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January 7, 2000
Making Exercise Work for You
Part III: Keeping Your Promises
By Elizabeth McGuire

Illustration: Get up and move!

Ah ... resolutions. Those vows we make somewhere between the Thanksgiving food-coma and the New Year's hangover. As our stomachs are about to explode or implode -- whichever the case may be -- we take out the pen and paper and write, "This year, I will stick with an exercise program."

This particular resolution doesn't have to be an empty promise. Now that you know why you should exercise and how to get started, you're ready to work on maintaining your routine. By finding motivators, eating wisely, and avoiding injury, you can set yourself up to succeed at your fitness goals.


Like many things about exercise programs, motivation is individual. What inspires you to enter a 5K race won't even get someone else out the door. The best solution: Try several of these rousing ideas and figure out what works for you.

Have a goal and quantify it. Specific goals, like "I will exercise three to five times a week for thirty minutes each time," are more effective than vague ones, like "I will get fit this year." Mixon Henry, a USA Track and Field Level 2 certified coach, advocates setting short-term goals and ditching the scale. "If you want to take on exercise as a lifelong goal, get in front of the mirror and look at your body," Henry advises. "Decide what you want to change about it. Make a commitment, then give yourself six weeks before you go back to the mirror." He says visual measurement is better than a scale because beginners often gain muscle mass and lose fat -- and as a result gain some initial weight.

Keep a journal. Recording your efforts not only helps set up a routine but also inspires you to keep going. Training logs give you the opportunity to reflect on your efforts. After each workout, write down what you did and how you felt while exercising and afterward. Sheridan Robinson, a licensed counselor in health risk management, says that even when she grumbles through her daily walk, thinking, "When will this be over?" at the end she is always glad she did it.

Find partners with similar goals. Join a running club, take a boxing class, or find a partner at the gym. Find someone who will hold you accountable; it's much harder to skip a workout if you know a friend is waiting at the pool at 6 a.m. every Wednesday. "Training with a group also puts the focus on the social aspect of the workout," says Henry.

Dress for success. When it's time to exercise, put on your workout clothes before you have time to change your mind. Since you're already dressed for the occasion, you might as well sweat.

Make a schedule. Plan your day or week so that you know exactly when you will exercise. Early birds report that morning workouts keep them from finding excuses later in the day. If you're going to exercise after work, get dressed at the office. Head straight to the gym; don't go home first. And if you don't have time for a full workout, do an abbreviated version. Some exercise is better than none, and even a short workout will keep you in the habit of exercising.

Mix it up. The benefits of cross-training cannot be stressed enough. Henry recommends that people do different activities to stay interested. Even if you have a preferred activity, vary your routine a little. If running is your primary passion, for instance, mix it up with faster days, longer runs, and hilly courses. "I would never recommend running the same five miles every day," says Henry.

Get organized. Sign up for an event, such as a 5K race, cycling tour, or triathlon. Not everyone is fueled by competition, but the camaraderie of these events is infectious.

Go easy on yourself. Don't beat yourself up over a missed workout. Instead, give rewards for meeting milestones: a little chocolate here and there or a new pair of running shorts.

Forget the motivation altogether. Robinson believes if we all waited to exercise until we were motivated, we might wait forever. "It's like brushing your teeth," she explains. "Do you need to be motivated to brush your teeth? If you don't brush, there are consequences: bad breath, nasty teeth. And there are consequences of not exercising: you gain weight, you are not as mentally clear, you increase your risk of having high cholesterol, and you may be more irritable." When you have motivation, she says, ride it. But don't expect it to carry you through every workout.


What motivation does for the head, good nutrition does for the body.

If you want your body to keep up with your newfound goals and activities, you must fill up your tank with the proper fuel. This dictate comes with a word of caution, one that most beginners will appreciate: Committing to a serious exercise program is a big enough endeavor that you should wait (briefly) before overhauling your entire diet. Change one small thing at a time, such as cutting down on sweets or snacks.

