After 11 Years of Working Out Here's What I Wish I'd Known From the Start
Updated: Feb 3
When I started seriously working out, I began running. It was an exercise I enjoyed or thought I did. There was very little cost to getting started, I didn't have to commute anywhere and it packed the biggest punch calorically for the time spent.
Within my first 9 months, I worked up to running 25 miles or more per week. A typical week included four 5-mile runs and two longer runs usually 8 or 10 miles each. In the dark, rain, freezing temps, and sometimes snow I put in the miles.
There is no substitute I can think of for the confidence and sense of accomplishment felt after finishing a run. The tougher the conditions or the worse you feel at the start the greater the achievement.
However, the runner's high didn't come without me feeling an initial mountain of dread. Nike's slogan truly couldn't be more appropriate. At some point, you have to get out there and just do it.
But after five years of 6 am runs in all matters of weather, fighting off joint or tendon injuries, constantly feeling tired, and sore, and still not achieving my ideal weight, it was time to try a different approach.
I experimented with joining a fitness studio offering group classes, I tried hitting the weights in the gym and bought into a trendy at-home subscription-based fitness machine. After about a year of trying all kinds of things, I finally found my best routine. Since then, I have happily maintained an injury-free fitness streak for six years and counting. Here's what I've learned about fitness along the way.
Are You considering all four elements of a healthy active lifestyle?
When we set out to prioritize our health and fitness we're really setting a four-part goal. It's easy to think that to be fit we need to be more active but there is more to it than that. In reality, we're managing our nutrition, hydration, rest, and activity level.
Each aspect needs to be prioritized equally. When I started it was all about activity. I thought if I wasn't losing weight it was because I wasn't working out enough and needed to eat less. If I wasn't going as fast as I thought I should it was because I wasn't pushing hard enough.
In reality, those were signs that my body wasn't being supported in the other three areas, hydration, nutrition, and rest. So when I scaled back my physical effort after my running phase everything started getting easier. I stopped battling constant cravings for everything 'bad', The dark circles under my eyes faded, it was easier to manage my emotions, and miraculously I started seeing changes in my body composition.
Time is on your side. There is nothing you cannot figure out about your health and fitness.
My recommendation to anyone just getting started or back into fitness would be to focus on your hydration, nutrition, and rest routines first to see lasting results. Finding time for activity in our already busy schedules is the toughest obstacle for most people seeking an active lifestyle. Improving hydration, nutrition and sleep should be easier things to fit into your existing schedule and will build a strong foundation when the time comes to add more activity.
Hydration: How to Teach Your Body to Crave More Water
If someone were just beginning their foray into fitness, my first question would be what type of drinks do you have daily and how often? Others might include, what's the first thing you drink in the morning? Which beverages are you willing to make adjustments to?
There are a lot of ways to add hydration to your daily routine besides just drinking water but for simplicity, we will just focus on water consumption. First, look at your current drinks for opportunities to make healthier swaps or cutbacks. i.e. drip coffee with a splash of cream over a sugary latte or one soda a day instead of four etc. take your time and experiment with different ways to hydrate with fewer calories.
When starting out sugar and cream-free tea, reduced sugar or no sugar added juices and flavored water are great beverage swaps. Over time, I found the sugary drinks I used to enjoy were too sweet and syrupy. This made adding more water into my day even easier and more encouraging. I also noticed my mood and thoughts were more sluggish and negative on days I became dehydrated.
Recognizing these mood patterns and the triggers was also a big motivator to keep hydrated. After a couple of months of experimenting, I feel confident you'll find a routine that suits you. I also want to be clear that I still enjoy a variety of beverages and want to encourage you to do the same being mindful of moderation. I love coffee, soda, and the occasional cocktail like anyone else the important thing is that there is a time and place for each that makes sense with my routine.
The goal should be to make water such a natural part of your daily routine that you don't have to think about it. It sounds a lot easier said than done and I fully appreciate that. Do you need to buy water bottles, do you need to filter your water first or mix it with something or can you grab a cup and fill it at the tap? Additional water consumption challenges also pop up when you have to anticipate a commute and have water pre-packed for your day.
So yes it's an incredibly simple and seemingly easy place to start until it's not. So take some time to set yourself up for success and get whatever supplies or things you might need to keep your hydration on track. Once water is a thoughtless part of your daily routine I would encourage taking a look at your usual meals, snacks, and treats.
Nutrition: Find a Healthy Balance in a World of Options & Convenience
Put down the salad fork, and breathe. I am not here to tell you the only way to eat nutritiously is to give up every food you like in place of all veggies all the time. Nutrition means different things to different people based on their goals. Within the umbrella of nutrition, there are three major principles, portion size, frequency, and calorie deficit or surplus.
Portion size and frequency are your friends. Becoming familiar with serving sizes and potions allows us to calibrate our diet and actually make space for the treats and high-calorie foods we love. By being conscientious of serving size we make sure we don't overindulge in one sitting which keeps us on track and looking forward to the next indulgence.
That's where frequency comes in. Instead of justifying your consumption by your physical activity, justify it by the foods you've already consumed that day or week. If you've already had a 'treat' or two that day maybe a glass of water, a piece of fruit, or a veggie is the best choice. But, if it's been a few days or weeks since your last serving of chips, ice cream, or whatever delicious treat you're craving, go ahead and enjoy!
