How many times in your life have you told yourself you’re going to start exercising regularly only to subsequently let it drop?

If this has happened to you, fear not, it has happened to most people at one time or another and it has happened to virtually everybody who has made a stated commitment to this effect.

So, it’s important to bear in mind that you aren’t alone here. Remember that, for all our differences, we’re all human beings with the same or similar wants and fears. So, how do some people seem to be able to manage to develop an exercise regimen that will stand the test of time whilst for others it’s all about continual new dawns and failures?

Well, there are a number of reasons. First and foremost, this stuff is simply more important to some people than others as it’s in their nature. But if you’re reading this article and want to be in better shape in both mind and body – helped through exercise – then it’s probably in you to a sufficient degree, too.

So, where and why has it been going wrong so far?

Well, one of the main reasons many people fail is that they set themselves fairly impossible goals and set off at the new regimen like the clappers, going to the gym every day, running each evening or whatever else. And they’re never going to be able to keep up this level of activity.

Set realistic targets

So, the first lesson is to set realistic targets. If your lifestyle is currently a relatively sedentary one, then any exercise regimen will be an improvement. So, instead of getting down on yourself for not being able to stick to the impossible targets you’ve set – set yourself very achievable goals over the short term. Depending on your current age and fitness level, this may be something as simple as walking to and from the shops two or three times a week, or going for a leisurely bike ride twice a week etc. Start off at a level where you’ll be able to give yourself a pat on the back. That isn’t crazily ambitious and you can look to build from there as you get into it.

The next thing to remember is to try and enjoy it all. This is the real key to success and there are various strategies to pursue.

Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think

Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … so goes the song, and so it is with exercise. When you were a child, you probably needed no-one to tell you to exercise. Most children want to run around and play all day and they love it. Play is a vital part of human development. No-one is telling them they ought to do something to keep fit, they just love to play. And the word “play” is crucial here. The best possible forms of exercise we can do are not chore-like in any way. Instead, they’re games we just love to play anyway. But there are a few caveats here, about which more in a moment.

But, firstly, what sports do or did you used to like playing? Are you a solitary player or a team player by nature? Do you or did you enjoy endurance exercise in a bloody-minded “hair shirt” type of way, for example? If you can think through these questions, it’s a better approach than simply making a deal with yourself to go to the gym and/or to go to exercise classes “X” times per week. These usually become chore-like pretty quickly for most people.

So, one friend I know, for example, had always fancied playing tennis but had never had chance to develop her game in any way when she was younger. Her approach was to enrol for tennis lessons at her local tennis club and things snowballed form there. She’s now a competent player and plays several times per week all year round both outdoor and indoor depending on the weather. Tennis has become a huge aspect of her life both for the exercise and for the social side of things. And, of course, her fitness has come on leaps and bounds as tennis is one of the best all-round exercise regimens any of us can do. Yet to the lady in question, not one aspect of all this feels like work in any way, shape or form. Just try keeping her away from the courses these days! If you feel the same about tennis – it’s easy to find your local club.

Photo Credit: Peter Mooney

Photo Credit: Peter Mooney

Another male friend took a similar approach to rugby. He was always quite a big chap in his youth and not sporty at all, but had enjoyed playing rugby at least a little bit during games lessons at school. So, in his late 20s with virtually no real experience of the sport, he started to go along to his local rugby union club and was allowed to train with the players. Things have moved on from there. He now plays regularly, and even though it’s not at what anyone would call a high level, he enjoys it all and is far fitter than he was as a result. And again, he simply loves the whole experience, including the social side of things. Again, no aspect of this feels like work for him.

In this particular case, the friend threw himself into every aspect of his chosen sport, from supporting a local side, going to home and away games, watching the big internationals and big club games on TV, and even rugby union betting before and during games on the exchanges. This helped him take a keener interest in games in which he would otherwise have not been interested. It’s all part of the same thing, doing what you love through what we might call pure “play” in ways that help get you fitter.

Please the caveman self

Of course, this kind of wholehearted approach can’t be emulated unless you have a real passion for the sport – or you find you can develop it as you get further and further into it. In other words, you simply can’t force your own human nature – this has to be something you either naturally love doing already or something you find you can develop a passion for all aspects of as you get deeper into it.

