You know how some people are unlucky in love? I was always unlucky in exercise. I'd get into a relationship with a workout program or guru, we'd go steady for a few intense months, and then we'd have a really ugly breakup. My elastic-waist pants would come out, the numbers on the scale would soar, and empty Ben & Jerry's pints would soon be covering every square inch of my coffee table.
It started innocently in 11th grade, with Richard Simmons. I tried so hard to sweat just the way he liked. I thought if I tried hard enough, I'd fall in love.
Instead, the romance fizzled. After a while I fell for Billy Blanks, but that fizzled, too, and for decades the promiscuous cycle continued. I'd divorce my step class, then rebound with Zumba; leave the spin studio and hook up with CrossFit.
Eventually, I had to face it: My fitness affairs had no happily ever after. In fact, the only fairy-tale-ish part was when the clock struck midnight, I burned out, and my stomach became a pumpkin again.
Finally, about a year ago, after a disastrous stint on a Pilates Reformer machine, I realized that exercise will never be my lover. Or even my friend. For me, a workout is more like an annoying coworker I have to see a few times a week. I just had to find a way to stand it. So I began to research the psychology of habit formation. And I learned I needed to do two things I'd never tried before: lower my expectations and exercise less.
In the past, coming off weeks of bad behavior, I'd always begun a new workout program highly motivated. ("What brings you here?" a trainer once asked. Well, I thought, last night while undressing, I found a pile of Oreo crumbs in my cleavage.) Stinging from guilt, I'd exhaust myself in marathon exercise sessions. I assumed I was building willpower in addition to muscle. But when I asked psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD, coauthor of the book Willpower, I learned that self-control is like a muscle in another way: Overuse leads to exhaustion. I'd been trying to become a self-control Ironman overnight. By repeatedly pushing myself to the limit, I was draining my willpower reserves the way a shopping spree depletes a bank account.
Rather than attempt another challenging program, Baumeister advised, I should set the lowest goal I could feel good about, then try to exceed it by as much as possible. Succeeding at shorter workouts instead of failing at longer ones would bolster my confidence, and having a manageable standard would help me exercise more consistently because I wouldn't get burned out after a few weeks.
Psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, author of Breaking Murphy's Law, reinforced that point when I called her for advice: When forming a new habit, choosing a sustainable behavior is crucial. I needed a workout I could stick with.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what that would look like.
Next: How she found "the one"
I began applying the approach to running and weight-bearing exercises like sit-ups and push-ups because they required no gym or equipment (and thereby took away two excuses I'd happily used in the past to get out of workouts). Three to four times a week, I started devoting at least ten minutes to doing a physical activity the HIIT way: run as fast or do as many sit-ups as possible for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds, then repeat. On days I felt stronger, I'd keep the pattern going for 20 minutes, or lengthen my reps to a minute each. The point of sweaty exhaustion I reached felt satisfying without taking a big chunk out of my day. The bonus: Shorter workouts didn't make me feel as hungry as my endless exercise sessions had, which made it easier to resist eating back every calorie I'd just burned.
Plus, HIIT is bang for my buck: Recent studies have shown that HIIT can yield the same benefits as longer workouts. At Canada's McMaster University, researchers found that a thrice-weekly HIIT workout on a stationary bike delivered physical benefits similar to traditional endurance training (continuous exercise for 40 to 60 minutes, five times a week). Likewise, researchers from the United Kingdom found that adding just ten to 40 seconds of intense sprinting to a ten-minute low-intensity cycling session three times a week improved insulin sensitivity—an important factor in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (And a little exercise might be better for your health than too much. David Nieman, former vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine, reports that physical exertion beyond 90 minutes at a time—which I often did—can lower the body's immune defenses for up to 72 hours. Yikes.)
Giving up on trying to be passionate about my workouts has made me dislike them far less. Pretending to have fun was exhausting, and waiting for Cupid's arrow to hit me midlunge was a decades-long disappointment I'm glad to be rid of. I'm not just getting fit—I'm getting real.
Case in point: There are three women in my neighborhood who go for a run together around 6:30 every morning. I say run, but they move with an effortless and slightly flirtatious abandon, as though they're auditioning for Baywatch. Watching them bounce down the road, I used to feel a sense of crushing injustice.
Not anymore. Setting realistic goals has meant acknowledging I'm of another tribe than these women. A less perky tribe that likes to sleep past 7 and doesn't like to run. Now when I see them out jogging, I close my drapes. They can get it on with exercise all they want. I'm happier—and in better shape—not looking for that kind of love.
Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of English at John Carroll University.
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