Thursday, March 18, 2010

Confessions of a couch potato

I’ve never been a big fan of sports. When I was growing up, no one in my family exercised with any seriousness of purpose. I did ride horses as a child and skied occasionally, but anything involving sweat, heavy breathing or muscle ache on a regular basis was best avoided, as far as I was concerned. (Note to self: help my kids to enjoy sports now – the later you leave it, the harder it gets.)

Over the years, various attempts at getting fit – gym memberships, swimming pool season tickets or African dance classes – ran aground after a few months due to lack of time, energy and interest. Why sweat and suffer when I could be relaxing at the movies, curled up on my couch with a good book or chatting with a friend over a cappuccino?

Imagine my shock when I met my husband 16 years ago, a man bristling with health and sporting enthusiasm and requiring daily doses of exertion for his physical and emotional well-being. After accompanying him on yoga retreats, bike outings and ski trips, and being coached patiently by him on various home training devices, I have over the years become modestly fit. However, I still struggle to take on board the idea of exercise as something I might willingly undertake – and enjoy! – daily.

And yet, it is something I now need and want to do. At 44, I need to strengthen muscles and bones to prevent muscle loss and osteoporosis after menopause. I want to keep my heart and respiratory system in shape. I also want to boost my immune system and prevent cancer (more on this in a forthcoming post). Lastly, I want to improve my sleep, mood and blood-sugar balance – all of which regular sports has been shown to do.

And then there’s good old-fashioned vanity: I dream of shedding 5-6 pounds of winter fat and the abdominal flab I have been sporting since the birth of my twins nearly eight years ago. And since I don’t believe in miracle pills or “slim-while-you-sleep” muscle stimulation electrodes, there’s only one thing for it: exercise.

So I have begun designing a program based on the World Cancer Research Fund’s “Moving More for Cancer Prevention” that should meet my sporting needs. It involves aerobic exercise – which strengthens heart and lungs, lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol, brain function and mood – and strength exercise which increases muscle mass, helps burn more calories, maintains bone density and strengthens core muscles. On days when I’m doing neither, I plan to do yoga or simple stretches to counteract the stiffness that comes from being hunched over a computer or a steering wheel and to relax me after a hectic day. (I will post my specific exercise plan soon.)

The key to compliance of course is motivation, which I have always struggled with. Not seeing much point in exercising, I never made it a priority. The less I exercised, the more unfit I became, making it even harder to muster up the enthusiasm for exercise – a painful slog when you’re out of shape.

To break out of this vicious cycle, I have decided to take a very structured approach. First, I will make a contract with myself (using this template) setting out my goals. This involves appointing a fitness partner who supports me in getting fit; my husband has kindly agreed to do this.

Next, I will start designing weekly schedules setting out my exercise plans for each coming week. (This online fitness diary can be used both to plan ahead and to record the exercise completed.)

Intentionally setting aside time for exercise – rather than hoping that a free half-hour will magically appear out of nowhere – will be crucial to my success. Planning workouts ahead of time – defining what I will do when and where, and putting out the clothes I will be wearing the night before – will increase the likelihood of them getting done. I will reward myself for any meaningful progress I might achieve (a massage/facial/new pair of trainers?) but won’t beat myself up if results don’t happen overnight.

I’d love to hear what some of you are doing to keep fit, and especially, how you manage to keep at it. Motivational tips very welcome!

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