How I Learned to Love Exercise (and You Can Too!)

(photo: Shutterstock image)

I have always been a natural couch potato (or, to use a more modern image, perhaps a computer-desk-chair potato). I didn't play sports in high school or college; I consider hiking something that should only happen in post-apocalyptic circumstances; and if you ever hear of me participating in a 5K or any other form of organized exertion, please call 911 and tell them that I have been kidnapped and replaced by an impostor. I did have a gym membership once, though the main result was that I developed an elaborate pantomime to communicate, "Oh, no, I forgot something important back at the house!" as a way to save face when I left after only ten minutes.

A few years ago, when I was on one of my many quests to drop a few pounds after a baby was born, I picked up a stack of magazines touting amazing weight loss stories. In every single one, the people who'd lost the weight said their secret was that they'd learned to combine fun with physical activity. Next to a corresponding array of vivid color pictures, one woman talked about how she signs up for all sorts of triathlons and marathons, and pulls the kids around in a bike cart for weekend fun. You too could be physically fit if you would just adopt an active lifestyle! the article seemed to say. I thought about that for a moment, then tossed the magazine aside and muttered, "I'd rather be out of shape."

I am amazed and impressed with people who have a natural love of physical activity. But I am truly, emphatically not one of them.

So it's been a very surprising turn of events that I am now a regular runner. In fact, I've been jogging at least three times a week for the past year, and show no signs of slowing down. Friends and family who have known me for a long time are dumbfounded by this turn of events (perhaps wondering which future saint should be credited with the miracle), and I've been replying to a lot of emails that ask the burning question, "What changed?????"

No, I haven't magically transformed into one of those energetic people whose idea of a good time involves pulling out the kayak and dusting off the rock-climbing harness; you still need to call 911 if you see my name on the list of participants in a 5K. But I have developed a great appreciation of the occasional run, and it's benefited me in a lot of different ways: I'm in the best shape of my life (by computer-desk-chair potato standards -- but still!) and I have more energy than I did when I was 20. I think the reason that people who know me keep begging for my secrets is because they understand with great clarity that if someone as lazy as I am can develop a lasting exercise routine, truly any human being on earth can. And thus here are my top six tips:

1. Add music

This may not be as much of a draw for people whose lifestyles are different from mine, but for me, the power of music cannot be overstated. I have very little time in my life in which I can zone out to my favorite songs. Turning up the sound dock so that it can be heard over the racket of whining and shrieking just doesn't create the ambiance you'd hope it would, and certain of my favorite tunes aren't ideal for playing in the car when I have a captive audience of children on board (cough-cough Tupac). (Before you email me about that, I note that a Tupac classic is on the official Vatican playlist!) And so the prospect of getting some time alone with my iPod is a huge motivator for me to get out and run -- in fact, I think of it like I'm going out to listen to music, and will happen to be moving my feet a lot as I do so.

2. Keep it simple -- very simple

It doesn't take much to get me to give up on my exercise plans, which is why it was important for me to find an activity that is extremely simple. If I had to air up bike tires or find my yoga mat or fool with any other kind of equipment, I would give up long before any exercising started happening. This is why running works so well for me: It requires very little in the way of equipment and preparation.

3. Set the bar low

A friend who's into running asked me recently if, in my opinion, it was even worth going for a jog if she only had time to do three miles. I laughed in response, since I usually only do one mile, maybe one-and-a-half at best. I have precious little free time, and am not inclined to devote too much of it to exercise. Also, when I can find some extra moments to take a jog, I often have a short window (e.g. yesterday I had barely 20 minutes between when my husband got home from work and when I needed to start dinner). If I can get my heart rate up for at least five minutes, I consider that workout a success. If I set the bar any higher than that, I would have given up a long time ago.

4. Keep it local

A lot of folks benefit from having a gym membership or attending classes like CrossFit, but I would guess that people like me are rarely in that category. While I have come to enjoy a half-hour run, any time beyond that starts to feel like a waste -- not to mention the fact that, as I said above, I have very little time for exercise in the first place. Thus, if I were to have to add transit time to my workouts, I doubt I'd keep up with it. If it took me 15 minutes to get to the gym, park my car, and get inside (30 minutes round trip) I would feel like I had to exercise for at least 45 minutes to make it worth it -- and I rarely have over an hour to be away from the house, let alone multiple times per week. Again, this may work for people with different lifestyles, but for those of us who have a hard time getting out solo, I think it's important to choose an activity that you can do inside or near your house.

5. Connect it to your vocation

This one's a biggie: In all my previous attempts at developing an exercise routine, I was focused on my physical appearance. I wanted to wear This Size by the time That Important Event rolled around, to see a certain number on the scale by a certain date. And that kind of thing was always a powerful motivator ... for about two weeks, at which point sloth would win out over vanity, and I would quit in disgust as I realized that I really didn't care that much about losing weight. But when I tied my motivation to my primary vocation as wife and mother, everything changed. "I need to go running so I can lose two pounds" gets old quickly, whereas "I need to go running so that I can have energy to play with my kids and be healthy to serve my family over the long haul" has much more staying power.

To be clear, I'm not saying that all good moms go running, or that people who are in seasons where they just aren't up for exercise for whatever reason don't value their vocations. I'm only suggesting that if you are feeling drawn to get more exercise, a number on the scale is not going to keep you motivated for the long haul -- but connecting your fitness goals to something greater just might.

6. Connect it to your immediate needs

As much as I would like to tell you that my desire to live out my vocation to the best of my ability for the rest of my life is my number one goal at all times ... the reality is that, for much of the time, my main goal is just to survive the day. And this is where we get my top tip for making exercise a regular part of your life: Focus on how it can benefit you right here, right now.

The past few times I've gone out for a jog, I only did it because it met an immediate need. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and we hadn't even begun the insanity that is dinner / bath / bedtime with five children under the age of eight. I didn't see how I was going to survive the night, let alone survive long enough to see some pie-in-the-sky weight, or even a vision of my overall life as a wife and mother. I needed to do whatever would best help me make it through the next few hours. And it is in moments like that that I have become a runner.

Exercising may not be a ton of fun for me, but it does get my blood flowing, and it gives me a chance -- even if it's a brief chance -- to get out of the house and be on my own for a few minutes. As my feet pound the pavement I can think and pray about all the troubles that have plagued me that day, and very often I end up with clarity; in fact, some of my biggest "ah-hah!" moments in recent months have happened when I was out on a jog. My lungs fill with fresh air, and I might even get some sun on my skin, depending on the time of day. I return to the house invigorated and inspired, riding a wave of endorphins, filled with a sense of accomplishment. My worries have been put in perspective, my mood is improved, my energy is up. I may or may not be able to conquer the world, but I know for sure that I can conquer the next few hours.

And that's how I learned to love exercise.