5 Healthy Changes: Fitness

As mentioned briefly in my last post, over the last couple of years I’ve made several healthy changes and am now probably the fittest I’ve been in my entire life (minus one short-lived season on the junior varsity tennis team in high school).

Growing up, I was never particularly athletic and, for the most part, hated PE and team sports. But after packing on the freshman 15 plus another 15 pounds during my last two years of college, when my diet consisted of pasta with cheese and 365 vanilla sandwich creme cookies, exercise was maybe a monthly occurrence, and I was lucky to get 6 hours of sleep a night, I spent about a year feeling pretty miserable about how I looked and felt before finally implementing a few simple changes. Here’s what I did.

1). Accepted that exercise is necessary

Believe it or not, this was a big barrier to overcome. I’d always thought that only those who were naturally athletic, or actual professional athletes, needed to exercise on a regular basis. Spending a year in New Zealand had a HUGE positive impact on my thinking in this regard. Kiwis are super into fitness and the outdoors, and the prevailing attitude is that exercise is something you do as part of everyday life, not to mention a great way to engage with nature.

In contrast, Americans act like exercise is torture: you go to a gym, feel miserable lifting weights for half an hour, shower off the sweat immediately, and then brag about your biceps to your friends. No. That’s a thoroughly unhealthy approach and unsustainable in the long run (at least for me).

Start of the Abel Tasman Great Walk
At the start of the Abel Tasman Great Walk
FOOD! 5-day hiking trip, Abel Tasman
5-day hike food supply for two people

My first forays into fitness were, appropriately, hikes in some of New Zealand’s beautiful parks and forests. I worked my way up gradually, starting with a 2-hour hike on mostly flat terrain, to shorter, more intense hikes going uphill, and finally to a 5-day hike through Abel Tasman National Park carrying a 30-lb pack the whole way. Hiking is a great way to build up leg strength & endurance without incurring the panting and sweating that accompanies more high-cardio forms of exercise. In other words, I think hiking is the perfect beginner workout.

2). Likewise, recognized that moderate exercise is just as valid as high-intensity workouts

Expanding on the typical American attitude to fitness, many Americans seem to believe that there’s no point in exercising unless you feel the pain. You know, all those stupid motivational t-shirts that say “pain is weakness leaving the body” and “suck it up so one day you won’t have to suck it in.” Again, I can’t think of an attitude more unhealthy, more insistent, or more discouraging!

Not every workout has to result in sore muscles and drenched clothing. In fact, it’s better if they don’t! The second form of exercise I adopted, after hiking, was good old yoga. I’d been doing yoga on and off since high school, and I have to give my mom and a fantastic yoga teacher at the local YMCA credit for helping me see through the mumbo-jumbo pseudo-religious nonsense that clouds the activity. Never mind the prana energy and the inner heart chakra; it’s all meaningless when disconnected from its origin and mildly infuriating when regurgitated by a wealthy white yoga instructor. If you can ignore that side of it, though, yoga is an amazing form of exercise.

Yoga Time

I kicked off my reimmersion into yoga by doing the 30 Days of Yoga challenge on the Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel. Apart from a few to-be-expected ridiculous asides, Adriene is a great instructor with well-planned, well-filmed videos. Best of all, the videos are free, meaning no gym membership required. If you’ve already been doing yoga a while and crave more challenging content, then I’ve amassed a playlist of my favorite videos on Adriene’s channel here.

3). Started running again

After I’d been hiking and doing yoga for a few months but wasn’t losing weight as quickly as I wanted, I decided to start running again. This time, though, I wanted to do it properly; in the past, I’d typically never run more than a mile at a time, and it was the only form of exercise I’d do. Now, I stretch before and after every run. Adriene has a Warm-Up Yoga Sequence for Runners as well as a corresponding Cool-Down Sequence. As you would expect, I’ve found that stretching before and after running helps to minimize soreness, and I haven’t sustained any injuries so far, which is great.

