Only Do Exercises You Like, On the Days You Want To
This is the third and final post for “50 Years of Running.”
This is the most important factor for keeping it up. Since I already said I’m not an “expert” you can take this as my opinion and my own experiences. That’s what this article is about, after all – it isn’t another of those “Exercise Expert Preaches to You (and be sure to buy his book).” I mention my own experiences because maybe you can relate to them.
Let’s talk about some of the most popular exercises.
Mandatory disclaimer: Consult your doctor before starting any program of exercise. Be careful out there.
All the time, I hear people say “I hate to run. It’s boring!” I guess I’m lucky because I do like it. But:
If you hate running, don’t run.
If you hate to run, then no amount of willpower is going to keep you at it for more than a year or two, at most. Lying to yourself that you’re really into it is just not going to work. Give yourself permission to be honest with yourself.
You also don’t have to run races, unless you want to.
Your tolerance for pain and risk is your own. For me, I think, “If it hurts a little, I’ll keep going and see if it goes away. If it hurts a lot, I’ll stop.”
Sometimes, when you exercise and you hurt, it’s not your body saying, “Stop doing this!”—it’s your body saying, “You don’t do this enough!”
Swimming is great for you. There’s probably no better single exercise. But I don’t happen to like it, and I’m not very good at it. So I don’t swim.
I did “swim” (if you want to call it that) for a year or two. Now that really is boring.
If you don’t like to swim, don’t swim.
Bicycling is also great for you. I used to bicycle quite a bit, but somehow lately I just don’t care much for it anymore. Maybe falling a few times spoiled it for me. Or I got bored with it. Who knows?
Going up hills is fantastic for cardiovascular fitness, and for making your legs stronger. But:
If you don’t like bicycling, don’t bicycle.
Your muscles atrophy as you get older. We can’t stop this process, but we can at least arrest or slow the decline. You have to do strength training, or you’ll end up like Izzy Mandelbaum.
At the gym, you might find the free weights monopolized by young males in those muscle T-shirts. Furthermore, even when they get off a bench, they still feel it belongs to them because they’re going to come back to it soon, and they don’t want you to sneak in a set.
The weight machines are usually available because they’re not as trendy.
Weights are what I’m doing now (besides running), at home after the pandemic. I don’t have as many weights as a gym, of course, but in my yard, I also have a chin up bar and a TRX.
If you don’t like strength training, you have to do it anyway. Sorry.
The Cardio Machines at the Gym
The various cardio machines at the gym are great. I never use the treadmill because I’d rather run outdoors, but there’s nothing wrong with treadmills. I did use the Lifecycle or the elliptical when I was going to the Y pre-pandemic.
You know the drill about liking it or not liking it.
All these machines allow you to listen to music or podcasts or audio books, if that’s your thing. It’s not my thing, just because I’d rather be present in what I’m doing (however Zen-like that sounds to you) or watch TV.
So what about buying a machine for the home?
Home Exercise Equipment
Second only to “fat divorced man takes up jogging” as a stereotype, we have “guilty middle-aged person buys treadmill for the house.”
Those might work for you, but I’ve seen three problems:
They cost a lot of money. That may work as a Commitment Device for you, though.
Since you’ve spent all that money, you’ll feel guilty every day you don’t use it.
You’ll get bored with doing the same thing all the time. Maybe not for the first year, but after that.
Frequently, you’re just buying a large coat rack. Tip: buy a machine used, from someone else who’s gotten bored with it. I had a rowing machine once. I sold it to someone who also didn’t use it.
Exercise classes are also great, if you happen to like those. They push you harder than you can push yourself, which is important. I do those now and then, but I don’t happen to like them much. And thus:
If you don’t like exercise classes, don’t do them.
A personal trainer can be great for showing you a lot of things you weren’t doing but should be. I used one for five years at Google, and I learned a whole lot of useful things, particularly balancing on the Bosu. Our balance tends to go as we age.
When you read about a Hollywood star who got jacked for an action movie role, it’s usually because one of those trainers-to-the-stars worked them into shape. That gets expensive, but if that’s what you need and you can afford it, then go for it.
Finally, there are dozens of sports you can do. Some don’t really exercise you very much for the time you spend (softball or golf) but nearly all are worth doing. Some of them, like racquetball or squash, are hard to do everywhere, because there aren’t courts in a lot of locations.
