Exercise has always been my nemesis. It seems that I have been trying to establish a love for exercise my entire adult life. In some ways I have been successful. For years I have owned a fitbit, well actually I have owned MANY fitbits. They have been a great motivator to walk. I can go for long stretches of time where I consistently get 3 miles or more into my days. The benefits I reap from this are substantial. The things I have difficulty with are Cardio and Strength training. I WANT to be fit. I WANT to look “firm”. I can even get to a place where I am excited to work out. I will join a gym or buy some weights. I will plan all my wonderful workouts in my head. I will go to a couple of classes or do a few workouts at home and then something happens. I stop. Giving it some thought I decided that I must need to find a way to be accountable. So I tried hiring a personal trainer, or finding a workout buddy. Instead of accountability I created anxiety. I would not want to go and ended up canceling. How people create and maintain a workout routine has remained elusive. I could never figure out the secret ingredient that I am so obviously missing. Why is it that SOME people are able to make strength training a part of their life? I have heard people say that you have to make it fun. Okay, but how? I don’t like feeling uncomfortable and I feel uncomfortable sweating, and pushing my muscles to a point where they hurt. If I am being real, I feel most uncomfortable with my inability to do what is expected in the classes or from a trainer or even from myself. When I can’t do what is expected, even if it is only me that expects it, then I feel like a failure. I am doomed to fail before I even start.
Recently, a series of events led me to an epiphany. It started with my BLC group. I was growing and learning about food choices. I was walking more, eating better and feeling good. I didn’t care for TNT days that focus on strength training but I did the minimum requirements for points. It was motivation, however not enough to make me WANT to do strength training other than to get those points. I started to focus on it more however and began experimenting with different online workouts and then something happened - I wasn’t hating it! Progress! l did a workout that pushed me hard enough that I was uncomfortable and then I backslid and didn’t want to workout again. The slight momentum that I experienced waned and I was back to wanting to avoid it all together. Hmmmmmmm…
I thought about my reaction and decided to talk to my sister about it. She is an athlete. I mean that girl is fit! To give you an idea, I asked her what her resting heart rate is and she responded with her app stats showing a RHR of 46. Let’s shed some light on that. First of all, we are both in our 50s. My resting heart rate is usually in the low 70s. I am above average for my age. The rankings go average, above average, good, excellent and finally athlete. The lower the number the more fit you are. Forty Six isn’t even on the chart! She is an inspiration. I decided to pick her brain and asked her what motivated her to work out. It started with her not wanting to be overweight as she had been as a child. Then she took a spin class and was hooked. She said she never wanted to go back to the “old her”. I understood that but her reasons do not work for me. They just don’t motivate me enough to do something I don’t like. So I asked her how she thought I should start working out without getting frustrated and wanting to quit. I made it clear I didn’t want to push myself too hard to start, knowing that it would make me give up. She suggested just starting with 15 situps and 15 pushups a day. Although she saw that as easy I knew I didn’t have the strength to do that yet and I told her so. She suggested I break it up into sets of 5. We left it at that and I walked away from the conversation feeling defeated as always. I didn’t tell her I couldn’t do one pushup, much less five. Sit-ups were almost as difficult as pushups and they always hurt my back and neck as those muscles tried to compensate for the lack of strength in my core. I wasn’t making progress in my desire to workout but I was learning about me. I felt defeated but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
It’s a funny thing. When challenges are running through my head like this one was, they tend to insert themselves into all areas of my life. It was during a totally unrelated moment when an epiphany hit. I was teaching a dog training class. The subject for the day was the importance of your dog being successful. When you are training a dog, if the dog cannot succeed at what you are asking it to do then all training stops. I used the example of training my dog to walk across a balance beam. If I expect her to walk across the balance beam with no prior knowledge of how to do it then she will be confused and get frustrated with not being able to earn her reward. To teach the behavior we need to use differential reinforcement of successive approximations toward a target behavior. To clarify, we break the behavior into lots of tiny little behaviors so the dog will achieve success along the way until we reach the desired “target” behavior. Some dogs catch on quickly. Other dogs need to have the behavior broken down into tiny “micro-behaviors” before success can be obtained. With that in mind, training my dog to walk across a balance beam may look something like this. My dog looks at the balance beam and is rewarded with a treat. I continue rewarding with a treat until she understands what I am looking for and looks at the beam followed by her looking at me for the treat. Bingo! She understands I want her attention on the beam! Next I may not treat her until she walks to the beam. Each time she figures out what I am looking for we move on to the next approximation. Next I may wait for her to step up onto the beam. If at this point she can’t seem to comprehend that I want all four paws on the beam I will “dial it back” and break the behavior further down into expecting her to only put two paws on the beam. In this way she does not get frustrated and learning is fun because she is finding success and is earning her rewards. Suddenly, EUREKA! My epiphany hit! I was expecting too much of myself with strength training! I needed to break it down into approximations with a focus on not overwhelming myself.
When I got back home I reevaluated my sister’s advice and realized that what was easy for her didn’t mean it was easy for me. Even more importantly I realized that I needed to start where I WAS AT, not where anyone else thought I should be at including me! I took the idea of 5 push ups as my target behavior. It was an achievable goal given time and practice. I researched how to work up to a push up and I started with the easiest thing I could find; wall push ups. For two days I successfully did 3 reps of 20 wall push ups. It was easy. It was actually too easy which was great because I WAS SUCCESSFUL! Next I moved onto bar height counter push ups. This time I could feel my muscles work. It didn’t hurt and I didn’t sweat but I felt it. I was successful again! I was enjoying myself. I began wanting to push myself. Next I moved to the counter height kitchen countertops. I still didn’t get uncomfortable or sweat but I did feel some soreness the next day and boy did that make me happy! This was fun! I was making progress. I am now doing my push ups on a low counter in our bathroom. I am feeling stronger and successful. If I get to a point where I am feeling uncomfortable enough to quit then I will “dial it back” to an easier step and stay there longer. It may take me a while to do even one “regular” pushup but I have been wanting to do them for so many years and have given up each time. Even if it takes me a year to do 3 sets of 5 pushups it will be so much faster than never getting there. As I have found success, I have begun to do lunges and core exercise working on them all in approximations geared toward my target behaviors. It is finally fun and I am looking forward to working out. I have so far to go in so many ways but I am finally on track and I am finding success along the way. In reality, growth never stops so the success is in having fun and improving along the way. I have finally found a friend in my nemesis.