Trusty Asics
Trusty Asics

In addition, instead of trying to run a mile immediately (as I’d done after running lulls in the past), I started off doing interval running. I wore a watch and timed the intervals. My first workout went something like this:

Run 30 seconds; walk 30 seconds
Run 45 seconds; walk 45 seconds
Run 1 minute; walk 1 minute
Run 90 seconds; walk 1 minute
Run 2 minutes; walk 1 minute
Run 90 seconds; walk 1 minute
Run 30 seconds; walk 2 minutes

This ends up being a 15-minute workout, which is pretty good. I did intervals the first 3-4 workouts, gradually increasing the running intervals over time. And from there, I built up my distance slowly until I was running 4 miles without stopping. I also try to do a mixture of distances, and ideally would do one long run on a Sunday afternoon (ca. 4 miles) with a shorter midweek run as well (ca. 2-2.5 miles). I suppose my eventual goal is to run a 10k.

4). Exercised when I could

After I started working in November, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have time to work out and that the excess weight would return. I’ve always heard that exercising in the morning is better, and I thought that unless I woke up at 5:30 am to do a yoga video, there was no point in working out at all.

Then I read a couple of articles that pointed out that yes, although working out in the morning might be marginally better, what’s most important is that you work out, period. I took that simple advice, and now I work out as soon as I get home from work in the evening because that’s what works best for my schedule.

5). Combined strength training and cardio

Of all the bits of advice peppered throughout this post, this is perhaps the most important one. In the past, I’d done either cardio or strength training, but never both at once. And you HAVE to do both if you want sustained, healthy weight loss. Cardio, short for cardiovascular (aka aerobic exercise) is high-intensity exercise designed to elevate your heart rate. While excellent in terms of burning calories and keeping your heart and lungs healthy, it doesn’t do much in terms of building muscle.  In contrast, strength training (aka anaerobic exercise), is designed to tone and, as the name would suggest, strengthen and increase the size of your muscles. I don’t want to elaborate much more than that for fear of saying something inaccurate, but Wikipedia is always a good source on the difference between strength training and cardio.

Yoga is in fact a very gradual form of strength training, and I do that 2-3 times a week, along with the occasional BeFit or Ballet Beautiful video (some of my favorites can be found on my Challenging Workout Videos playlist). Running, biking, hiking, and tennis, my other most common forms of exercise, all fall into the cardio category for the most part. I am very careful now to make sure I combine both types!

Workout Schedule:

I aim to work out 5 times a week, and a typical schedule might be:

Monday: 30-minute yoga video
Tuesday: Rest
Wednesday: Ballet Beautiful Swan Arms + Ab video
Thursday: Bike to/from work (ca. 6.5 miles), plus 15-minute yoga video
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 30 minutes of tennis
Sunday: 30-minute run

Mostly for myself and because I have an affinity for leather journals, I keep a written Fitness Log where I write down the exercise I do each day of the week. This helps me keep track of which yoga & workout videos are my favorite, whether I’m increasing my running distance, and whether I hit my goal of 5 workouts per week.

Fitness Log
Fitness Log

Hopefully none of this came across as unreasonable. All the workouts I do are free and, for the most part, fairly moderate. My goal isn’t to run a marathon or to build a 6-pack; I just want to sleep better, be able to eat more, and have more energy. Speaking of which, sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be discussing the changes I made to my diet. Best of luck to those eager to undertake similar fitness changes, and feel free to comment with questions below or get in touch on Twitter. Cheers!


12 thoughts on “5 Healthy Changes: Fitness

  1. Thank you for the inspiration (and motivation!) – I’ve been meaning to get myself fitter, since I need to build muscle (I have PCOS and a snail-slow metabolism, and muscle is meant to help speed it up and aid the symptoms of PCOS), and build up my stamina for walking. Like you, I’ve never been one for team sports or PE, and have struggled with motivation throughout my life so far – PE was so offputting. I love swimming, dancing, yoga, and walking so I’m making an effort to start that off this year and slowly build up my fitness. I hope you’re well – I love your last post about your hike, the photos are beautiful.

