12 Rules that will help your fitness journey last…

and make your life less suck-y.

Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

In 2018, I started a new job at a fitness startup. “This could be great,” I told myself. I was always fascinated by human performance, psychology, and the power of determination. I started my fitness journey to design better experiences for our users, and also get the opportunity to learn the emotional journey people go through closely. And so I switched from my old routine to the one we offered. I did work out before. I can say that I was always active to some degree for the past 15 years, but I also had some years when I did not have any specific fitness activity.

The company I’m a part of is collaborating with more than 35 top world’s trainers to create fitness training routines. We also have a large fitness community that plays an important role in the support structure for almost 10,000 people around the world. I witnessed as community members shared their thoughts, struggles, support, motivation, successes, and failures. I saw how people started and stopped their fitness journeys; how an ordinary person can become a dedicated athlete; how a variety of reasons can cause hiccups. This all illuminated the inner world of people’s hesitations and struggles when choosing a healthy route for life. I saw what works and what does not. It was also noticeable what our athletes are doing differently. I realized that I had gained enough insight to make my own set of rules, to resist in tough times and moments of hesitation.

And so I finished eight fitness plans in 11 months, doing a 60-minute workout five to six times a week. Today, I’m sharing rules that helped me to make it work and, mainly, last.

Rule 1. Start somewhere.

An okay plan executed NOW is better than the perfect plan next year. Start somewhere… anywhere… A 10 min incline walk a few times a week is better than nothing. Put your sneakers on and show up at the gym: you’ll learn bit by bit. Do something. Now.

Rule 2. Stop relying on the willpower.

Stop relying on a magic appearance of your willpower. It does not exist; discipline does, though. Otherwise, everyone would commit to their fitness goals, and 99% of the population would get fit, once and forever. It means you have to exhibit discipline more often. Scrape yourself from bed in the morning, make yourself drive to the gym after work, make time during lunch time. Stop waiting for your willpower to bless you with its presence.

Rule 3. Small goals. Big goals.

Having a goal is essential. It gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation. It helps you organize your time and your resources so that you can make the most of your life. Set a well defined small goal first. Ideas like “I want my body back,” or “I wish I had a body like that” rarely work well. Those goals are ambiguous, and it’s hard to develop a plan of actions if you have no specifics on what you want to achieve and sustain them. Start with a tiny, crispy clear, and quickly attainable goal. It will help keep you motivated.

Small, helpful goals:

  1. In the next three months, I will work out three times a week without skipping the planned day.
  2. For the next 30 days, I will remove processed sugar from my diet.
  3. For the next 30 days, I will reduce alcohol to 1 drink a week.

Small, not helpful goals:

  1. I want to lose 50 lbs in 1 month.
  2. Slim down three sizes in 2 weeks.
  3. Stop eating.

Let’s take it a step further. Slowly add upon your current commitments. From smaller goals to bigger ones, from infrequent workouts to frequent ones, or from 20 minutes to 35 minutes workout sessions, etc.

The big goal

Now let’s build a perspective for life; it might be the thing that saves you during moments of temptations and hesitation. Mine was and still is: “I want to be in my optimal physical and mental condition as long as I’m alive.” Note: I’m not mentioning “9% of body fat”, or “1200 calorie diet”. None of those are healthy, or sustainable. Optimal means balanced, but still ambitious enough to continually help you push yourself. The big goal is your primary driver for your fitness and nutrition choices for life. It may vary from person to person. For some, losing 2 pounds is a humongous accomplishment, while others might want to transform their bodies completely. All those goals are valid. Your big goal should be somewhat ambitious, though, to help you always push yourself.

Rule 4. Command your mind.

Your mind might be your best friend and your worst enemy, and there are many reasons for that. Some of those are protection mechanisms; some of those are learned patterns inherited from past experiences and people around you. Your brain is there to save you from danger and ensure your survival. That has worked well for your ancestors. Now, though, your mind might protect you from successes, too. It’ll command you to fear the change, as entering a new unknown life might seem to be a less-than-safe step. Here are common tricks that your brain might throw at you.

