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How to Make and Keep a Simple Exercise Habit

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

For Trauma Survivors Who Don't Know Where to Start (or for anybody, really)

I'm a fitness buff. I believe in staying fit, because it helps me feel better, both in body and mind. But I've slid in and out of exercise habits during times of stress or depression and anxiety. During those times when I've been down, getting the motivation to start back up has sometimes seemed insurmountable, even when I know exercise makes me feel better. As someone who has experienced trauma, I understand that it's sometimes hard to get started with any kind of movement, or get back into a form of exercise you once enjoyed.

Even though we've been told a thousand times that physical activity is important, and we know in our bones that it is important, it can still be hard to start or keep an exercise habit. We know that exercising helps keep our energy levels up, which can improve productivity at home or at work. It can help us stay healthy as we age, modulate blood sugar, lower blood pressure, improve strength and mobility and flexibility, and even help with sleep, mood and mental health. The thing we most need it can help with, and yet, sometimes we can't up enough oomph to get moving. Why is this?

I can give you a few reasons off the top of my head:

  • We have started and quit programs before and we don't want to "fail again"

  • We look lumpy in our workout clothes

  • We think we don't have time

  • We have never exercised before have no idea where to begin

  • The cost of gym membership is too high

  • Heck, the cost of workout clothes is too high

  • We're tired

  • We're overwhelmed

  • We feel like it wouldn't matter anyway, so why bother

I can think of twenty more reasons, and you probably can too. But because exercise is so good at improving mental health, it's one of the most important things you can do in the self-care realm, especially when you are walking a trauma recovery journey. I want to encourage you to start exercising and keep it up to the point where you develop a routine you can count on, even if it is very mild exercise that make gym rats point and stare.

In case data is the kind of thing that gives you hope, here is a link to a study that says exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood, and by improving cognitive function. The study also shows that exercise has been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

I'm trying to inspire you to get moving, especially when you don't feel like it, and to create a pattern of behavior that becomes a habit. When we develop daily habits we don't have to overthink our schedules. Even if you begin with low-intensity movement over a short period of time, a few days a week, it will make a difference. Even if everyone around you is "fitter." Even if your hips creak like a rusty door when you try and touch your toes. Even if dust comes off your sweatpants when you pull them out of that drawer you keep all the clothes you never wear. Even if you are tired. Even if you have quit 20 "exercise programs" before.

Here are a few suggestions that may help you ease gently into developing an exercise habit that, dare I say it, you might one day look forward to doing regularly.

1. Check with your doc and get cleared to exercise, especially if you have been out of the loop for a while.

2. Start with what you can do. If you have mobility issues, or a disability that impairs movement, there are wheelchair fitness exercise you can do, chair fitness exercises, bed exercises, pool workouts. Ask a physical therapist. If you don't have one, get in touch with us and we will help you find specific resources that work for you. Basically if you can move something on your body, move it. If you cannot move anything, then visualize exercising at set times every day. Here's a link that explains more on why that may be beneficial.

2. Try not to care what anyone thinks. It's okay if you can only walk around the block one time while your neighbor, Jessica Cardio-Bunny, runs ten miles before breakfast and leaves you eating her dirt. Or if your spouse and kids look at you like you've done lost your mind. You do you. That's all you need to worry about. As you level up in fitness ability and interest over time, you can make changes as needed. We are not looking for a 5-day free weight workout split, or an Ironman training schedule, here. We're looking for any kind of body movement to jumpstart those feel-good chemicals that will help you feel a little more buoyant, especially during hard times. And we are looking at you working them into your life schedule a few predictable times per week, every week. You don't have to look or act like anyone on social media. Just do what works for you.

3. Don't worry about equipment or clothes, no matter how many cute outfits you see on TikTok and no matter how much equipment and home gym setups you see hawked on Instagram. It's a habit we are trying to create here, not a path to the Mr. or Ms. Olympia competition. If you can't afford workout clothes, it's okay. I have worked out barefoot in jeans before. In fact, these days, I usually workout barefoot. I no longer spend money on fitness shoes, but barefoot fitness is topic I'll leave for another time. Unlike what we see in the media and on social media, you only need your body to get started. You don't need fancy equipment, butt-sculpting compression pants, a squat rack, a Tonal, a Peleton, home gym equipment, or a gym membership. If all you have is your body, start by talking a walk. If it is not safe to walk where you live, you can push furniture back and do a free bodyweight exercise video on YouTube. I love Fitness Blender. They have a lot of free content. You can check out one of their no-equipment, low-impact videos here and do these simple exercises at home in your living room.

