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Developing a Healthy Relationship with Exercise

Exercise is a wonderful thing.  Unfortunately, that's not the case for most people I know.  It seems I'm usually either working with people to begin an exercise program or, on the other extreme, to back off of an exercise regime they don't enjoy but feel compelled to do.  As a psychologist who specializes in eating/body issues, who also has a master's degree in sport/exercise psychology and has been certified as a personal trainer for over 15 years, I am uniquely positioned to comment on both sides of the exercise spectrum, from under-exercise to exercise addiction.

We know that a large percentage of people who begin an exercise program will drop out within the first six months.  Why?  Because they don't like what they're doing.  Because they burn out. Because life gets in the way. If you follow these tips, though, you'll be more likely to commit to healthy activity over the long-haul because you'll actually enjoy what you're doing. Remember, the goal is to choose an "exercise lifestyle" that will work for the rest of your years.

1)  Cross-train:  Trainers have been talking for eons about the physiological benefits of cross-training, but cross-training has significant mental pros, too.  Participating in different activities throughout the week (month or year) reduces emotional burnout.

2)  Get outside:  There's something about fresh air and the sights, smells and sounds of city/country living that can contribute to the psychological benefits of fitness.  Nature, too, is a natural mood-booster.  True, some may also enjoy the sights (maybe not the smells) of their local gym, but still, I recommend that, weather-permitting, you mix it up a bit.

3)  Ban the gym:  Speaking of the gym, consider your relationship with your local Gold's or Equinox. If you hate going there, it's going to be an uphill battle all the way, and chances are, you'll drop out. If the gym connotes discomfort, punishment, etc., choose another venue you actually look forward to visiting.  Play tennis.  Go hiking.  Take salsa lessons. There is absolutely no need to go to the gym if that's not your thing.  Adrenaline junkie?  Try rock climbing, ocean swimming, mountain biking.  You'd be impressed at how infinitely more thrilling chasing the speed limit cycling westbound on San Vincente in L.A. or on the downhill stretch of Harlem Hill in Central Park can be than parking yourself on the stationary bike at the gym.

4)  Get your soundtrack on:  Studies show that we'll work out longer and harder when accompanied by good music.  I love my music collection so much that I look forward to the movement it commands.  You, too, can create a personal dance party on your MP3 player. For more of a challenge, choose faster-paced music, as we unconsciously move our bodies to the beat.

5)  Set goals:  It's incredibly motivating to have a project or goal to work toward.  Sign up for your first 5k (or muddy buddy race, if that's your thing).  Join a summer basketball league, knowing that you'd like to be in fighting shape before the league begins.  Having some sort of goal or deadline can enhance your fitness commitment and keep you on track.

6)  Forget the weight:  Exercise because it feels good and contributes to physical and psychological health, not because it burns calories or helps you lose or maintain weight. Those who begin exercise programs to lose weight often drop out when they don't see the immediate desired results. On the other extreme, exercise can become disordered as individuals seek to burn off each additional calorie they've consumed.  Exercise is a privilege, not a punishment for consumption.  I wish that all group fitness instructors would, in their prompts during class, focus on strength, health, and fun, rather than calories and weight. 15 years ago, I wrote my master's thesis on the mood-enhancing properties of exercise, and I still stand behind that research.   Exercise results in reduced depression and anxiety and increased self-esteem.  Work out with these significant benefits in mind.

7)  Be consistent:  Hemming and hawing about should I or shouldn't I work out today creates too much room for bailing.  Have a set schedule that you commit to, unless you're sick or something urgent arises.  Consider fitness to be a part of your everyday routine.

8)  Take it easy:  Yes, it is possible both to be consistent and to take it easy.  Schedule days off.  This one is particularly challenging for those who have a compulsive relationship with exercise, but for that reason alone, it's important to achieve.  The body (and the mind) need some time to recover.  Taking a couple of days off per week allows you to come back clearer, stronger, and more determined.  Schedule weeks off here or there throughout the year to recover more fully and further increase your drive.  Prove that you have a  healthy relationship with exercise by taking time off for work/family obligations, travel, illness, surgeries, etc. without suffering guilty, anxiety, or depression.

9)  Embrace the grays:  Taking it easy also involves embracing the grays:  Despite what almost everyone I work with believes, I still espouse that 15 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. If you don't have the time or energy to put it a full workout, do what you can. Trust me, it still counts. On a related note, your workout should not feel like 45 minutes of physical torture. Many people dislike exercise because they equate it with pain. Back off to a degree where you feel challenged, but not distressed. Especially if you're having an off day, give yourself permission to dial back the effort. Your run can turn into a walk, your kickboxing class into a yoga class class across the gym. And yes, it still counts.

10)  Practice gratitude: Take a moment to remember how lucky you are to choose to move your body.  Be thankful for functioning limbs, a healthy heart and lungs, and the lifestyle wherewithal that allows you to have  the time, space, and energy to move.