Alli Rainey: Stepping Stones (Part 4)
Celebrating National Physical Fitness and Sports Month by Creating a More Enjoyable, Sustainable and Beneficial Physical Fitness Plan
Steps 1 – 5
“It is not enough to jump if you want to reach the sky. Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step by step.”From “The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice,” ~T.K.V. Desikachar
May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, sponsored by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. To celebrate this month-long event, this is the second of three Life entries providing suggestions (many self-tested) on how to approach several fitness-related types of major life changes in smaller, single-step ways that can make them more fun, manageable and ultimately, sustainable.
Today’s topic: improving your physical fitness level. This may mean embarking on your first truly regular exercise routine, or upgrading or revitalizing your current exercise or training regimen. Whatever the case, read on for 10 suggestions – 5 today, and 5 in my next Life entry – for ideas about how to create a more enjoyable, beneficial and potentially more sustainable physical fitness plan. The goal is to make a commitment to physical fitness that you can not only start but also stick with, expand on, and hopefully enjoy for the rest of your life.
Please note: Before you start any new fitness program, and especially if you haven’t exercised in some time (i.e. you’re coming straight off the couch, having had little or no regular physical activity in your life for a while), it’s best to get medical clearance from your physician. During your appointment, ask for an honest assessment of your current fitness level as well as any specific exercises or types of exercises you should avoid.
1. Let’s start with what the experts recommend. For healthy adults ages 18 to 64, MayoClinic.com says you should include “aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, stretching, core exercise and balance training,” while the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests including “cardiorespiratory, resistance, flexibility and neuromotor (functional fitness)” exercises. Knowing that there are four or five areas that you should pay attention to when formulating a lifelong fitness plan can be of great assistance – but only if you view these components as helpful guidelines instead of overwhelming and impossible to fulfill. There’s no doubt that contemplating incorporating all of these suggested pieces immediately into an exercise plan can seem utterly daunting and unrealistic, especially if you try integrate them all on at once. A better approach is to keep these recommendations in mind without allowing them to freeze you in place or keep you from starting out exercising slowly, at your own maintainable pace.
2. a. If you’re coming from a sedentary background, along the lines of the one-thing-at-a-time concept guiding this series of Life entries, you can start your renewed relationship with physical fitness by integrating short periods of activity involving only one or two of the suggested areas that sound the most appealing to you. Don’t worry about hitting up every area the experts say you should right at the start, and don’t fret if you can’t do each recommended fitness component as often or for as long as they say you should, either. It’s better to do some regular physical activity than no regular physical activity at all. Every 5 or 10 minutes “counts,” especially if you accumulate several of these short periods of physical activity over the course of each day, or even every other day. Give yourself credit mentally for all acts of fitness, both small and large, including taking the stairs, parking further from the store so you have to walk, stretching for 5 minutes after sitting at the desk at work for an hour or two, walking during your lunch hour, or doing jumping jacks during commercial breaks instead of channel surfing, and so forth. Work to establish your short fitness breaks as regular habits first, and then work to either increase the time or intensity of those fitness activities or add in other components later on, after your short fitness breaks are engrained as habits. Also, realize that there are lots of activities out there to explore that provide overlap in these suggestions (such as rock climbing, dancing, yoga, martial arts, and many team sports, among others), meaning that you can potentially find regular physical activities – activities that you might come to enjoy, no less – that also cover more than one recommended area of overall physical fitness in a single exercise session.
2. b. If you’re a regular exerciser but you’re in a rut or have neglected part of the complete fitness equation, pick out one or more of the suggested fitness areas that you might not be regularly incorporating in your workouts or working deeply enough to challenge your body anymore, and look for a way to fit that area into your exercise routine or to breathe new life into it. The problem with exercise routines is that they inevitably stop being as effective as they were at the start, because bodies are so adaptable. You also may not even enjoy your routine as much as you once did. Try something new. Spice up your exercise by signing up for a dance class, rock-climbing lesson, or an ultimate Frisbee league; add weight training to your fitness-gym workouts or change your lifts, reps, order of exercises, sets, or speed of intervals to challenge your body differently and alleviate boredom; instead of stretching at home take a yoga class or a Pilates class; and so forth. An exercise or training routine should never be so routine that you’re bored to tears just thinking about it, nor should it be so routine that you never feel really challenged physically by your training in any way, shape or form anymore. Of course it’s fine for regular exercisers (and a really good plan, actually) to have some lighter exercise sessions in addition to heavier ones. But it’s also best to include new and different challenges ever so often and to add variations to your main fitness themes so that your body keeps getting the necessary stimulation to adapt, growing ever stronger and fitter instead of stagnating at status quo.
