Starting an exercise regimen is hard. No wonder: for most of human history, the idea of scheduling time to expend a bunch of energy for no reason would be laughable. Studies show that hunter-gatherers typically only sit down for two to three hours a day. But as our lifestyles have changed, more and more of us spend most of our lives on our butts. And it’s literally killing us: statistically, heart disease is most likely the way we will die.
There are a lot of systemic reasons why South Africa is a particularly difficult place to get enough exercise: apartheid city planning, poverty, crazy crime rates, and a poor food environment have meant that it’s not easy to build sports and movement into your day. Stats show that around half of South African adults live completely sedentary lifestyles.
Here are five practical steps to building an exercise habit. One that sticks this time…
1. Decide why you care
Learning to exercise is tough. There will be many moments you’ll want to give up. So, spend some time at the start is extremely clear what’s motivating you.
There are real benefits to exercise that goes beyond looking hot naked. Exercise slows the aging process on a cellular level. People who exercise are happier and less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Exercise lengthens your lifespan (every an hour of running adds an estimated seven hours to your life expectancy). It can boost your brain health and prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s.
2. Set clear, specific goals
Don’t start an exercise program with the ambition to run the Comrades: you’ll quickly feel like you’re failing and want to give up. Start with a shorter-term goal, something that’s achievable within 1-2 months, like wanting to be able to run 3km without stopping.
In fact, evidence shows that the “sweet spot” for health outcomes isn’t a crazy amount of exercise: it’s just over 150 minutes of moderate-intensity (eg a brisk walk, ballroom dancing) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity (eg swimming, boxing, running, soccer) exercise every week, broken down into chunks of time that are at least 10 minutes long. So, something as simple as a brisk 25-minute walk every day can have a huge impact on your health.
3. Create a plan
Find a program that suits your goals. If you want to pick up a new sport, research local clubs and find out when they meet. If you want to start running, take a look at something like the Couch to 5k program. If you’d like to try a gym program, the Fitness subreddit Wiki has a great list of routines for beginners.
Then, go and schedule it into your week. If you use a calendar app, add the workout sessions you want to do. Figure out the details of how you’ll put your plan in motion.
4. Remove the friction
Let’s be real: Your brain is going to look for any excuse to skip a day’s worth of exercise. So, try to pre-empt all of the excuses it might give you, and remove them.
Imagine that your brain is a whiny six-year-old child who really does not want to do PE. What systems would you put in place to make sure that they have no excuses?
Whatever you do, NEVER allow exercise to be negotiable (“I’ll skip the session I planned to do today, and do an extra-long one tomorrow instead”).
5. Get over the discomfort hump
Let’s not sugar-coat it: when you’re starting out, exercising is hard and it feels awful and every second is agony. Luckily, this won’t last forever: most fit people say that they actually really enjoy exercising (which, I know, feels like an impossible concept if you’ve never been fit). The trick is to find a way to distract yourself through the gross bits until you get fit enough to enjoy yourself.