The One Way to Boost Your Mood, Sleep Better and Look Great
December 22, 2010
Oprah's trainer, Bob Greene, helps you scrap the excuses for good.
Terane Weatherly's church buddies kept trying to coax her to join them at the gym, but she always turned them down because of her size.
"A gym is very intimidating when you've never been into physical fitness," says the 48-year-old insurance associate from Connecticut, who weighed 285 pounds in 2005. Then one day at work, Terane had a seizure and was rushed to the emergency room—but she was too heavy to fit into a closed MRI machine.
Although the episode convinced Terane to start exercising, she still hadn't found her lasting motivation. The real turning point wouldn't come until several months later, when she ran across a picture of herself. "I thought I was looking real good that day, but when I saw the photo, I felt horrible," she says. "I said to myself that I'd better take this seriously. I joined a weight loss program with my sister and committed to hitting the gym twice a week." She also started walking three miles every weekend, and doing the little things that add up, like taking the stairs and parking at the farthest end of the lot. Terane had finally decided to start her new life as an active person.
So many people can relate to Terane's initial resistance to physical activity. Although the reasons may be different—I don't have time; I'm too tired—the result is the same: a sedentary lifestyle. But while exercise aversion is rampant, the simple truth is this: As human beings, we were meant to move. When we don't, we increase our risk of virtually every known ailment, from diabetes to coronary heart disease to osteoporosis to stroke. And it's not just that a lack of exercise promotes disease; a commitment to exercise can actually prevent it. We now know, for instance, that exercise strengthens the immune system and may help guard against cancers associated with body fat, including cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, colon, kidney, and breast. Exercise also boosts metabolism, helps you sleep, improves your mood, and gives you more energy.
All this should be enough to get anyone in their right mind to the gym, but lots of otherwise sane men and women don't even own a pair of workout shoes. The number one reason is that many people simply hate exercise. But if you're one of those people, let me state it plainly: You need to do it. Even if you don't care about all the health benefits, if you want to lose weight and keep it off, there's no way around it. You have to exercise. People who have long-term weight management success are physically active.
The challenge is to get past your resistance to activity. It's time to think about the reasons you might be reluctant to exercise, as well as ways to motivate yourself and overcome obstacles. You may never learn to love exercise (though a lot of former exercise haters do), but you will learn to love what it does for you.
That's certainly true for Terane, who now maintains her weight at about 140 pounds. She's setting a great example for her three kids and has more energy to devote to her passion: volunteering for her church, which includes helping at homeless shelters, attending conferences, "and basically anything my pastors need me to do that I now have enough strength, energy, and determination for."
Terane's story shows that what motivates someone to transform herself can be as big as a health scare or as small as a photograph. Whatever your turning point, the new perspective it provides will help you look at your life, your weight, and your priorities in a totally different light—and when that revelation hits you, you'll know it.
Until you have a reason to be physically active—a reason that matters, and matters deeply—then you are not going to stick with exercise. The importance of a significant motivating factor is something I've seen again and again among my clients. And the research backs me up. One study from Portugal divided overweight women into two groups. Both received standard advice on diet and exercise, but one group was also encouraged to develop a personal, emotional incentive for staying active. After a year, the group that had incorporated the psychological component had lost an average of 12 pounds of body fat, compared to just under three pounds for the other volunteers. What I find especially interesting about this research is that it shows that inner motivation can be acquired.
With this in mind, I'm offering you ten reasons to exercise. Some you'll read and think, "Yeah, I guess so." That's not the reaction I'm going for. I want you to find the one that inspires you to say, "That is what I care about!" Then you'll know you're on the right track.
STEP 1: THE WHY LIST: 10 reasons to exercise (pick at least one).
1. You want to fight disease.
Exercise reduces your risk of a number of conditions, such as cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes (the National Institutes of Health says healthy diet and exercise can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent).
2. You want to lose weight and keep it off.
This is a given, but it bears repeating that people who maintain weight loss, as Terane Weatherly has, work out regularly. They don't just exercise until they take off the pounds, then go back to being a couch potato. If you want a thinner, healthier body, there is no way to avoid being active.
