Where To Start When Exercising Isn't For You?
A gentleman was walking through an elephant camp, and he noticed that these elephants weren’t being kept in cages or held by chains. All that was holding them back from escaping the camp was a small piece of rope tied to one of their legs. As the man gazed upon the elephants, he was completely confused as to why the elephants didn’t just use their strength to break the rope and escape the camp. They could easily have done so, but instead, they didn’t even try.
Curious and wanting to know the answer, the gentleman asked a trainer nearby why the elephants were just standing there and never tried to escape. The trainer replied: “when they are very young and much smaller, we use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free”.
The only reason the elephants weren’t breaking free and escaping from the camp was that over time they adopted the belief that it just wasn’t possible.
I chose to share this story with you as I think it is very relevant to the position we all find ourselves in. How many times have you thought to yourself that you just can’t exercise, you wouldn’t be successful. Maybe, like how the elephants, one upon a time, had tried and failed to break the rope that held them. You, once upon a time, tried to exercise, but failed to see results and change your lifestyle. So now when the thought of exercise enters your mind, you think back to the time you tried and failed before – then tell yourself it just isn’t for you – you believe that you can’t change that.
There are many specifics that may apply to you and why this happened. You were probably busy. You never saw results. Maybe your knee was acting up and made it hard, or even painful to exercise. And at the end of the day, you didn’t really see any negative consequences to not exercising anyway. At least not right away.
However, in reality, a sedentary lifestyle is a confirmed cause of premature death. Researchers have found that the combined effects of not working out are hugely negative. In a study it was shown that not exercising can create up to a 500%(!) increase in risk of premature death. Now that may nudge you to try and give the rope another tug. Or, at least, might make you read a little further.
I certainly don’t want to scare you into exercising! What we want to do is encourage you to try again. We want to lead you away from the belief that you cannot do it – and towards the realization that the rope that held you down during your last effort, doesn’t have to hold you down today. I have been there and told myself that working out isn’t for me. I, just like you, found countless excuses to convince myself that I wouldn’t be successful in exercising, and furthermore, that it didn’t matter anyway.
Along my journey in learning and maturing on the topic, it is quite evident that I was wrong.
Okay, so I have come to terms with this. I understand that I really do need to exercise. The mental and physical disadvantage that we would find ourselves in is too great to ignore. Particularly long term. So where do we start? How do we get motivated? And what can we do today that would be beneficial without flipping our lives upside down? After all, we are still busy, I don’t really mind the belly fat, and your knee still bothers you from time to time.
Let’s talk about some targets we can aim for. And I am not saying you should pick a select number of pounds to shed or a chosen number of pounds to lift. Both weight loss and strength building can be good goals and are the most common ones that people usually set for themselves. But I want you to think smaller, much smaller. Think taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Or making all your phone calls standing up instead of sitting.
This concept is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT for short. What it means is the exercise you get from NOT ACTUALLY exercising. All your movements that happen over the course of the day, outside of structured exercise. It is not going for a jog and not hitting the gym. Rather, this is more like bringing the groceries into the house, retrieving the ball your toddler threw off the deck, or lugging the laundry up from the basement.
THIS is where we start. Forget about the technical term of NEAT. Just think about the movements. What actions are part of your day already? And how can you be a tad more intentional to lean into them? A study published in 2015 followed thousands of people for 12 years and concluded that fidgeting can decrease the risk of a premature death caused from not being active enough. Yes, that’s right. FIDGETING is enough to make a difference.
Being considerate of the activity present in your day outside of the time you spend working out, or even with no time given to working out at all, will certainly make an impact. This activity doesn’t need to be planned, not in the way that going to the gym is planned. But it does take commitment and intentionality.
As opportunities arise, we must learn to recognize them and seize them! When your coworker says they are going to the break room to refill their coffee cup, that is an opportunity to go along for the walk. Or how about when you can’t remember if you checked the thermostat before bed, that is a chance to take a stroll to the living room and double check.
The easiest way to increase your activity is to be on the lookout for any opportunity to get a few more steps within the activities you are already doing. Park in the back of the lot, make two trips to the car to bring in the groceries, do a little jig when that catchy song comes through your radio. Gaining awareness of these opportunities and starting to make small shifts in your mindset is how we start to tug on that rope that is seemingly holding us down.
With some consistency, we will begin to notice real benefits of being thoughtful in this area while you stave off the negative effects we would garner by not trying at all. Your mood will be more positive, that knee will get stronger and less nagging, and who knows – maybe a few pounds disappear and you don’t even feel like you had to try!
As you see results in small ways, you will be rewarded with the motivation to tackle bigger goals. And the rope that was keeping us from escaping our old failures will be tossed aside; all because you decided to clean out the junk drawer in your kitchen while you waited for the water to boil or folded the laundry standing up instead of while sitting on the couch.
Next time you find yourself waiting around for something, performing household chores, or hanging out with friends, find ways to add a little fun. Here are some ideas to get the juices flowing:
1. Listen to upbeat music. It is natural, almost automatic, to sway or tap your toes when something catchy comes on. This is your brain simply reacting – it's called the motor theory of beat perception and will keep your body moving during any activity!
2. Keep a ball nearby. A basketball, tennis ball, super ball, golf ball, stress ball, bowling ball (ok maybe I got carried away with that last one…). If you keep a ball nearby, I bet you will have a hard time not tossing it in the air or bouncing it against the wall during a few down moments here and there. Give it a try, it’s pretty fun!
3. Keep track of random things. You have probably heard your buddy or coworker tell you about the 10,000 steps they did or didn’t get to yesterday. This is a great way to engage your competitive side or set goals around the little things. Some other ones you can try might be to count how many weeds you pull from the yard, track how many forks you use this week versus spoons, or time how fast you can make the bed. Be creative with it!
4. Organize things in fun ways. By creating a few extra projects around the house or office you will be engaging in more activities that keep your hands and body on the move. One time I arranged the books on my bookshelf by size, largest to smallest. You could arrange the items in your fridge by expiration date or the clothes in your closet by color.
You may find that decluttering these spaces and organizing them is very satisfying and can help with stress and anxiety too.
There are countless ways you can turn normal tasks into fun activities. By giving this some thought and trying a few, you may realize that life can be a little more enjoyable and a lot healthier!
Challenge yourself this week to find fun ways to move a little extra and then remind yourself how that will pay off in big ways.
As you do this more and more, these extra actions and thoughts will become habits and you will do them without even thinking about it. Now that’s pretty NEAT 😀 (I know, I know, low hanging fruit, right?)