Building a Habit: The 30 Day Gym Challenge
During the month of December (of 2016), I participated in a "30 day gym challenge" with the goal of becoming a more consistent exerciser. For background, I do like the gym. I just don't like going to the gym. I don't like being awoken when it's still painfully dark outside. I don't like changing out of my comfy pajamas into skin-tight black leggings and a sports bra. And I certainly don't like the 10 minute walk to the gym (okay, it's only eight minutes, but who's counting?), particularly in the winter. But once I'm actually at the gym, I generally like it. I like feeling strong, I like trying out different kinds of exercises, and I like judging other gym-goers' workout form. What? I didn't say my reasons for liking the gym were all positive ones.
Despite my relative enthusiasm for the institution of the gym, my attendance has been lackluster over the last year. Over the past few months, I have gone to the gym, just not regularly. Some weeks, I'm very motivated and hit the gym 4-5 times a week. Other weeks, I am a lazy fatass who would prefer to wear sweatpants while eating chocolate chips on the couch. Recognizing this inconsistency, my boyfriend suggested that we try a 30 day gym challenge.
Initially, I thought he was signing us up for some crazy workout plan. You know what I’m talking about. The kind of workout plan where--for a one-time fee of $49.95--you get 30 detailed postcards, each of which lists the 65 exercises you have to do within 15 minutes and then repeat 18 times. I was NOT signing up for one of those death traps.
Luckily, Max had a much less intense idea in mind. Simply go to the gym every single day, for 30 days. Being a skeptic (and a bit of a lazy fatass), I immediately replied, “It’s not realistic to go the gym everyday, Max. The body needs rest. My body, in particular."
But Max had a reply to my reply: You don’t have to exercise intensely every single day, you just have to go to the gym everyday, even if it’s just to foam roll, stretch, or walk on the treadmill.
I then replied to his reply of my reply: “What the hell is the point of that? I can foam roll and stretch at home. And if I wanted, I could walk in circles around the tiny perimeter of our apartment.”
Luckily for Max, his final reply was hard to argue with and it shut my nonsense up: If you don’t like the process of going to the gym, then going to the gym everyday for 30 days will help build that very action into an ingrained habit. So it will become your default in the morning. You wake up, you get dressed for the gym, and then you go to the gym. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if it's cold or if your buns are sore. It’s just what you do, like brushing your teeth in the morning.
I hate to admit it, but he was on to something. And the research backs him up. Studies show that consistent exercisers are those who exercise by default. The concept of "if-then planning" helps crystalize this point. If your alarm clock goes off in the morning, then you will get out of bed and drag your ass to the gym. Just like if your best friend gets dumped, then you will go to her apartment with ice cream in hand. It's a default action that you don't even have to debate or consider--you just do it. And to think about all of the time I've wasted just thinking about going to the gym and then not even going. Poof! That's all gone now!
So, after reading up on the research, I reluctantly agreed to go to the gym everyday for 30 days.
And, today, is day 31, and I made it! I went to the gym every single day except for on Christmas because the gym was closed that day. The audacity of those employees who want to spend Christmas with their families instead of with empty elliptical machines!
Now that I’ve become a lifelong gym goer, I offer you my tips for success.
1. Buy yourself a wake-up light alarm clock.
If you exercise in the morning, waking up is typically the hardest part of getting to the gym. However, a wake-up light is a lamp or light bulb that simulates sunrise in order to gradually and peacefully awaken your body. I wrote about the Philips Wake-Up Light in one of my first blog posts and still recommend it.
Another option is to use smart light bulbs that you can sync to an Alexa, Amazon’s robot machine that will soon take over the world. This has been our preferred alarm clock recently, and it has really helped me get out of bed in the morning. I typically first awaken a few minutes after the light first goes off, then drift back into a very light cuddly sleep, and eventually awaken 5-10 minutes later. I’ll admit that, because I’m human, some days I’m very tired and want to go back to sleep, but the light has this very calming, restoring effect, and eventually, I feel ready (and maybe even happy?) to get out of bed.
2. Pack your gym bag
If you hit the gym after work or go in the morning and head straight to work afterwards, it’s essential to keep your gym bag packed ahead of time. - workout clothes, sneakers, water bottle, lock, change of clothes, toiletries, etc. This will minimize the time you scramble for your stuff and reduce the likelihood that you cop out and skip the gym simply because you can’t find a pair of socks.
3. Don’t forget the caffeine.
If you’re a morning gym goer who, like most normals, relies on caffeine, prep everything for your morning caffeine the night before. If you’re lucky and have a programmable coffeemaker, program it the night before so you have your espresso waiting at 6 a.m. If you’re not that fancy, prep whatever you can—clean your kettle, fill it with fresh water, get a tea bag and mug ready, etc.
4. Plan out your exercise routine.
It can be a bit stressful going to the gym without having a plan for your workout. I once went to the gym without a plan and just ended up foam rolling for 20 minutes and doing one set of bicep curls before calling it quits. While I’m definitely not suggesting that you write down every exercise you plan to do in a journal and then check off your list with an actual pen while you’re at the gym (I see this all the time), it is helpful to know what kind of workout you plan to do. I usually spend a minute or two thinking about this while I sip my green tea in the morning. If I feel like I’m going to forget my selected routine or certain exercises, I’ll put it down in my Notes app on my iPhone like a normal person and not in a leather-bound journal. Because it’s 2017.
5. Give your body a break.
If you do decide to take a 30-day gym challenge, recognize the limits of your body and accept that you likely can’t do a seriously challenging workout every single day. Back in my early/mid 20s, I could do intense HIIT and strength training workouts five times a week and be, more or less, fine. I mean, did you see those muscles in the cover photo? Now, if I tried to do that kind of ish to my aging body, it would literally just break down and stop working. These days, my calves are perennially tight, my right quad usually feels like I’ve just competed in a bodybuilding competition even though I clearly have not, and any sudden sharp movements can knock my hip out of place for days.
It’s not the prettiest of pictures, but I’ve come to accept my body’s limitations. So, at least twice a week this month, the only thing I did at the gym was walk on the treadmill. Sometimes, I alternated slow walking at a very high incline with fast power walking, but some days, I simply did a moderately fast walk, the same kind of walk I do when I’m avoiding crowds in New York City. Occasionally, I’d feel a bit lazy when I’d see that my geriatric neighbor was exercising more vigorously than me, but overall, I felt great because it was better than sitting on my couch and eating chocolate chips.
Have you tried a similar exercise challenge? Let me know in the comments!