The great fitness experiment (or, how I learned to stop whining and get off my ass)

A little more than a year ago, I decided I was going to get serious about fitness. It wasn’t that I felt like I was a whale or anything. Au contraire — I actually consider myself to be in relatively decent shape. I’ve played sports a good deal of my life, and am relatively athletic (well, except on the basketball court because I am a Short Asian Lady.)

But I still felt like I should make some kind of commitment. I would get on these workout jags over the years and then just stop. Also, some pants were a little tight. (Let’s face it, I love food and I’m also Filipino, which translates to “we like to fry pork 10,000 different ways and I like to eat all those porky things and I would probably die if I had to become a vegetarian.”)

At the time, I’d also just come back to playing hockey somewhat regularly with the USC women’s club team (I teach there, so I’m the old lady playing with undergrads half my age and having a blast). I had given birth to an actual breathing, living girl the summer before that and had taken an entire year off, doing nothing more athletic than pushing a stroller around the neighborhood. I was feeling a little run down in general. And I desperately wanted some me time. (Children are hard, yo.)

So as soon as that school year ended — I remember the date, it was May 16, 2016 — I started carting myself to the on-campus gym and deciding I would really try to get on a workout jag and not stop. I started off just wanting to be in hockey shape. I wound up with much more.

I learned a lot about myself in the past year-plus, about the limits you can push yourself to and the mental fortitude it takes to do the things you actually think you’re going to do. Did I magically lose a ton of weight? Of course not. (Did I mention I love food?) I’m actually still around the same weight I was last summer! But not a bummer at all — I’m actually in the best shape of my life since I was a high school soccer player (which is a really long time ago, trust me). I can finally run a 5K without stopping, ran my first 10K (two of them, actually), and even did a baby triathlon. (All of this from a lifelong hater of running.) So it really was a year of celebrations and fun and so so so much sweat. Here’s stuff that I learned:

Make changes you can live with.

You want to know why people bail on resolutions easily? It’s because they’re trying to change too much, too soon. Whenever we learn something hard in class, I always tell my students, “you’re not going to be good at this right away and don’t worry about it. You can’t eat the whole damn steak at once, you gotta cut it up into small pieces and eat it that way.”

Same goes with fitness (or any habit you’re trying to form or break for that matter). Let’s face it, you’re not going to work out if you hate it all the time or you force yourself to keep some kind of unsustainable pace. Because honestly, you don’t have to work out every single day. You shouldn’t anyway. Only professional athletes actually have to work out all the time. And they have trainers and masseuses and supplements and a shitload of things that money can buy to aid them, whereas the rest of us chumps have, well, just us. And some of us are lucky if we can afford gym membership.

Not a morning person? (Raises hand.) Then why are you forcing yourself to get up at 6 a.m. to work out? That’s a terrible idea. Have actual practical considerations, like kids or a job? (Raises hand.) Keep that in mind. I worked a night schedule for almost a decade. Like 4pm to 1am, or in that general vicinity. I’d go walk during lunchtime or take dance classes on my days off. Once, I had a 7pm t0 2am work schedule. I went to dance class at 5pm and went straight to work. (Luckily, nobody cared if I showed up in sweats and a t-shirt.)

These days, I use my lunch breaks to work out. (It helps that the indoor pool on campus is only open during the lunch hour.) Sometimes, I’ll run on campus in the afternoon or in the morning. (It also helps the track is literally next to my building.) Or I’ll go to yoga before I get the kid.

The point is, squeeze in what you can when you can. You’ll find yourself accidentally keeping up. And I don’t care what it is you do — take the stairs every morning to your office, walk across the parking lot, walk around the block at lunch, squeeze in time at the tiny, dingy gym in your office’s basement, run in the park before you pick up your kids or make dinner, play basketball on the weekends, or work out at 2am at the local 24-hour gym. If it’s fun and sustainable and you don’t feel like you’re moving mountains just to do it, you’re probably going to keep doing it.

Find something fun.

Not everyone is a gym rat. I’m not. I find running on treadmills or doing the elliptical incredibly boring. I find gyms boring in general. I prefer to play a sport, or hike. I’m also a former dancer, so I like dance-y things. I also just like variety in general. (Who doesn’t?)

I joined ClassPass last summer and really loved it. I’m all about discovering new things and new places. I found out I like Pilates on the various reformer variants out there. (My husband came with me to a Lagree class once and was like, “is that a torture machine?”) I found a fun spin studio that does strength training and spin. I found a fun Pilates place that does Pilates and interval running on treadmills. I found a cool dance studio near my house. The list goes on. Variety keeps it fun and interesting. Also, you might try something and find you hate it and you don’t have to commit to it. Conversely, you may find something you love and keep coming back (well, as many times as your plan allows).