Singles tennis is great. Some sports, like basketball, are almost guaranteed to get you injured.
Again, if you really want to play them, then do it. Otherwise:
If you don’t like a sport, don’t do it.
What’s the ultimate rationale for “Only do exercises that you like”? It’s being realistic about yourself: if you really don’t like it, you will not keep it up. Forget about willpower.
What If I Don’t Like Anything?
I can just hear some of you saying “But I don’t like any of those exercises! Do I have to force myself?”
Well, that’s a tough one. Let me make this easy and refer you back to #1: if you can’t find time to exercise, you’ll have to find time to be sick.
Let’s dwell on that. How much do you enjoy your interactions with the medical system? I thought so.
Do you want to be pushing a walker around when you’re 75? Do you want to spend all your time on hold with your health insurance company’s 800 “support” number, listening to their crappy fake jazz, or sitting in waiting rooms? Or feel generally lousy half the time when you get out of bed? Or be overweight and sleep poorly? Do you “have time” for all of that? That’s what you’re opting for if you never exercise. So, figure out which exercise you hate the least, and could grow to like, if that’s what it comes to.
You Don’t Have to Always Do the Same Thing
It follows that, if you only do exercises you like, they should be what you like on that day. Riding the Peloton or the Elliptical every single day gets boring for most people. Running every day will give you shin splints and foot trouble. That is the #1 reason why I’ve been able to run for 50 years — I never run every day. At most, it’s been three times a week, and more often two, or one (or none).
OK, I did run every day when I was training for the 10K. I got shin splints too.
You will get tired of any one exercise, whatever it is.
It’s better, in fact, to do different exercises on successive days. Weight training is a good thing to do on the days you’re not running, or swimming, or biking. An occasional exercise class, even if you hate them, is great to work some muscles you’ve been neglecting. An occasional tennis or soccer game is fun, too. Yoga is not a complete solution to your exercise needs, but it’s also great for your flexibility.
And do not have a weekly schedule, or indeed any system at all. Do whatever you feel like doing this week. This recommendation comes from experience, and especially other people’s experiences.
If you have a schedule, sooner or later you’ll fall off. Or something will come up that forces you to give it up, and then you won’t adapt. Either way, it’s what Nessim Nicholas Taleb (author of Antifragile) calls “fragile.” A fragile thing works when conditions stay the same, but if conditions change even slightly, it falls apart. Antifragile exercising would be when everything in your life was chaotic but you still managed to squeeze in a workout, then you know it’s something you really want to stick with.
The same applies to particular exercises. For whatever reason, I just don’t like doing pushups. So, I don’t do them. (I do happen to like the pushup variation where you hold two dumbbells and alternately raise one arm and then the other. It’s insane, which might be why I like it.) When you read some story about how an uber-fit person follows a strict schedule of exercising, just remember: that probably lasts them a year or maybe five; not fifty. You will get sick of any rigid discipline you try to put on yourself.
The moment of truth
Let’s put this to the test. It’s time for your run, and you’re thinking, “OK, time to lace up those running shoes and go out there! But damn, I really don’t feel like it today.”
The sin-and-guilt people will tell you to just steel yourself and do it anyway. The Instagram people will beat their chests about how great they are, working up a sweat. And you’re beating yourself up with, “Oh, but what if I never do this? Does this mean I’m a total slug and I’ll never exercise again? Today means everything!”
Here’s where my advice differs from everything else you’ll ever read:
If you don’t feel like it today, then don’t.
Why do I call this “the moment of truth?” Because it’s where you trust yourself. This is where you believe, “I’m going to be doing this for my whole life. Just not today.”
If you make every day the make-or-break day for your whole life, then sooner or later you’ll give in and opt for “break.” A story about allowing yourself to fail:
My older brother Jack (RIP) had been a smoker his whole life. He’d finally managed to quit, and he stayed off cigarettes for seven years. Then one night he was with some neighbors, and someone gave him his cigarette to hold. He took a drag, and suddenly he was back in it again, unable to quit. (He died of a heart attack, not lung cancer, if that’s what you’re wondering, but smoking certainly didn’t help.)
Trust yourself. Your body knows when it needs a rest.
Trust yourself: The ultimate secret. Not guilt, not sticking to a schedule, not “getting motivated” by following fitness gurus, not having a workout buddy. None of those will last your whole life. Trusting yourself will.