3. Any effective and sustainable exercise or fitness plan should frequently include activities that allow you to connect or reconnect with the joy of moving your body. That being said, it may take time and effort to discover what activities allow you to feel this – the fun of movement – and it might not happen immediately or even in the first couple of months of effort. However, improving your physical fitness level should not, on the whole, be a horrible experience, whether you’re a complete beginner or an avid athlete. Experiencing all that your human body is capable of now – and then improving that capability – is one of the great pleasures and rewards of regular physical activities, so long as you take the time to really seek out and cultivate participation in physical activities that you actually enjoy while you grow stronger and fitter.
4. The elements of an exercise plan that may not be as enjoyable to you, at least at first, should be integrated cautiously and gently into your routine. This means that if you hate stretching, for example, that you give yourself credit for 5 minutes of stretching a day instead of attempting to incorporate 45-minute stretching sessions into every day; likewise for strength training or cardio training or whatever aspect of physical training you might currently dislike.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found in both my own experience and through the experience of working with other climbers, that we often learn to like, then love, then feel absolutely unable to imagine living without, some of the exercises that we dreaded the most and liked the least when we first incorporated them into our training plans. It seems that when I “don’t like” an exercise that it’s more often than not because I lack the strength and/or fitness level to execute it comfortably, but if I gradually adopt it into my routine without forcing the issue – just do 5 minutes or a handful of reps or add it to every other stretching/yoga session – it often emerges as the frontrunner for making the most significant impact on my overall fitness (or climbing-performance) level.
Because of this repeated experience, these days, whenever I discover a yoga pose I find difficult or an area of weakness in a climbing motion, I’m psyched to integrate it into my training as I know a) I will improve more quickly at it than I will in the areas I’m already relatively good at and b) I need it more than I need to work on the areas I’m already relatively good at. This knowledge makes what’s unpalatable in the actual moment of physical execution much more palatable when I remind myself of the potential results, helping me push through the discomfort that’s so often involved when incorporating a new and challenging element into my training repertoire. At the same time, I work to not overdo it – I integrate each new challenge slowly and carefully, to avoid injury and burnout and to keep the overall fun factor in my regular physical fitness activities at a relatively high level.
5. Keep your fitness plans and sports goals realistic and focused on the present and short-term future. It’s totally great to dream big, of course, and to hold some awesome long-term goals in your heart and mind as the ultimate achievements you might like to accomplish athletically. However, it can be really discouraging and frustrating if your body doesn’t progress at a fast enough pace to reach those goals in the timeframe your mind dreams up – which, unfortunately, is usually far, far less time than it actually takes for most people to accomplish their big-picture athletic/fitness goals, from what I’ve observed in both myself and others. This is acknowledged as a common issue that crops up for personal trainers – clients come in with unrealistic fitness-gain expectations and are then dissatisfied with the outcome of their training when they don’t make the gains they wanted or expected to make, despite their totally unrealistic timeframe.Take joy in every workout you accomplish, realizing that you are putting the building blocks in place now for a fitter future – even if you can’t be entirely certain about what kind of building you’ll construct in the end. Be grateful when your body is healthy and performing at its current full capabilities, even if you want to be stronger and fitter. Trust me, once you’re stronger and fitter than you are now, you’ll most likely only want to be stronger and fitter than you are as that future person. It’s always fun to have something to work toward, but only if it doesn’t rob you of the joy of movement and being in the present moment connected to your physical being as you are now. If you’re healthy and strong in the present, savor it.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Read Steps 1-5
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