How I finally got myself to exercise regularly

For most of my adult life, I have been able to get away without exercising. For many years I was able to walk to work, so I always had some physical activity. And I was blessed with a metabolism that seemed to naturally defend my weight. I never paid much attention to what I ate but somehow always fit into a pair of 32×32 pants for the last 10 years.  Lucky me.

But now, things have started to change.  My jobs for the last 7 years have required commuting by car, and having two small kids has made more adventurous physical activity like kayaking much trickier to arrange. Aside from my tendency to pace back and forth while talking on the phone, my job basically involves sitting around all day at a desk.

And most significantly, I’ve noticed that those 32×32 pants that I always fit into are starting to get a little bit snug.  Hmm.

What really drove it home, however, was turning 39. I’ve always thought that while I might not be particularly active now, at some point in the future I would have an opportunity to be so again.  And here I was, close to turning 40.  If I was actually going to become active, now was the time.

Of course, I have a big problem… I hate exercising.  Yes, I know I am not alone in this.  But I really hate it.  I don’t mind exercising if it involves doing something fun, but just doing something mindlessly painful feels like torture.

I knew a key factor in getting myself to exercise would be choosing something simple. If there were too many steps or logistics to work out to exercise, it wouldn’t happen. This immediately ruled out group sports activities, like tennis or basketball. The mere fact that I would have to coordinate schedules with other people would make it all too likely to fall through.  I would tell myself it was just too complicated to arrange this time, and then the next time, and again the time after that.

Another requirement was that it had to be fast. I work during the day, and I have little kids who need a lot of attention in the mornings and evenings. I needed something that I could go do and then be done with quickly. This ruled out my preferred physical activity of kayaking. Even though I own my own kayak and live right on the Charles River, there are too many logical steps involved in loading the boat, driving down to the water, unloading the boat, launching and kayaking, and then reversing it all again to get home. Plus, it was very dependent on the weather.

In the end, I was left with one option: running. My theory was that if I could run for 30 minutes just two or three times a week, I would have enough physical activity to get myself back in shape. The beauty of running was that it required no special equipment or location, so I could do it whenever it was convenient, even during the middle of the work day.

Now running is the very definition of mindlessly painful exercise that I hated. It’s not that I haven’t tried it.  I was on the cross country running team in high school, and I didn’t care for it much back then either (mind you, I was never very good at it). But, it still felt like the right choice.  My theory was that even if I hated it, it was just 30 minutes. Even I could do it for 30 minutes, right?

8 weeks ago, I went for my first 30 minute run around the Charles River near my office. It was awful. I felt like I had been mugged. I felt like I was dying. I watched other runners zip past me, and I was doing everything I could to put one foot in front of the other. I was proud of myself for finishing, but when I was done, one thought went through my head: Use it or lose it. And I had most certainly lost it.

Could I get it back?

To my amazement, I actually went out again two days later. I figured I had done it once, and however bad it might have been, I could do it again.

Thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time. At least that was what I thought.  Then, when I walked back into the office, something in my right knee popped, and I found myself howling in pain. I limped around for the rest of the day.

I went running again two days later, but this time just two thirds of the way through my knee suddenly popped again. I was forced to walk the rest of the way home. On the way back, it would start to feel okay again, and so I would try running again, only to have it pop a few steps later.  Was I so far gone that I could never get it back?

When I mentioned my knee problem, people would tell me how awful running is for you, and that I would be better off just doing some intensive walking. When I went running again a few days later, and my knee popped yet again, I tried power walking through the rest of the way. I tried to convince myself that perhaps I should give up on running and power walk instead.

But in my heart of hearts, I knew that I would never stick with the walking. Part of it was that I felt like an idiot, power walking on the Charles River as the runners zipped by me.  But I realized that the biggest reason running would be a better choice is that when I run for 30 minutes, I feel like I have done something. Going for a walk, even a long intensive one, just doesn’t fill me with the same sense of accomplishment.