Finally, we bring portion size and frequency together to set your nutrition goals based on your caloric needs. Sadly it's just math, not magic. Luckily, it's simple math, addition, and subtraction. What you eat won't matter as much as the amount you eat, and the calorie count regardless of your goal.
If your goal is to lose weight, there is no way around the fact that maintaining a calorie deficit is the only answer. Meaning you could eat three square meals or one rich meal and still maintain a nutritious deficit. It just depends on your preference and keeping your mind and body at ease. The last thing we want when managing our nutrition is to feel deprived and crash. This type of extreme deprivation is what triggers the yo-yo dieting effect.
Contrastly, If your goal is to increase muscle mass your diet will be focused on maintaining a calorie surplus with most of your calories coming from lean protein, Additionally, a third diet variation is for those trying to increase endurance. Their focus will likely be on optimizing micronutrients and maintaining a specific weight for performance. They could be in either a calorie surplus or deficit depending on their training schedule.
There are endless food and meal combinations for every taste preference and dietary goal. When it's time to get into the details of structuring your diet I highly recommend looking for advice online offered by registered dieticians or seeking tailored assistance from a local dietitian in your area. Next, we'll take a look at the third of our four aspects of a healthy lifestyle, rest.
Rest: The Most Underrated Key to Achieving Your Fitness Goals
Getting quality rest is essential to performing at your best athletically and throughout the rest of your day. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is sleep, and we will talk about sleep but there is also a muscular and mental element to being fully rested.
Sleep is usually the first thing we think of when it comes to rest, and it's true getting enough sleep is half the battle. The other half is making sure the sleep we get is uninterrupted quality sleep. to increase the quality of our sleep there are several things we can do before bed to prepare. Several of those things are topics we've already covered in this article.
For example, nutrition helps greatly with recovery overall but it can also impact the quality of our sleep specifically. Consuming sugary snacks and drinks or caffeine too close to bedtime are just a few things to avoid. It's also best to unplug from devices 1-2 hours before bed to allow your mind time to slow down.
The time between going to sleep and unplugging is a great time to optimize the other aspects of recovery by actively helping our muscles relax and repair. Practicing relaxation techniques like gentle stretching or breathing exercises before bed will help the recovery of both your mind and body. This way we can sleep more soundly and be at our best when it's time to go the next day.
Exercise & Activity: The Benefits of Time Under Tension
When you're ready to add exercise and physical activity into your routine the first priority should be mitigating the potential for injury. Regardless of how long its been since you were active or how active you've been in the past. There are three major muscle groups I recommend focusing on that will aid in the longevity of any fitness routine.
Those three muscle groups are the core, glutes, and hips. Spending time on these muscles will build a strong foundation with as little joint impact as possible. Back when I was putting in a lot of miles running I could not believe the immediate benefit I felt the run following one core, glutes, and hip class. Every stride felt easier, and I was more aware of my form. That class and the feeling of my run after made me curious about what other muscle groups might be weak and causing some of the common injuries that seemed to flare up. Since then I have added regular barre and pilates-style exercises into my schedule to help support these crucial muscle groups.
The goal of regular exercise is to find meaningful and enjoyable ways to be active that are sustainable for your body without injury throughout your life.
Whether you plan to run, cycle, swim, walk or dance you're using your core. Your arms, legs, and every other muscle group depend on support from your abdominal and back muscles. Making sure this part of your body is strong will stabilize your movements and help you progress to building other muscle groups with proper form and less chance of injury.
The next most important muscle group would be the glutes. This tip isn't just for ladies either. Yes, working your glute muscles will help them look better but just like your core, your glutes are responsible for transferring power into your legs and up through your core in different activities. The glutes are also the largest muscle group on the body so logically, when activated they will be burning more of your body's calories than other muscle groups.
One of the best things about beginning with core, glute, and hip exercises is that there is no equipment, gym membership, or dedicated fitness space necessary. The most beneficial and challenging exercises can be done from the comfort of your home with just your own body weight. Heck, you can even do them while you watch TV, have a conversation with an understanding loved one, listen to a book or do a number of other things. However, it is very helpful if you have a mirror to check your form and we recommend starting out in a quiet space so you can focus on each movement.
Go at your own pace, it can be shocking how sore your muscles may be from movements using just your own body weight. But that soreness is a great and encouraging reminder that you're making progress and have identified an area where your body needs greater strength.
When I started my adult fitness journey it had been several years since I had played any sports or had a regular fitness routine. I fell into a common fitness trap that in order to be fit I had to have an all-in, go-hard, or go-home attitude. The discomfort, mood swings and cravings were all just 'normal' parts of the process. This may be true to a small degree, but it should not cause anyone to suffer exercise-induced injuries or compromised mental health. In reality, being fit and healthy is much easier than I made it out to be.
That's why I recommend anyone looking to improve their healthy active lifestyle take a four-part approach and give their body time to adapt. Since I started focusing on all four elements I have been injury free for six years and counting. I've also fallen back in love with running and I still incorporate other activities like cycling and bodyweight exercises to keep all my muscles and joints supported.
Hydration, nutrition, and sleep are 75% of the work. Prioritize these three areas and apply time. You'll start seeing improvements before you've committed to an expensive gym membership or lost a drop of sweat. Once you're comfortable with these three areas it's time to bust a move. You'll be more than equipped and ready to manage all four elements and start living as your happiest healthy self.