The Fear.

Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. — Source

The problem with the fear is that your imagination is infinite in it. — Source

“What if I’m the least fit person in the gym… seems like everyone there knows what to do…I don’t know what to do… I’m afraid of a new environment. I don’t know the gym lingo…I’m afraid to look and feel awkward doing exercises…Everyone but me…” and on, and on, and on. Our inner voices take over us all the time.

The Avoidance.

The avoidance is a conscious or unconscious defense mechanism. In avoidance, we simply find ways of avoiding having to face uncomfortable situations, things or activities. — Source

Yep, that’s your “gym resistance” days, weeks, and months. Start noticing it. Awareness will give a clear understanding of what, when, and why you are trying to avoid. You will be surprised how many times your brain will try to talk you into not doing a lot of stuff you committed to. Write those moments down, but make the move despite what your avoiding brain is telling you.

The Rigid Mind.

The rigid mind might discourage you many times. You already have clear goals, but happened to eat one cookie and immediately threw your results out of the window. Because, oh well, one cookie ruined it all, so let’s party and feast on the full box of those goodies. Or, you skipped a week of the workouts, so you think you’re done now.

Don’t give up on your big goals due to occasional rendezvous with your cheat meals, or prolonged rest days that look more like rest weeks. It does not mean you won’t need to hold yourself accountable. Just enjoy what you had and try making better choices more often.

Rule 5. Everyone needs a plan. You do, too.

It’s critical to have a plan and to track what you are doing; people end up in gyms for both health and aesthetic benefits, and to get there, you need a plan. Otherwise, you’d end up meandering in the gym with no visible results or injuries. Who would stay motivated with that type of approach?!

Once you get to the gym, you get that feeling of not knowing how to use some equipment, but more so of not knowing WHAT to do, and HOW MUCH, and how fast. For those who sporadically workout and have long stretches of rest days, it’s hard to keep the information from the last workout in mind. “I think it was legs day last time, if so, what should I do next?”

Download any fitness app. There are a ton of choices, free and paid. Get help from experts in nutrition and fitness to develop a plan of actions depending on what your goals are. Investing in the plan is very important. Bookmark workouts on your Instagram and use them as you get to the gym. Get a notepad, or save a basic structure in your phone’s notes. Document weights and reps you started with. Make sure your workout routines are always challenging enough. They should be progressive, either in sets or weights, depending on your goal and fitness level.

A thoughtful plan that’s pushing you far enough at the right moment and gives you the proper guidance based on your goals will do the magic.

Rule 6. Get the gear.

It’s nice to get set up with new outfits from Nike, Gymshark, Bodyengineers, or Bombshell. The reality is that not everyone has the budget for it, nor is it required. What you learn really fast is that sometimes a cheaper version of the gear works just as well and is much more practical. You need a number of outfits that match your targeted workout frequency per week. In other words, if you want to work out three times a week, make sure you have three pairs of pants and three tops or tee shirts. This will ensure that you never have an excuse to skip the workout, “because you didn’t do your laundry”. Make sure whatever you buy fits you well and helps you to feel confident when you move and perform exercises. Find some bargains online.

Get the gym gloves, combination locks, and a bag for your belongings. You always need storage to lock your belongings.

Rule 7. Make time.

You’re not debating whether you wish you’d have time to wash your hair or brush your teeth. You make the time for those activities. If you are a parent of a newborn, time in your life is the biggest challenge; do whatever works for YOU. Consider home-based workouts. The truth is that it’ll never be a perfect time for the workout and fitness. It’s never convenient for you and your family, and never easy.

Last year, I interviewed 8 participants in our program. I found out that one half of the group felt guilty for not working out regularly, and the other half felt guilty because of working out regularly as it seemed selfish to care for themselves. People have an abundance of reasons to feel guilty. Make the time for your routine. Seriously. Plan as much as you can and just do it. Your family will adapt eventually and maybe even join you, too.

Choose the time that works for YOU.

