The Exercise Habit: How I Made A Commitment

Trainer Tanell Pretorius demonstrates the nine grueling steps it takes to complete one burpee.

Warning: This article is about exercise. I know, I know—writing about exercise has been done. And done. Is there anything I can say that’s not already been said? Better yet, can I say anything that’s worth saying at all? I am not a fitness professional. Exercise is not my area of expertise. And yet . . . this February, for the first time in my adult life, exercise and I are celebrating our one-year anniversary.

It’s not that we just met. We’ve been flirting with each other for the past 20 years. Running, sports, dancing, aerobics, plyometrics, weightlifting, yoga—we’ve had good times together. But until last year, the two of us never really settled down. After six months of a new routine, life would intervene and I’d forget all about exercise . . . until the inevitable day when I’d find myself bent over at the top of the stairs, gasping, “Oh man, I have to get back to exercise!”

But something happened to make last year different. Three months, six months, nine months came and went. Surgery, hip pain, and asthma all loomed large, and at the end of it all I was still hanging in there, sticking to my routine. I was jogging to spin class, doing a second daily workout just for fun, and making progress toward the elusive pull-up. How did it happen? What went right? What were the keys to finally making this relationship work?

Writing Down the Desire

The last time I found myself gasping for breath and swearing personal revolution at the top of the stairs was January 2015. I immediately got out pen and paper and scribbled my goal: “I am in the best shape of my life, working out one hour a day, five days a week, doing cardio, yoga, and strength.”

I was only 10 percent convinced that this goal was within reach. But I kept writing the same goal down. Every day. For the entire month of January. And then on February 1st I surprised myself by signing up for spin class.

Turning Commitment Into Habit

Writing down desire until it turned into action seems to have been key. Building habit was also key. The other day I swore I wasn’t going to spin class. I was tired, so tired. The weather was the kind of winter blah that inspires hibernation. I was already sprawled out on the couch in full veg mode. “I exercise all the time,” I reasoned. “Surely I can take one day off.”

That evening I snapped out of a daydream to find myself walking down the sidewalk, workout clothes on, water bottle in hand, on my way to the spin studio. By heading off to spin class at 5 p.m. every Wednesday for an entire year, I had turned exercise into an undeniable habit. The full power of the subconscious was on my side, and it was taking me to exercise.

Living in the Minute

Last fall I felt like I was having trouble breathing, so I underwent pulmonary function testing. The technician said my lung function was lower than expected but wasn’t exactly terrible. Then he gave me a couple of puffs from an inhaler and had me do the tests again. “Wow!” he said. “That’s a huge improvement. You have the classic asthma response.” He sat back, gave me a contemplative look, and asked, “How are you even able to exercise?”

“One minute at a time,” I told him. “I can’t work out for 30 minutes straight, but I can work out for 1 minute 30 times in a row as long as I get little breaks in between.” Focusing on the manageable minutes was key to making it through some pretty phenomenal workouts. It kept me moving when I didn’t want to move.

Living Through the Challenge

Last February, not long after I began exercising, I developed a stubborn hip pain. Afraid I was just getting old, I consulted a personal trainer. She said, “You know, I don’t think you’re getting old. I think you just need to build strength.” Thus I found myself at a local strength and conditioning gym, grunting through squats, box jumps, and something called burpees.

Let me tell you about burpees: If the Greeks had known about burpees, Sisyphus would have been doomed to doing them instead of pushing around some sad rock. Luckily, we never did more than 30 or so in a day . . . until that one afternoon when we did 80. I ended that class flat on my back, wondering if I’d ever move again. My muscles howled for a week. It was crazy!

But there was an amazing unforeseen consequence to that workout. Doing the seemingly impossible made doing the routine seem really easy. From then on, doing a mere 30 burpees was nothing. The occasional intense challenge also seems to be key to sticking to exercise.

Finding True Love

Strength and conditioning training bestows function and mobility, making all movement easier. Yoga is essential for balance in both fitness and life. They are my very good friends. My one true love, however, is spinning. When you spin, you are free to give yourself over to the workout. You don’t have to worry about tripping or falling on your face. You don’t have to worry about crashing into something or someone else. You just close your eyes and pedal as hard as you can until euphoria hits, the universe reveals itself, and you see the face of God.

Spinning is perfect for me because it leaves my mind free to wander where it will. I get all my best ideas when I spin, and you can bet that I devised most of this article while on a bike, heart pumping, blood rushing, feet flying. It is the cornerstone of my workout; it keeps me connected to everything else.

This was my first year on the bike, and this was the first year exercise and I hit the one-year anniversary. Finding the right fit for fitness is the biggest key of all.