Traci Miller, a renal dietician, says that when most people start an exercise regimen, healthy eating naturally follows. "They start exercising and don't change their diet at first. Then they eat poorly at lunch and find their workout seems more difficult. If you gradually begin to eat a healthy diet, you get into the habit and see the effects it has on your workouts," she explains.

When you are ready to pay attention to what you consume, do some investigative reporting. For one week, keep an honest record of what you eat. Set some short-term goals based on what you discover. If you cannot look at your diet objectively, Miller recommends consulting a dietician.

Miller also offers the following hints:

  • Be aware of the difference between appetite and hunger. Ask yourself, "Does this food just look appetizing, or am I really hungry?"
  • Your mother was right -- eat slowly. Put your fork down between each bite. "Think to yourself: chew, swallow, drink," says Miller. "Then go to the next bite. From the time you finish eating, it takes twenty minutes before your body knows you have had enough."
  • Don't eat in front of the television. You will tend to eat past your hunger.
  • Cut down on portion sizes. If necessary, eat off of smaller plates.
  • Remember, there are no quick fixes. "There are all these fad diets," Miller says. "They do work for some people short-term. They might get you into a dress, but only a lifestyle change will keep you healthy."
  • Don't skip meals. Breakfast is especially important because it kick-starts your metabolism. Your body has been fasting, explains Miller, and if you don't feed it, it retains more calories than it would otherwise.
  • Forget the "three square meals a day" maxim. Miller suggests eating five or six small meals to keep your blood-sugar level balanced. "Then by the time lunch comes along," she says, "you aren't heading straight to a fast-food restaurant."
  • Bring your lunch to work. You will save calories and money.
  • Fat-free foods are not calorie-free. Don't be fooled. "Calories are calories are calories," says Miller. The only way to lose weight is to expend more calories than you consume.
  • To boost your energy before a workout, eat a snack one to two hours beforehand.
  • Drink up. The standard recommendation is eight to ten glasses of fluid (water is best) a day. If you typically sweat a lot, drink more. Keep in mind that if you are already thirsty, your tank is running dry.
  • Alcohol and caffeinated drinks don't count. Since these drinks make you lose more water, they should not be included in your daily dose of liquid.

The rules of healthy eating can seem intimidating, but Miller assures that they are easier than most people think. Follow the food pyramid: Eat lots of whole grain breads, fruits, and vegetables. Eat some protein (fish, white chicken, lean beef, or an occasional egg). Eat sugars and fats sparingly.


Unfortunately, even athletes get sidelined every once in a while, but there are ways to prevent many exercise-related injuries.

Rebecca Kern Steiner, a physical therapist in Austin, Texas, urges beginners to start out with proper instruction and appropriate equipment. "For example, I encourage people who start swimming to consult a coach to watch their form," she says. "A simple observation like 'You need to roll your body a little more to the right' can save you from getting a serious crick in your neck." Making small changes in equipment can lead to big changes in your comfort level and long-term safety. In general, don't depend on an employee in a sporting-goods store give you equipment that fits properly. If possible, consult a specialist such as a physical therapist for assistance.

Including a variety of activities in your regimen also helps prevent injuries. Steiner suggests combining low-impact workouts, like cycling or swimming, with weight-bearing activities, such as running or tennis.

If you are sidelined, it pays to stop and get your injury treated. Steiner explains, "One mistake people make is training through an injury. It creates more problems because you commonly develop a compensatory way of moving." Compensation only masks the problems, she says, and typically leads to multiple injuries.

Not all discomfort means injury, reminds Steiner, "but if the problem doesn't resolve in a matter of days, it's not ordinary soreness." Have persistent pain checked out by a professional.

Lifelong fitness and health promises countless rewards; it just takes patience and discipline. Henry explains,"It takes six days to feel the results of the exercise program (the soreness and fatigue), six weeks to see results in your body and in your training, and six months to make it a part of your life."

Further reading

To learn more about the benefits of exercise, see the Guide to Lifelong Health.