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 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.