my busy schedule. So we started with three 30 minute sessions a week on alternating days. I have always wanted to be a runner. Runners always seem so passionate about their sport, and I have always been curious about this supposed “runner’s high.” When I started out, I could barely run a quarter mile without excruciating shin pain and/or running out of breath. 3 months later I could run 2 miles at a steady pace without stopping. A month after that I was running that distance at 2 minutes under my best high school time, plus an extra half mile jogging. In a couple of months I’ll run my first 5k and I can’t wait!

It’s been almost a year since I set the goal of making exercise a regular habit, and I can safely say it’s worked beautifully. Most weeks I get in at least 4 workouts and I miss it if I don’t get in a workout. Exercise became so important to me that not being able to do it consistently was a key reason I changed jobs earlier this year for one that allowed me better work/life balance.  One pitfall I’ve had to work on avoiding is writing off a day when I don’t manage a regular workout. There is usually time to do something, even if it’s 15 minutes of stretching or yoga before bed, a quick high intensity routine in the morning, or just a walk around the building at lunch. I haven’t lost weight but I’ve maintained a healthy weight and improved my overall tone and shape. Clothes fit and look better, and I carry myself a little better. Plus I feel physically good, which I know makes a difference.

And best of all, I love that my kids say ‘mommy works out’,’ mommy runs’, and ‘mommy is strong.’ Instead of setting a goal by numbers on a scale, I made my goal a lifestyle change, myself a lifelong fan of exercise, and my kids a healthy example.

That Time of Year

Today is the beginning of December. It also marks the beginning of what could be my final month of exclusively breastfeeding my 3rd baby, my final month of pumping, and my last time weaning.  In years past, it meant it was time to start planning for another pregnancy, or at least start thinking about it. By this point I’d started to tip the balance with my calorie intake and my weight had returned to my “high normal” but I didn’t worry about it because I expected, or at least hoped, to be expecting again soon. I’m one of those rare and lucky preggos with a progesterone-fueled super-metabolism during pregnancy. I “gain” the prescribed amount of weight for my pre-pregnancy BMI, give birth to huge babies, and net about a 10-15 lb loss after delivery.  As a bonus to the miraculous bonding experience of breastfeeding, and a reward for the hard work it takes, I eat everything in sight and lose another 5 or so pounds in the course of a year. Again, because I was planning for my next pregnancy, I didn’t worry too much about diet and exercise, outside of eating my usual mostly organic, low-processed, mostly-homemade diet and avoiding alcohol.  My exercise regime was chasing after my kids and doing housework. But now that we’re done with baby-making, things are different.

Although I’m considering continuing beyond the 12 month mark (I went as long as I could with my first two – 13 and 18 months), my body is already getting the message it’s time to start weaning. When it comes to milk supply, my body is pretty sensitive to caloric intake. For my son’s first 3 months, I found the idea of water or vegetables revolting because my body basically rejected anything that wasn’t extremely calorie-dense. I had more cravings after than during my pregnancy; my body needed a lot of fuel to provide for a 10 lb newborn. The amount of food I craved made me nervous about my weight, but I happily obliged and my weight stayed at a healthy average all year.  At times I tried cutting calories, but each time I suffered with bouts of fatigue, headaches, and mood swings, and my milk supply took a hit, but the scale wouldn’t budge.  My body hung on to reserves to protect my supply, and Bub would start waking for frequent night sessions until balance restored.  But now that we’re close to the year mark and baby is wolfing down solids and drinking from a cup at meals, things are winding down, and I can feel my metabolism resetting. And since I haven’t had a normal metabolism in the 6 years while I’ve been pregnant or nursing, I’m terrified of what my new, older normal is.

My pre-pregnancy normal was healthy, but I’ve never been naturally slim or athletic, and I haven’t been happy with my size and shape for a while, except when I was pregnant – I actually felt like a cute pregnant lady.  I’ve always wished I was one of those people who is naturally and passionately into healthy eating and exercise. But reality is I love food, all kinds, mostly stuff you should consume in moderation but really don’t want to. And I hate the gym. But this last year, knowing it was my last to lean on breastfeeding to keep my weight down,  I did make an effort to make exercise a habit, and it worked. Although I didn’t lose any weight, I improved my tone and shape. More on how I did that here. But I still want to lose a size, maybe two, and I know I’m going to have to overhaul my eating habits just to avoid putting on weight once I stop breastfeeding. And now that it’s almost time to start weaning my baby, I’ve decided to start preparing now by challenging myself to make good choices this Christmas season. Of course I plan to kick off the new year with a shiny new health and fitness plan like pretty much everyone on the planet, but I figured why not start from right here or maybe even at an advantage, rather than over-indulging on treats and slacking on workouts until Jan 1. And if I can make good choices a habit now, when temptation is at its height, making good choices the rest of the year should be a piece of cake  walk  run in the park.

(c) Folding A Fitted Sheet 2014

(c) Folding A Fitted Sheet 2014