And this is crucial for success. As we’ve already covered. The point is for none of this to feel like any kind of chore. Instead, it should be something you really look forward to and can’t wait to do.

But be careful with this aspect of whatever your chosen sport is, because it’s not always that simple. We human beings often have an innate work ethic developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution during which we’ve all had to work physically hard. Often, this is replicated in sports today and it also holds the key as to why we find value in slogging our guts out running marathons, doing distance swims, climbing mountains, cycling for miles – and all the rest of the mind-set that goes along with endurance sports and challenges etc. This isn’t about simple enjoyment, it’s something deeper.

This, in turn, means that we often don’t really “want” to do whatever it is just before we start, yet we feel exhilarated at the end of it. If you’ve done any kind of endurance exercise work or a sponsored event of some kind, you’ll probably know this feeling of exhilaration. Often, this is put down to the production of endorphins in the body. Those are the chemicals we produce ourselves that give us a bit of a natural high and help stave off depression. But there’s a huge purely psychological element to all this as well. And this is proven by the fact that we often feel the same or similar kind of exhilaration when we’ve completed what may have been a particularly daunting, but non-physical task. So, for example, as a youngster when you had to do a particularly large piece of homework, or as an adult when you’ve perhaps had to face a particularly daunting work-related project challenge – how did you feel when you came through it? You felt absolutely wonderful, right? This is because you felt the “fear” (for want of a better word) and did it anyway. You got the work over with and you completed the task well. And as a result, your evolutionary self was delighted with yourself for having done it – even though you were perhaps looking forward to it as much as a trip to the dentist!

So, what’s all this got to do with an exercise regimen? Well, often we simply need to accept that, although we don’t really feel like doing something just at the moment, we can override this reluctance with our own logic that tells us we’ll feel great once we’ve done whatever it is. This particularly applies to solitary endurance exercise like swimming, cycling and running. Sometimes, you just have to go through the motions like an automaton full in the knowledge that you’re going to feel elated when it’s done – and this always works.

Just do it anyway

One specific tip for achieving this is to have an attitude of simply “doing it anyway”. So, you accept that you just don’t feel like doing your usual run / swim / cycle today, but that you’re going to simply do it anyway. If you really don’t want to do it – tell yourself you only need to do, say, half your usual distance and that you’re going to take it far more easily than you usually would. This really works. What you tend to find in practice is that you end up doing the same as you do every other time – and you always feel great at the end of it. But even if you don’t and you do only complete half your usual distance – you’ll still get the natural “high” you deserve.

Photo Credit: Jim Bahn

Photo Credit: Jim Bahn

So, whilst it is about enjoyment to a large extent, it’s also about pleasing our caveman self through the discipline of a little hard physical “work” which fits better with our modern lifestyles

Make a commitment

Last but not least, making a commitment world well for many people and is another useful tip for keeping things going when the going gets tough.

The two specific individuals we’ve already mentioned joined clubs to make that commitment, even though one was playing a team sport, the other an individual one.

Similarly, making a commitment to go to dance exercise classes for many ladies, in particular, is a fun thing to do with friends each week. And the fact that you’re expected by the other person to be there or to pick them up all helps increase the moral pressure in a healthy way. Stronger still, of course, is a real commitment to a team or a group of people to be there and doing whatever it is you’ve decided is the best sport for you to pursue. If you can formalise this in some way once you’ve found a sport and a group or club you feel comfortable with it makes the commitment stronger still.

Allow yourself not to be perfect

There we have it. In all these ways, you should be able to find, develop, improve and, above all else, to continue an exercise regimen. But please don’t forget the most important point here; you aren’t imperfect as you are even though you may see yourself as such. It’s simply that it may benefit you to be a little fitter – and that’s it. So don’t get too down on yourself for being you. No-one is perfect and often, the people who exercise hardest of all are wrestling their own psychological demons.

So, please allow yourself not to be perfect, accept the fact, then start from there – and make sure you enjoy whatever it is you choose. Good luck!