3. You want to look better.
Exercise doesn't just help you lose weight; it also firms the body, improves posture, and gives the skin a glow.
4. You're always annoyed and sapped of energy.
Research has found that just one session of exercise can put you in a better mood for three to four hours—at least. It's also a well-documented fact that exercise helps combat depression, sometimes as effectively as medications. Many psychologists use it as a standard part of treatment. People constantly tell me, "I just want to feel better." If you exercise regularly, you will.
5. You take too many sick days.
If you're looking for a way to reduce colds and upper respiratory infections, a good fitness program is key. Regular exercisers are significantly less likely to call in sick.
6. You have joint pain.
The right kind of exercise can reduce the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis by strengthening the muscles around damaged joints.
7. You have a bad back.
Once upon a time, people with bad backs were urged to avoid physical activity. We now know that, in most cases, the best thing you can do is move. Recognize your limits, of course, and work with your doctor and perhaps a physical therapist.
8. You don't sleep well.
Even though exercise is energizing, it also wears you out. It's a paradox, I know, but eventually you'll feel more vibrant during the day and sleep better at night.
9. You want to slow the effects of aging.
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to fight aging. Regular workouts drastically reduce the loss of muscle and bone, and improve circulation. Exercise may also help reduce inflammation and stave off age-related diseases. As if that's not enough, physical activity seems to have a protective effect against dementia, and may help improve memory and other cognitive functions. One Harvard University researcher called exercise "Miracle-Gro for the brain."
10. You love your kids. When you care about yourself—and exercising is a sign that you do—you are doing your kids a favor by setting a good example. If you're active, there's a better chance that your kids will be active, too. Plus you're more likely to be around longer for them.
Once you've found your motivation, the next step is to get rid of any excuses that stand in your way. "I have no time. I'm physically limited. I can't afford a gym membership." There are a million cop-outs, and yet hordes of people—even those with busy schedules and chronic pain—manage to exercise.
Excuses allow you to continue living the way you are now without making any tough choices; they let you feel better about not doing things you know you should. In order to move forward, you have to institute a zero-tolerance policy for excuses.
What follows are the stall tactics I routinely hear from people who live a sedentary life—and why those excuses aren't valid. As you'll see, there are practical ways to get around almost any obstacle, and when you feel motivated and have a positive attitude, you can resolve any perceived problems that stand in your way.
I don't like exercise.
How many people like brushing their teeth at night? But we do it because we don't want to end up with a dentist's drill in our mouths. Exercise is the same; you do it because you need to.
But I'm not advocating that you simply grin and bear it; instead, find a way to make workouts less of a chore. There are so many different ways to move your body, from walking to Zumba dancing; keep trying until you find one that seems appealing.
I don't have time.
Work, family, housekeeping—who isn't juggling a lot? But don't you always make time for the important stuff? If you're not physically active, it's because you haven't made it a priority.
People who fit exercise into their lives tend to have figured out how to be more efficient. One client of mine uses her morning workout to plan her day, including what she's making for dinner. Find a way to incorporate activity into things you already do. If you're a stay-at-home parent, for example, get a jogger stroller and run your kids to the park. And don't let situations that aren't perfect defeat you. Maybe you can't walk around your neighborhood after work because it's too dark, but you can squeeze in a 20-minute walk on your lunch break. Research has also shown that certain higher-intensity workouts, such as interval training, produce good results in less time. Keep in mind, too, that as you become more fit, your energy level will rise and you will get more done at a quicker pace. In a sense, by taking time to exercise, you will create more time elsewhere.
Unstructured exercise is important, too. Parking at the farthest end of the lot (as Terane Weatherly now does), getting up to talk to colleagues instead of sending e-mails—these little things contribute to overall fitness. And if this informal type of activity is all you can do, I suggest that you purchase a pedometer and aim to log a few miles that way every day.
I've suffered an injury.
This can seem like the perfect get-out-of-gym-free card, but a gradual return to activity is part of the recommended recovery process.