Dear night owls, early birds, and fancy swans… Time is the key; if you wake up after 11 a.m. most days, you are fooling yourself committing to the “New life starting next Monday at 7 a.m.” If you are an early bird — you have a bit more freedom here; choose whatever time suits you on a particular day. So far, I’ve tried all except the midday workout on a work weekday.

Very Early Workouts

If you’re like Mike O’Hearn, who shows up at the Gold’s Gym at 4 a.m., I have nothing to add here…. Tell me how.

Early Morning

Mornings are great. The early wake up can be tough if you’re sleep deprived. The way to combat that is to get enough hours to rest. I assume you’re like most people and need some annoyance in your reality to get up. Scrape yourself from the bed and don’t you even dare to give it a second thought: get up. Hydrate yourself and get a coffee if you’re like me. No makeup, no “fakeup” — just yourself and maybe a hat to cover up that still sleepy face. Morning workouts are especially amazing afterward; they give you a lot of positive energy. That’s your win for the day. You earned it.

Midday Workout

Midday workouts are also an option. If you have a regular job where you have meetings, lunchtime is the window of opportunity. However, consider doing your legs on the weekends or days with a bit less hectic schedule if you want to be able to concentrate on work and think in the afternoon. There is very little thinking after a legs workout: your blood left your brain, and your lower body is shaky. Account for time and space for the shower arrangement, the hair drying, and putting yourself back together. It is a potential window of opportunity for you if none of those above-mentioned things is a blocker.

Evening Workout

One of my favorite times of the day to work out. After work and before dinner. Evening workouts make you really feel like you earned the food and completed your day on a positive note. Driving home all mellow and tired sets the right mood for your enjoyable evening and rest. First of all, it’s easier psychologically to withdraw from work mode and give in to the workout in the evening. All meetings are done, and you are ready to switch attire for at least the next couple of hours. You need that break. That’s your win for the day, too.

Choose and joggle times depending on your schedule; be flexible to fit it in any of the above mentioned time windows.

Rule 8. Location, location location…

Make sure a chosen gym has 10000% of convenience getting to it. Forget about gyms you like “slightly” more when you’re in a moment of hesitation walking or driving to the place. It should be the shortest and the straightest path possible. Period. Ideally, sign up for a membership at the gym near work and near your home; this way, you’re out of luck finding any more excuses to not go there.

Rule 9. Get your nutrition in order.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have bad news for you — there are no shortcuts in nutrition. You and your body know what you snacked on last night. It does matter how much you work out, if you want results to come sooner, you have to develop a nutrition plan you can stick with. And because you work out three times a week does not mean you can eat three times as much. You’ll gain muscle AND fat with this approach, and it’s very discouraging if your goal was “build lean muscle”, “lose weight”.

Gradually, remove junk food as much as you can without hating your life. It’s ok to reward yourself with a delicious meal once in a while. Don’t starve yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be too hungry, or to hangry, or too weak to push the weights you need to progress. Choose a meal-plan that you can potentially commit to for life with foods you are used to. Healthy eating is not expensive if you’ll do the planning. Find your local foods instead of getting a costly meal-plan with foreign foods that are hard to get in your area. Baby-steps in nutrition can go a long way. No extremes work better than strict diets for a month. The nutrition topic is way deeper and broader, but you can also rely on experts to help you with this one.

Rule 10. Patience. Apply liberally.

Most likely, pretty soon, you’ll wonder and maybe even google, “When will I see results?”. The challenge here is that your body is a continually moving marker. Your body transforms bit by bit every single day. You get used to it. That’s why it’s important to take photos sometimes for your record. It’s hard to see the transformation if you did not document and did not save your initial baseline — your pre-workout body. Photograph your front, side, and back once a month or every week. Choose the frequency of what works for you.

Sometimes, you see results before others notice, so you don’t get that validation from the outside and start doubting yourself. Sometimes, when the goal is very ambitious, people do have results, but it’s hard to notice, while others can already see the change.