4. Build the time into your schedule. Yep. Put it in on your calendar like it's a job interview you have to go to four days a week or you won't be able to keep your apartment. Don't "pencil it in" and hope that you do it. Tell yourself your life depends on it. Make exercise time as deliberate as a meal. Once it's on your calendar, set a notification for it. Being deliberate about when you exercise means that it’s more likely to happen, even when life is busy. Your body will also get used to moving at a certain time each day and believe it or not, you will start looking forward to it. Your family and friends will learn that this is simply something you do, and will learn to work around it.

Here's a cheat I do on unmotivated days. I do a no-equipment workout in front of the TV while watching something distracting. It's fine. People do that on treadmills and cardio machines all the time.

5. If you have stuff, prepare it ahead of time. Lay out your clothes and gear, if you have it, the night before so you can’t use the excuse that you don’t have time to get everything ready. Keep your exercise bag right near the door and ready to go so you won't give yourself a pass during the morning crunch time when you realize you didn't have time to get your workout things together. I get dressed in workout pants and a tank when I first get out of bed, so there really is no excuse for me. It helps for me to "pre-load" my schedule. When I do that, there are fewer excused to get in the way.

6. When it's time to start exercising, stop what you are doing and exercise. Go where you need to go. Don't overthink it, especially if you feel busy or otherwise uninspired. Nike knew best when it coined "Just do it." Just do it. Your body will click into gear once you get started. Showing up and not overthinking is part of what will help this become a habit.

7. Start small. Seriously, small like a 20-minute-walk-after-dinner-small. Grab the dog and kids and bring them along. Or go by yourself and listen to music. Or do a quick workout/stretching video from your phone before everyone gets up in the morning and starts asking you to do things for them. If you are at work, slip out during lunch break and do a few laps around something. By starting small, you will help your body move slowly into a fitness habit without injury. You are less likely to feel overwhelmed, and you'll be less likely to quit. Once you get into the swing of things, you can increase your duration and intensity. I've worked out before in a tiny NYC hotel room where I had 24 inches between the bed and the wall. I did a lot of planks. It may not be thrilling, but it's doable.

8. Keep it interesting. Imaging getting up every day and eating the same bacon and eggs, 365 days a year. How boring. Wait, I do that. Never mind. But with a workout, nothing screams boredom more than the same routine day after day. Mix up what you’re doing – turn the walk into a jog, go a different route, take a class, or try a new gym or new type of video program. Try cardio if you've been lifting, even if it's "just" a walk. Try stretching, even if it's a 10-minute video before bed. Or ask the Fitness Fairy for a new piece of equipment you can use at home, like a TRX suspension system, or some dumbbells. You don't have to work the same program day after day. In fact, your body will probably prefer it if you mix it up.

I love my TRX. It works for all levels of athlete and non-athlete. You can roll it up and shove it under the couch or into a closet when you aren't using it. You can pack it in your suitcase and take it on trips if you fall in love with it. Here is a ten-minute TRX workout. Yes. 10 minutes and you are done.

You can always swing a steel mace. This is my 2022 obsession!

9. Don't worry about how you look or what your body is doing, or that it doesn't look or act like someone else's body. You are moving your body because we are meant to move. Movement = life. So you were hoping you would lose weight and you haven't. Don't worry about that now. Just move and get the feel-good chemicals rolling through your system. Start doing it a few days a week and when you notice it is turning into something you look forward to, pat yourself on the back for sticking with it.

10. Make a goal to move your body three times per week. Three times a week is something almost everyone can fit into their schedules. It's enough to give you recovery days in between, and it's not too much as to clutter up your already super busy schedule. When you complete a week of whatever it is you choose to do for exercise, congratulate yourself. When you do it for two weeks in a row, tell someone so they can give them an attaboy or an attagirl. When you do it for a month congratulate yourself by adding a fourth day to your schedule. When you have showed up and given the gift of movement to yourself for two months in a row, congratulations! You may have developed a new life habit that is far better for you than almost anything else for promoting your physical and mental health. Habits make change and change makes transformation. Transformation can be healing.

If you have questions, leave them in the comments. Comments? Leave them in the comments. You want to share a problem or a win? Leave them in the comments. We see you. We hear you. You matter. We care! If you want to book a free coaching discovery Zoom call, you can book it here.

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