Four Steps to a Good (Not Perfect) Exercise Routine

Oh, that elusive workout routine. So easy to start, so hard to maintain.

Does this ever happen to you? You decide, “okay, there are so many reasons to exercise every day.” And then maybe you pull up an Excel spreadsheet and plan out the next six months of workouts, taking you from 30 minutes of walking all the way up to a half marathon, before you decide to start tomorrow and turn on Netflix.

Or maybe you summon the energy up to get started, and you work out HARD for four straight days, and then your boss needs you to stay late at work for a couple days, eliminating your exercise hour, and before you know it you haven’t hit the gym in a month.

Or perhaps you get some real traction! You build up your routine, integrating an exercise plan into your day-to-day with seamless precision, keeping it up for weeks, maybe months…and then you get a cold that confines you to bed with a steaming mug of tea for a few days. And before you know it, you haven’t worked out in a month.

I’m guilty of all of the above. When it comes to exercise, the press can’t rant enough about the benefits of it. Better health! Helps with memory and intelligence! Extends your life! Improves your mood! But how, how, how do we keep it up?

Everything they say about the miracle of exercise is true. When I work with clients around almost any issue – from depression, to anxiety, to anger management, to body image, to health at every size – exercise plays a part in recovery. The day-to-day management ofmany mental and physical ailments requires an exercise routine.

So here are a couple of tricks, from someone who’s very much a non-athlete, for how to feel good about your exercise routine:

1.     Let go of perfectionism and black-and-white thinking. A colleague of mine likes to say, “perfect is the enemy of good.” If the only thing that counts toward exercise is a hard, three-mile run with a couple of hills thrown in to the middle of it, and you’re starting from zero miles, then you’re gonna have two kinds of days: the days when you feel like you can do it, and the days when you just can’t. Your worldview doesn’t allow you to go for a nice, soothing walk, or catch a dance class instead, or do some crunches while watching the latest episode of Scandal. If instead you take the approach of just putting on your sweats and getting out there, for any length of time, doing almost any activity, and preferably an activity that you love, you’ll find it easier to keep up every day.

2.     Try behavior shaping. This is a behavioral therapy technique that is uniquely suited for those of us who want to be at 1 hour of exercise per day but are currently at zero hours. In behavior shaping, you start with an amount of time that no one can say no to. Something like 10 minutes. And you do that 10 minutes of exercise, every day. You never allow yourself to skip it, because who can say no to 10 minutes? Even if it’s 10pm and you’ve “forgotten” to do it all day, you just climb your apartment building’s stairs like 3 times and you’re done. Then the following week, once you’re feeling restless with your 10 minutes, you up it to 15. Then the following week, to 20. And before you know it, you’ve hit your minutes-per-day goal like a champ – or maybe instead you decide that 30 minutes is plenty, and highly sustainable, and you end up sticking there. This slow buildup makes each increase of time seem easy, almost necessary, and it gives you weeks to establish the habit before you hit the hard-to-maintain amounts of time.

3.     Build up a habit. Habits, according to the latest research, take about 2 full months to form. Once you get a habit going, you don’t even have to think about it! It just becomes a part of your day. You probably wouldn’t go more than a day or two at the most without brushing your teeth, would you? Well, you can do the same for your exercise routine. The trick is to build it in, if you can, at the same time every day. Cue it with something, like your alarm going off in the morning, or when you take your lunch break. Every day, the alarm goes off, then you get up and go out for a walk. No matter what. Instill it into that unconscious, Pavlovian part of your brain that the stimulus (alarm going off) leads to the response (exercise).

4.     Start, restart, and restart again. Have you ever used YNAB? It’s this budgeting app (You Need A Budget) that has something called a Fresh Start build right in. Why? Because we all fall off our budgets sometimes. The program knows this is a part of human nature, and it allows for it. So should your exercise routine. We all start, and then sprain an ankle, and then find ourselves having completely fallen off our exercise routines. We all get busy at work. We all start dating someone and find our free time cut in half. Life happens, and workout routines will start and stop. Try to anticipate this, and have your restart plan ready for the next time you slip. Kindness and self-understanding are key here – because you’re not perfect! Perfect is the enemy of good.

So there you have it, the recipe for a good-feeling, good-for-you, imperfect exercise routine. Don’t let shame creep in and cramp your style. And always remember the cardinal rule of exercise: have fun!