Movement increases blood flow to the injured area (bringing nutrients that help speed recovery) and strengthens the surrounding muscles (taking pressure off the injury). Staying active while injured also helps you maintain flexibility and range of motion, which are important to ensure full healing. This isn't to say that you should get back out there if you're really hurt; I'm definitely not recommending that you exercise through pain. Let your doctor guide you.
But even if your injury is lingering, there are ways to be active. If your leg is out of commission, you can do an arm-focused workout, using an upper-body ergometer (a bicycle for your arms) for cardio exercise, or performing strength-training exercises (like biceps curls). If you have an upper-body injury, you can do lower-body resistance exercises (squats and lunges) for strength, and try an upright or recumbent stationary bike for your cardio workout. Injured runners can walk up a steep grade, which provides vigorous activity without the pounding. Whatever you do, ice the sore spot afterward.
I have a medical condition.
While it's true that arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, a neurological problem, or excessive weight can limit your exercise options, it's not the case that no exercise is right for you (remember, Terane once weighed 285 pounds). In fact, having a chronic condition typically makes physical activity even more critical. The symptoms of many health problems recede with exercise.
Work with your doctor to flesh out a program and make sure you're not taking on too much. If you can afford physical therapy or a personal trainer who specializes in your condition, those are ideal ways to start.
I don't see results.
When you begin exercising, your body plays a trick on you. One way it responds is by upping the amount of glycogen it stores in the muscles, which requires water. Therefore, as you become more active, you initially carry more water weight. This physiological fact of life can disguise the reality that you're probably losing fat. That's why, in these early weeks of increased activity, I suggest avoiding the scale and gauging your progress by the way your clothes fit—most likely they'll feel looser. Ultimately, you'll stop putting on water weight, and fat loss will translate into a lower number on the scale.
What, though, are the results you're hoping for? Is it only weight that matters to you? My guess is that if you're exercising regularly, you're actually experiencing a number of benefits—from improved muscle tone to healthier-looking skin—but with weight loss as your primary goal, you're not noticing them. Another mark of progress is increased strength and endurance—irrefutable signs that you are, in fact, getting results.
I'm too tired.
Fatigue can be a vicious cycle. You're too tired to exercise, so you don't move much—which makes you even more tired. Plus, when you don't get physical activity, you miss out on its sleep-enhancing benefits.
Being too tired is a sign that something is not right, whether it's an emotional issue, a physical condition, or an inability to manage your life. It's probable that the same thing keeping you from exercising is also what's causing your fatigue. But exercise can give you the boost you need to confront whatever issues you're dealing with. If you are tired because you're depressed, physical activity will help lift your mood. If you have a condition that makes you tired, like fibromyalgia, exercise is a great way to ease symptoms.
Remember also that even the healthiest people have days when they'd rather nap! Yet they exercise anyway because they know that in five minutes they'll feel energized.
In the end, overcoming excuses is freeing. Instead of wasting energy trying to come up with reasons why you can't exercise, you start to see things very clearly. You are an exerciser; it's part of your day, like dinner. When you reach this point, you don't have to worry about staying motivated. You've become a different person. An active person.
With your motivation in place and your excuses out of the way, you can go about defining your goals. Several years ago, researchers at Columbia University in New York City and the University of Konstanz in Germany conducted a study of what helps people stick to exercise. They found that women who filled out a goal-setting worksheet doubled their weekly workout time compared with a similar group of women who did not use the technique. Here's an example.
1. What is my exercise goal?
Set an objective you can achieve—nothing overly ambitious. "Getting 30 minutes of exercise in the morning."
2. What's the most positive outcome of achieving this goal?
This is crucial. Think back to the reasons you chose to exercise. "This will get me in better shape and help me manage my diabetes."
3. What's the main obstacle standing in the way?
"I don't have enough time."
4. How can I overcome the obstacle?
Give details about the changes you're going to make. "The night before, I can get to bed by 10, so I can wake up 30 minutes earlier."
5. How should I achieve my goal?
This means focusing on the when and where. "Between 6:30 and 7 in the morning, before I shower, I'll exercise with a 30-minute aerobics video in my living room."