  2. Finally, I have found post about trying to be fit that is reasonable and inspiring! Many people underestimate yoga when actually it helps to build strength and to become disciplined.

  3. This post is really inspiring to me! Since starting a new job which is slightly more sedentary in its beginning stages, I can really feel the dragging effect that it’s had on my health. Time to crack out the walking shoes methinks! I love your weekly plan. Plus there’s nothing better than writing in a nice journal, that would probably incentivise exercise for me as well!

    1. I really do have a thing for leather journals 🙂 Yes, good luck! Consistency is key! It helps that we bought season tickets to the women’s soccer team here in Portland, and going to the games always makes me feel lazy and like I need to exercise. Running and sprinting for 90 minutes? Yep, still not capable of that. I can do yoga, though!

  4. I like your practical, realistic approach to working out — keeping active without spending a fortune on gym memberships and fancy equipment. I’ll definitely check out the yoga videos you mentioned. They sound great!

    I must admit: I should work out more than I do. Since I started my first job after graduating last summer, I spend a lot of time sitting down at work and at least 90 minutes sitting down on my commute (I drive 30 mins each way and then get the bus). It’s hard to find the energy to work out at the end of the day, but at least it’s light in the evenings now that the clocks have gone forward. The extra daylight makes a huge difference to my motivation and energy levels!

    I’ve recently been researching strength training exercises — I have a problematic knee injury that flares up due to weakness in my quads. I’ve been advised that surgery isn’t the best option (thank goodness!), and that I need to work on strengthening the muscles around the joint. I’m investigating Pilates classes at the moment, trying to find one that will fit in with my work schedule — I’ve heard that Pilates is good for muscular strength. Have you ever tried it?

    1. None of my workout clothes were expensive, either! I find good stuff at TJ Maxx. Nothing irritates me more than the American tendency to link wealth to athleticism, so I try not to perpetuate it (though I do have a FitBit).

      I agree – the extra daylight is SO nice to have. I’m just happy that it’s already light outside when I leave home for work in the morning! Your commute sounds tough, but I find that a 20-minute yoga video feels so, so nice after sitting and walking and squeezing myself onto the crowded rush hour train.

      Back when I was 12, I dislocated my left kneecap, and I haven’t had great knees since. I remember being assigned a set of physical therapy exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee once I was out of the cast. One was sitting in a chair position against the wall – that is tough and great exercise; try to hold it for maybe a minute if you can. I’ve heard that running is hard on your knees, but to be honest, my knees seem to fuss less when I’m running regularly. But I did a lot of hiking before I started running again, and that really seemed to help – I think the action of lifting up heavy hiking boots again & again helped to strengthen my thigh muscles considerably. As for Pilates, I’ve never done it, but would love to! My understanding is that it’s pretty similar to yoga but a bit more fast-moving.

      1. That’s one of the exercises that my PT recommended. It feels as though it’s really stretching the muscles.

        Yeah, I’ve heard that running stresses the knee joint. And I think it depends on the surface — asphalt or concrete is going to be more jarring for the knees than trail running, say. But it really depends on the individual too.

        I’ve found a Pilates class on Wednesdays that I can go to in my lunch break. I’ll let you know what it’s like. 🙂

  5. OK you’ve inspired me! Lately my health has got even worse so I really need to do something. I’m planning on starting yoga as my back and neck are constantly sore. On the plus side, I quit smoking over a month a go! Looking forward to your healthy food article 🙂

  6. Fantastic! I admire your commitment and life style changes and your willingness to share how you did it. All sound advice. A practical approach that anyone could take light from. The best part of your advice is the moderate start with intermittent bursts of more cardio. I loved the picture of New Zealand. That’s a walk that I would love to do. Hiking and walking are my go-to exercise activities.

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