In any case, you’ll start feeling better in about a week or two. If you stick to your commitment and keep working out, you will see the first results in about 3–4 weeks; if you persist, you’ll eventually transform. Get patience in place. I know it sucks. In the meantime, make sure your life is filled with something else rather than just the gym. That’ll distract you from checking on your results in the mirror after every single squat or a bicep curl. Results come fast, and if you stick with it, the transformation will happen in 6–12 months. Sometimes people give up when their bodies are about to blossom with results. Your nutrition or excess of it will determine the speed of results coming to life. It’s all about time and consistency, after all.

Temporary Freakouts

Often, the next day after a workout, you’re likely to get some level of soreness, which is causing your muscles to swell. I know this bothers ladies the most; those jeans feel too tight. “OMG, am I gaining weight?” Ladies, it’s a temporary effect, and it will go away; eat healthily, drink enough water. Don’t give up. Let your body heal.

Any deviation from your regular healthy diet, such as alcohol, carbs, salty foods, etc., will temporarily affect your weight and how you feel and look. Too much salty food causes water retention and swelling; lack of it will make you dehydrated. In any case, you’ll get back to your normal routines and diet, and it will go away.

The Measure Of The Progress

Very often, weights are deceiving you and your perception of progress. People pay close attention to that number, and very often it upsets you. Immediately. You can’t believe how much you weigh. Your entire day is ruined.

Find transformations of athletes where they had maintained the same weight from when they were overweight vs. after the transformation. What you’ll see is an untrained person in a BEFORE picture and an athlete in an AFTER picture. The weight can be the same. Sometimes a measuring tape around your biceps, hips, or waist is way more descriptive.

The weight is what you see in the mirror and how you feel about what you see there. Not the number on the screen you just stepped on. Beauty comes in all forms and shapes, and this what makes us unique. The world should not tell you how much you should weigh; establish your own target weight that allows you to feel healthy and active.

On Patience

You owe to your body at least six months of consistent physical activity before giving up. I can bet you used it without taking care of it for at least 5–10–20 years, and now after two weeks of workouts, you put pressure of expectations on your body to change overnight. Be gentle to yourself and give your body time to transform while putting in the work.

Rule 11. Get Your Tunes.

Find the music that motivates you. Get it floating into your headset. Make sure the headset is charged and always with you. Music helps a lot. There is always that last set, that last push where music helps you get through. Music also blocks the gym noise out — all that sweatin’, yellin’, and out-loud countin’, heavy breathing. Noises of other gym visitors won’t bother you as much.

Rule 12. Make it hard to fail.

Foresee opportunities for failure and possible hiccups, like you forgot sneakers, top/pants, headset. Make it hard to fail. Put an extra outfit into your trunk/bag/desk or have it with you somewhere. If you’re traveling, reverse engineer your schedule to plan for rest days to fall on your travel/flight days or days packed with work. This way, you always have some plan for work and rest and earned rest days.

Consider traveling with your workout outfit: hotels almost always have gyms, and you might succeed in getting a workout in. Every single effort counts, and it has a compounding effect, so earn extra brownie points when you can.

Have an extra headset in your pocket, or your car in case if you forget them. One of the studies I’ve conducted shows that, often, people who realized they forgot headsets skip the gym; that is how important it is. Have two combination locks: one in your bag/purse and the other one in your car. This way you will always have a plan B and will be out of luck finding reasons not to work out.

It’s okay to have many starts.

Things happen, and sometimes you can’t do what you planned. Have a framework for those times. One suggestion is to give yourself a week and start again. If it happens more than three times, revisit your goals as they might be too ambiguous or too ambitious. Be honest with what you want and where you want to get and how soon. Time flies by, and a year from now, you’ll wish you’d started today.

It’s okay to have many starts in your fitness journey. It’s actually a win when you start after you stopped. Life is about many starts.

As I promised earlier in this article, one of many examples that proves the relativity of the body weight — Fitgurlmel. Weight is just a number, moderate your feelings about that.

Thank you for reading this article. If you have a different perspective, or would like to add your view from personal experience, feel free to comment below and share your own fitness journey with me and other readers.

Director, User Experience Design @ EA

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