And that was the biggest thing for me. If I hate exercising so much, I need an immediate feeling of payoff after doing it. Without that, I was never going to put myself through the 30 minutes of torture several times a week. I needed to find a way to get this knee problem under control.

Right then, I bumped into one of my coworkers out getting some exercise by walking around the Charles.  She looked at my limp, and then looked at my shoes. “Jeremy, of course you are in pain. You need some decent running shoes.”

I looked down at my feet.  I was wearing some sneakers that were over a year old and not specifically designed for running.  I had no objection to actually buying running shoes, but my theory was that I would wait and see if I could actually do this running thing before I invested some serious money into it.  I am notorious for actually enjoying shopping, and it would be just like me to go out and spend a ton of money on all kinds of running paraphernalia only to have it go nowhere.  

However, my coworker convinced me that the people at the store would actually analyze my walk and find shoes that would really help with my knee issues.  So, with that little nudge, I went later that afternoon to City Sports to look for shoes.  They analyzed my gait and determined that I had over pronation, which was causing my leg to twist and potentially exacerbate my right knee issues.  They pointed out some shoes specifically designed to help correct this issue.

I also asked them if they had any type of brace or bandage that could help with my knee. Indeed, they sold all kinds of products for just this issue.  I bought a knee compression sleeve from Shock Doctor which was designed to hold all the soft tissues in place.  The idea was by giving a little extra pressure to keep the ligaments, tendons, and muscles where they were supposed to be, they wouldn’t pop out and aggravate injuries.  This sounded just like what was happening to my knee.

So, now that I was armed with $200 in equipment, I kept trying.  To my amazement, I was able to complete my next 30 minute run.  I had a few points where my knee started to pop, but I stopped, stretched, and was able to keep going.  Over the next two weeks, my knee problems gradually lessened and then went away altogether.

So, I had accomplished the biggest hurdle… I had found an exercise I could do in just 60 minutes door to door (30 minutes of running, and the other 30 minutes of changing and showering before and after) and feel good about.  Would I be able to keep it up?

Here, I found a big help from the streaks app I had used to cut out soda.  Since I did not plan on going running every day, I set up the streaks to be allowed to skip up to two days in a row, and weekend days did not count as skips.  As long as I went running at least twice a week, it would continue the streak.  Like the soda, this quickly became a powerful incentive for me.  I didn’t want to break the streak, so I kept going with it.

The big test came this past week.  I had managed to run three times a week for the previous seven weeks.  The novelty had worn off, and I was in it for the long haul.  However, last week I had a business trip to New York City.  Running would be really inconvenient.  I wouldn’t be able to just disappear for an hour during the work day to go running.  I would either have to get up early in the morning to go do it (I hate getting up early, and here I was in a quiet hotel with no little kids waking me up!), or I would have to do it in the evening when I could be out in New York.

And I did it.  On two mornings, I got up at 6 am and went for a run in New York City.

So, what did it take to get my to exercise?  Three things:

  1. A powerful incentive: I’m getting older and feel like it is now or never
  2. A short term reward: If I go running for just 30 minutes, I feel like I have accomplished something
  3. A long term payoff: adding a little gamification to push me to stick with it

40, here I come!

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2 Responses to How I finally got myself to exercise regularly

  1. Daniel Rubin says:

    Great story Jeremy! I took the same route, and this weekend I completed my 4th half marathon (and am running the Cape Cod marathon in October). Putting a race on the calendar is another good way to stay motivated. And read the books “Born to Run” and “Eat and Run”. This 50 year old says to keep up the great work!

  2. Rhoda says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    Me and this guy (random dude I sought out via CL “activity partners”) are now meeting 2 days/week at 6:30 for HIIT training at Donnelly Field (behind Koreana, Broadway & Prospect). If you’ve read anything about HIIT you know how effective is for weight loss and overall conditioning. (better than running, even!) Plus, doing burpees & mtn climbers with someone else makes you work a lot harder at it. You’re welcome to join and so is anyone else who reads this comment and is reasonably active (=able to do burpees, mtn climbers, sprints and the like).

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