I have a confession: I did not work out one, single time between October 12th and November 19th 2016. That’s nearly five weeks of inactivity, enough of a dry spell that starts to feel more like an unsettling new normal than a forgettable blip in an otherwise active life. It’s the kind of sabbatical that can easily turn permanent, spiraling into a season or even decade of inactive complacency. Coming back from something like that can feel, shall we say, just a tad intimidating?! But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you, too, are faced with “getting back on the workout horse,” then let this assure you that it even happens to hardcore fitness enthusiasts and personal trainers now and then. That is to say, you are far from alone. Even better? The situation is far from hopeless. Instead of getting totally overwhelmed and just giving up, consider these tips for getting back on track in a few, simple steps.
First and foremost, figure out what happened.
There are a lot of reasons why people may abandon their usual fitness regimes, and it’s important to carefully consider which factors contributed to your specific situation so that you know how to move forward. If you view this period of inactivity as a learning experience, you’ll give it a purpose: increased self-awareness can help prevent similar patterns from repeating themselves in the future. Well then, that’s probably a pretty reasonable explanation for not exercising the way you otherwise would! Before you jump back in, though, make sure a doctor has given you the green light and that, if so, you understand any conditions or limitations she may have prescribed. Once you know that it’s safe to work out again, you have to consider whether the workout itself led to the illness or injury in the first place. More and more, people are gravitating toward higher intensity programs, but going too hard, too fast when your body isn’t used to it is a recipe for disaster. So if you suspect that the high demand and stress of your workout may have actually caused your setback, make sure that in returning to physical activity you seek assistance with proper technique and give yourself adequate rest. And remember, not every activity is right for every person, so think about whether or not your body might respond better to a new fitness modality altogether. Take a moment, too, to brainstorm ways in the future you can stay physically active to some degree even if you’re not quite feeling your best. Again, you’ll want to consult a physician and go slowly, but oftentimes even sickness and certain injuries can benefit from gentle yoga or stretching, walks outdoors, and perhaps isolated weight machines that are better equipped for protecting injured body parts. Consideration Number Two: Were you on stress overload? Let’s be real: everyone these days is busy; everyone these days is stressed. Sometimes, life really does get insanely chaotic and putting too much pressure on yourself to work out on top of it all can do more harm than good. We do need to slow down and rest, and if that means occasionally skipping out on or toning down the physical activity, then that’s what happens. However, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself about whether you’re truly dealing with unmanageable life stress, or if it’s more accurate to say that you’re not prioritizing physical activity over other responsibilities. Are you saying yes to too many things that aren’t necessary, important, or personally meaningful? Are those things crowding out the activities and responsibilities you’d rather be doing, including working out? What can you start saying no to that will allow you to prioritize your health, either right now or moving forward? Another important consideration is whether physical activity would make your stress better or worse. Although it’s important to rest and practice self-compassion in challenging times, there are also high-stress situations that can be managed or ameliorated by a good sweat session. Think about some activities that might actually help you sort through that stress more effectively. Kickboxing and running are great options for letting out some steam, while yoga and neighborhood walks can be great for clearing your head and approaching a challenge feeling refreshed. These workouts don’t need to be marathons to be effective, either. Shorter workouts can fit into hectic schedules more easily and still provide substantial health benefits. Plus, even short workouts are more effective than no workout at all. Consideration Number Three: Did your initial enthusiasm wear off? If you don’t enjoy a particular activity or you lose touch with your motivation, then of course you’re going to eventually stop doing it! Step back and reconnect with why you want to work out, anyway. I mean, really, why bother? Exercising takes time and effort. It doesn’t have to be but can be expensive. It’s not always comfortable in the moment. And, like any new habit in general, it’s hard to establish as a long-lasting routine. But there’s a reason why you chose to start working out. You know, before you fell off the horse. A lot of times, the initial motivator is external: your doctor tells you it’s a good idea, or you want to drop a pant size or two, or you think you’ll impress your secret crush with a new, hot bod. These external sources of motivation can help us get started, but they don’t last all that long. They lose their sparkle when the going gets tough. As external motivators become, well, less motivating, work on cultivating more internally-focused ones. How does working out make you feel, not just in the moment but overall in life? What types of activities and pastimes do you enjoy doing? What are your goals in life and how does fitness relate? Now would be a good time to do a solid, thoughtful, painstakingly detailed goal setting session. Rewind to when you first started working out and why, and build onto it by incorporating all of the new benefits you’ve discovered along the way. And if you just plain hated the exercises you were doing, try something else! Physical activity isn’t punishment. If it feels like that, you probably haven’t yet discovered your ideal program. In the end, no matter the reason for your newfound physical inactivity, the only way forward is to wholeheartedly forgive yourself. Nothing good will come of beating yourself up about a past decision. It’s done. Learn your lesson and keep moving. Or, well, start moving again!
While you work on getting out of your exercise rut, stay on top of other areas of wellness.
Ok, so your workouts are suffering, but that doesn’t mean all aspects of your health need to. In fact, if you know that your usual level of physical activity is just out of the question for a period of time, it becomes even more important to practice self-care elsewhere. Make sure that you’re staying hydrated. This not only helps with, you know, literally everything your body does all day long, but it can be easily overlooked when you’re not getting your sweat on all the time. It’s quite easy to keep up with the water when you’re working out because your body’s thirst signals will likely be extra ramped-up; but when you’re calm, cool, and collected, water isn’t always at the top of your mind. Pair all of that wonderful water with a nutrient-dense diet. That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains than refined ones, less processed meals prepared outside the home, high quality protein, and adequate, heart-healthy fats. It also means being conscious of any tendency to eat out of habit, routine, or peer pressure when you aren’t truly hungry. Your body doesn’t really like to change weights in either direction, so you probably won’t see any immediate changes on the bathroom scale (if you use one) just by a decrease in activity levels. However, if you constantly eat for emotional rather than physical reasons, you’re giving your body energy that it isn’t asking for, and at some point, it’s going to have to store it. Inside of you. It’s not magic; it’s science. You’ll also want to pay attention to your sleep patterns, stress levels, and social interactions. Plus, even if you’re not officially working out, you can still do simple stretches to keep those muscles engaged and flexible until you can get back into your usual routine.
