One year ago when I grabbed the essentials from my desk at work and headed home I made a promise to myself. If I were going to be at home for a few weeks (insert a sob as I write about my sweet, sweet ignorance as I look back upon it) I wanted to stay positive and keep my spirits lifted. Even though I could easily compile some projects to tackle, I knew I needed something more concrete.
So I made the following promise: As long as we were stuck at home, I would work out every day. No specific type or duration or anything else — I was giving myself the freedom to choose. This goal, I reasoned, would help me take care of my body and my mind, and I’d emerge a month later still feeling good about myself.
If. Freaking. Only. It. Was. Just. A. Month.
Is it a good thing I didn’t know what I was getting into? Yes, a thousand times yes. Even on an intellectual level I’m unsure if I could have imagined this lasting as long as it has! But this was one of the practices that not only kept me going but helped me to learn so much about myself.
Daily exercise has been one of the best decisions of my pandemic experience.
An obvious question you might ask (and others have asked me too) — when you realized it would be a long time before your life went back to “normal,” why didn’t you stop? I’ve asked myself this too, but the answer is simply that it was working, and when you find something that works, why stop? I’ve hacked on myself enough to know what types of behaviors produce or suck my energy, and my hypothesis has thus far been correct — that my anxiety and mood would be stable if I continued to move my body.
Today I’m taking the opportunity for a quick reflection, sharing 7 things I learned from exercising for 365 days in a row…
- Know your why. There are many, many reasons that fitness appeals to me, but this year helped me to focus on the one that really matters, and that’s my mental health. Some people like to sit and meditate as a way to center themselves, but that has never worked for me (I fall asleep or get generally annoyed). But fitness is moving meditation that helps me calm down and let go of my anxiety. And especially as the pandemic dragged on and on and on I knew my mood would get a boost whenever and however I moved it. Were there other benefits? Sure! But they were just the bonus benefits after I kept my anxiety as manageable as possible.
- The scale isn’t my friend. Or yours. I haven’t weighed myself this year. Or probably the year before. Like many women (well, other people) I have obsessed for years about what the scale told me and what that meant about my value. Approximately two years ago I adopted the “if my pants fit, who cares?” approach to my weight. For the pandemic I’ve just worn yoga pants and my boyfriend jeans. I started take steroids in December for my microscopic colitis and even though my workouts are similar I know my pants are a little tighter. Look — we’re trying to survive a global pandemic and I feel great. My cardio endurance is great and I’m lifting heavier weights again. Tune into your own signals instead of looking at a number. Really — try it! You’ll feel better without a scale.
- Disconnect food and fitness. I’ve been working on this one for years — decoupling the calories I burn from the calories I eat. Besides the challenges with this (humans are terrible estimators, over-estimating calories burned and under-estimating calories consumed), it links two things that can be independent. If I am working out to be mentally healthy (see #1), my focus is not on calories, but on feeling strong and energized after a workout. I used to punish myself with hard workouts when I “ate badly” but no more. It’s also helped me to focus on how I feel after I eat (energized? sluggish? full? not-full?) and use those as my food cues rather than reflecting on how hard my workout was earlier that day as the tie-breaker on whether I could have a cookie or not. This is also why I ditched my fitness tracker.
- Clear goals but flexible means. I’ve tried different 30-day or 60-day challenges and a Couch to 5K program, but I have to say that those feel like a grind to me (which was surprising — see next point). I did try a few different “challenges” this year (yoga and a barre challenge that is ongoing), but I didn’t necessarily do one of the workouts each day — I just picked up on the next workout when I felt ready for it. Instead I spent a few minutes each night or morning to ask myself, “What workout feels good today?” and then doing that thing. I’ve walked, ran, danced, done HIIT and hip-hop tabata, cardio kickboxed, stretched, done yoga and Pilates, swung a kettlebell, bounced on my rebounder, tried to get better at a headstand (meh, I’m about as good as it gets), and taught a ton of barre — and more, I’m sure. With so little variety in the rest of my life, that flexibility has brought even more joy to my exercise time.
- Find your accountability. Let me start by saying I’m one of those obnoxious people who commits to something and then just does it (see Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies model if you’d like to learn more — yes, I’m an Upholder). It took graduate school and executive coaching certification to teach me that, no, my way of being is not the dominant way that people behave. Since then I continue to focus on what works for me (or my clients) to drive behavior change. Whether you stay accountable to yourself, your calendar, a friend or partner, or post your workouts publicly (the world!), do that thing. When I felt pulled by others to skip a workout, or even felt the pull within myself, I returned to my goal (mental health) and found a short workout to keep on track.
- Active rest counts. “BUT SARAH,” you might challenge, “What about REST DAYS? Aren’t those critical?” There are many studies that suggest that rest *is* an important part of working out. But with my flexible means principle, *any* workout counted. I try to have one day a week with a lighter workout (usually Sundays, as I teach barre on Mondays and I need my FULL POWER for maximum awesomeness). I tend towards light cardio (walking, easy hi-lo, rebounding) and then lots of stretching or yoga or mobility work. I’ve been fortunate to have been injury-free this last year, and when I sensed any extra soreness I stopped any high-impact activities and added extra yoga or recovery work. Though my workouts have tended longer (what else am I doing, anyway?), it’s okay to take a 30-minute walk and check off the day.
- You do you. You might think I’m batty for pursuing something like this, and you’re probably not alone. I’m not writing for approval or even to suggest that you should try something like this. I *would* encourage you to tune into your inner voice to see what you want and then pursue your heart’s desire instead of what someone else tells you to do. My commitment to my goals, especially one like this, might feel rigid to others. But it works for me — and I can truly say I feel that my mental health is the best it has been in years. I know I will need this boost as we (hopefully) transition back to our new normal, as soon as it comes.
The last question you might be asking — So, are you going to stop?
And the answer is no.
When I commit to myself, it matters. And when the commitment is still yielding positive results, why break the agreement? Today marks day 366 and I plan to continue my daily exercise until it’s safe to return to normal activities again (going to work, going into the world, traveling, etc.). I’m curious to try some different activities this year and, as the weather improves, taking my workouts outside again.
Be safe, be well!
P.S. Speaking of barre, I’ve signed up for two (virtual) classes this summer, so I look forward to bringing even more methodologies to my channel! The summer can’t come fast enough.