So go out and figure out what you like to do, and most of all, GO EFFING DO IT. I had learned to ice skate as an adult because I liked figure skating and figured why the hell not. It still took several more years of “oh I want to learn how to play hockey but I don’t have time / I don’t have hockey skates / I’m the lamest human and everyone will laugh at me / insert excuse du jour here” before I finally got tired of being a whiny ass and actually went and did a Learn to Play program. But I did finally do it. And I’m still playing and having a damn good time.

Weight is just a number.

Full disclosure: I weigh myself every day. But I don’t do it because I’m in pursuit of a number. It’s more like a statistical exercise. (Yes, I also keep track of it.) But weight is honestly only a number to me, and just one part of a very big whole. Fitness is a holistic thing with many parts to it. People get hung up on the weight thing. But don’t. Or at least try not to. I’m serious.

So if I don’t care about numbers, why do I weigh myself every day? Mainly because it helps to remind me that weight loss is not a linear thing. And it’s also not a big deal to fluctuate a pound or two in either direction. That’s pretty normal stuff. I also use it to see how certain things affect me and my weight. Stuff like:

  • “Well, I had the flu and couldn’t eat for three days, so that number makes sense to me.”
  • “I had a kind of shitty, stressful week and couldn’t really find some time to work out, plus I ate three bags of cheese curls in my office, so yeah, that’s probably going to make those numbers go north.”
  • “I was at my parents’ house and there was so much lechon this weekend, but hey, I actually weigh the same!”

Weight loss isn’t linear, and it happens differently for different people. Plus, you may feel it in other ways: Your clothes fit better, your face looks different, you might even look like you have muscles. You might also feel like you’re in the best shape of your life. The scale can’t necessarily tell you that story.

Find a friend, if that’s your bag.

Some people prefer to do things alone. Like those people who can train for marathons and run like, 20 miles by themselves. Kudos to those folks.

(Aside: running is actually one of those rare things I prefer to do alone. I’m too competitive and try to catch up and keep pace with my friends who are actual runners, and it always goes bad in the end. So I guess I can see how you can run 20-plus miles by yourself.)

But everything is more fun with a friend. Better yet, you’ll have someone to keep you motivated and accountable. I had a swim buddy for a whole semester at school, and we made it a point to swim every Friday at lunch at the indoor pool. It was fun. We got to hang out and chat, and she even helped me improve my form. She also tried to teach me how to flip turn but I’m still pretty terrible at it. But then she graduated mid-year and I fell off the swim wagon. (Still trying to get back on.)

Or maybe team sports is your bag. (I’ve made a ton of friends playing hockey.) Or you have a friend you can play one-on-one hoops with. Whatever. If finding a friend helps, go find a friend. Maybe you’re both competitive and you’ll push each other. Maybe you just want the camaraderie. Maybe you have common goals. Maybe you need an excuse to hang out with your friends. (Playing kickball is absolutely a legitimate excuse to hang out with your friends.) Maybe you’ll even have a beer afterward. (I’m not judging you, do whatever the hell you want.)

Don’t be super hard on yourself, and remember you’re doing it for you, not anyone else.

This is probably the hardest one for most people. Fitness is as much mental as it is physical. We get discouraged when the scales don’t tell us what we want to hear. But this is where it helps to have friends to cheer you on, and it helps to remember that you’re doing this for yourself and yourself only. It’s powerful when you realize you are truly doing something because you want to, not because someone said you were fat or because someone told you that you should or because someone else blah blah blah blah blah blah. It’s bullshit.

You’re doing it for yourself and your own goddamn sense of accomplishment, okay?

(Repeat that several times a day. Put it on a post-it if you have to. You’re welcome.)

Believing that comes with some self-care, too. We can’t be on all the time. I’d rather be fat and happy than skinny and miserable, so the adage goes. So you can’t be hard on yourself. You can’t force yourself to work out hard every single day. (You’ll probably break yourself if you do that and never come back.) You’ll have hard days and days you’re like, “eff it, I’m not doing this.” It’s OK. Remember, nobody has to work out every single day unless you’re a professional athlete. (And no, you’re not going to become a pro football player at 40.)

You need to be realistic. You also need to have fun. Fitness is hard, it’s grueling, it’s a pain in the ass to keep up. But in the end, it’s also fun. Because who wouldn’t want to go hang out outside or play a sport or dance your ass off or punch a boxing bag or squat serious weight and scream like a banshee because you just lifted like twice your body weight?

In the end, you’ve accomplished something. Even if it’s a small thing. It’s still an accomplishment. And that’s a feeling you’ll want to pursue time and time again.

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