When you’re finally ready to get started again, don’t overthink it.
We’ve actually done quite a bit of thinking in this article up to this point, but that’s only going to get us so far. In the end, we just have to do it, and for that to happen, we have to make physical activity really, crazy, stupid-simple. Let’s start with walking. Like, around the block or on a treadmill or to your mailbox. Walk to a nearby store. Walk upstairs to ask your spouse or kid a question instead of hollering through the house. Walk to your coworker’s desk instead of sending an email. Walk around the block after dinner. Get off one bus stop early. Walk around the office during your lunch break. Walk from a far-away parking spot to the mall. Be that person who walks up escalators. Hop on a treadmill, if you have one, during that television show you know you’ll be watching anyway; or go window shopping one night instead of flipping on the television in the first place. Stop thinking. Just walk. Basically, forget dedicated exercise (for now) and embrace physically active living. You might be surprised that one day, out of nowhere, you get a sudden urge to do something a little more “official.” The workout that broke my five week dry spell came from a random, undeniable urge to just run one sunny afternoon, so I laced up my sneakers and hit the pavement. If you have a similar whim that seems to come out of nowhere, seize it! Again, don’t overthink it. Did I push myself to hit my best time ever? No way. Was I way more sore the next day than I would normally feel after such a small burst of activity? You bet I was. But that’s ok. It also felt awesome, largely because I didn’t have any expectations, nor did I pressure myself to make it happen. I simply felt antsy, got the idea to run, and I ran. (And then I stretched really, really well afterwards.) Stop thinking. Start doing.
Back, back, back it up.
I would have been sorely mistaken on top of feeling so physically sore if I had viewed that one urge to run as a floodgate opening for all that I used to do. Muscle memory is pretty persistent, but strength and cardio start declining much more quickly. Think about it like this: once you learn how to ride a bike, that muscle memory will last a lifetime; but if you haven’t cycled in years, you’re probably going to be super sore and out of breath by the end of your first time back on that bike. It’s the same with any exercise. That’s why most of what I’m doing now revolves around something much lower-impact: yoga. I actually began with meditation, then spent some time practicing my breathing technique. From there, I combined the two, and practiced a ten minute savasana every day. This helped me to re-establish a routine, practice my technique, and start to get used to making time for activity once again. Now, yoga might not be the answer for you; it’s just what worked for me. But even if I hadn’t gone with yoga, I wouldn’t have wanted to go straight from my newfound physical inactivity to my usual HIIT routines. This is not the time to dive in head-first to anything. Start with something gentle; you’ll get to the higher intensity options in time. Walking or, for some, jogging can be good options. For me, like I said, yoga has been a tremendous help. Stretching goes along those same lines. You can also explore more isolation-based training, like planks and bent-arm hangs; if you do go through ranges of motion, do so slowly. Over time, you can increase the duration, frequency, and intensity of your sessions. Five or 10 minutes just once or twice a week is seriously a great place to start! Lower intensities can be achieved with lighter weights and lower impact (like a boxer shuffle instead of high knees, or walk-out burpees instead of the most advanced version). It’s much better to build up your confidence with small successes than it is to leap straight to huge, ambitious resolutions.
Once you get the hang of the gentler movements, it’s time to take it to the next level.
Once you’ve gotten into the habit of short sessions just a few times a week, work on progressing your goals. Tack on one more day per week, extend a session by a few minutes, or start upping the ante when it comes to intensity and impact. Throughout this process, tune in closely to your body. Everyone is different, and only you know how you feel. If you’re just not feeling it, back off or take a break. Be patient and, again, forgiving. Remember, you’re re-forging a habit; it’s a lot like starting from scratch. It takes time. On the other hand, you still want to challenge yourself. If you’re feeling good, start testing out those higher intensities and longer durations! Sometimes we get so caught up in patting ourselves on the back for reaching one mile marker that we forget it’s just one of many along our journey. Keep moving forward! You can always dial it back if you start to feel as though you’ve reached your limit. Again, listen to that body. It’s going to tell you what you need to know.
Lastly, know that it’s probably going to happen again.
You can anticipate and troubleshoot to your heart’s content; you can minimize how long of an exercise “drought” you experience each time; but something, somewhere along the way, is going to happen. My workout hiccup came in the form of a demanding move to another state, and all of the packing and unpacking involved in that process. (Hauling all of those boxes up and down several flights of steps, however, was no laughing matter!) One of my clients this year had a very different kind of hiccup, when three close family deaths in the span of a few months knocked her off her workout game. A different person may have found exercise in that moment to be therapeutic, but for this individual, she needed to take a step back. There is no right or wrong answers here. There is no judgment. There is only introspection, careful consideration, and trial and error. The bottom line is that no matter how long it’s been since your last workout, you haven’t failed. You haven’t gone wrong. You haven’t even really “fallen off the horse” despite what the language in this article suggests. Your circumstances changed and you’re now getting a feel for how your fitness routine needs to shift to accommodate it. So stop and think about it; and then actually stop thinking, get out there, and start doing (again)!