EXERCISE FOR THE WEAK-WILLED By Brian Northgrave (Article)


Brian Northgrave


I am clearly among the weak-willed. Almost every time I put on my exercise clothes, my mind comes up with any number of excuses why I shouldn’t have to exercise, at least for that day.But because, over the years, I have usually been able to combat those urges and keep at it, I may be able to offer advice that would be useful to my fellow weak-willed.

Decide why you want to do regular exercise

Essentially, there are the physical and the psychological reasons..

We know that, with regular physical exercise, we may not live longer but we’re less likely to die younger. Perhaps a better way to look at it is that we are likely to live our allotted time better – among other activities, to be able to travel, to play sports, and also to be less susceptible to illnesses and injuries, and able to recover from them sooner.

We can benefit psychologically from succeeding at something that is difficult, but important. I started more rigorous exercise in my mid-thirties – at a stage when my self-esteem was suffering since it was becoming clear that I was not going to reach the top of my profession. Only the rare few can. But I found that if I could put myself through daily exercise, overcome the lethargy and resistance, and return to a regime after time off, it gave a needed boost to my self-esteem.

Define modest goals and be prepared to scale them down.

A goal of a few minutes of stretching most days of the week may be a good way to start. If we do that, then we can feel that we are “in the game”.After some time, the idea is to gradually build goals to include up to 20 minutes or more of cardiovascular activities two to four times a week.But the key element – and this is the tough part – is to do an exercise program for life. Not until Christmas, not until we have lost 5 kilos, not until our daughter gets married, but for life. Sure, we will always fall off the program, but it’s for life, and we expect to re-start it.

Maybe you are not up to the goal of a life-long exercise program. That’s OK too, and whatever exercise you do is better than nothing. But the real game is to tell yourself (and others) that you are on a program for life, and stay at it/return to it..

What we sometimes forget is that regular exercise is more important as we get older. Someone said that, for the young, exercise is optional, for the old it is mandatory. What is more important for older people intent on sustaining a good quality of life, than doing regular exercise? Look around at all the fat, out-of-shape young people enjoying themselves, but how many fat, out-of-shape old people do you see that look happy?

Know the biggest challenge

For we weak-willed, our challenge is not to reach ambitious exercise goals – almost all of us do, at some time or other. It’s getting back on an exercise program once we stop.There are always lots of reasons – many of them legitimate – for stopping exercising. Injuries, illness, travel, heavy workload, moving, family problems. As we get older, we find that various aches and pains more frequently stop our exercises. So that greatest of challenges – restarting the program – comes up increasingly often. We should accept that, if we are exercising at 100% when we stop, that it’s not only OK, but it’s sensible to start again at 50%, or even less, depending on the time off. And we should count on returning to target levels slowly, with increases of no more than 10% a day.

Don’t be too tough on yourself

The most common cause of stopping exercise for the weak-willed, in my own experience, is running out of will-power. We weak-willed have a smaller reserve of will-power than most, so the trick is not to push ourselves too much. Every morning, when I hear that voice saying “Hey, you don’t have to do this!” I try to keep moving – putting on the exercise clothes, going to where I do the floor exercises. But if the internal voice is insistent, perhaps I was up late, had a head-ache, really/really didn’t feel up to it, then I pack it in with the idea that I will make a bigger effort the next day – and it usually works. Or I will make a “deal” with myself to only do half as many exercises that morning, with the rationalization that I should give myself credit for just showing up and that with any luck I will be do the full set the next day.

I tell myself that just to keep going, with missing only a day or two, puts me in the worthy minority. There are always lots of reminders of how difficult it is to sustain exercising. One only has to look at the classified ads for exercise equipment, particularly six months after Christmas. Or ask people at the gym how many of their customers who sign up for a year, are still showing up 6 months later.

The idea is to forgive yourself when you fall off the exercise wagon, because if you are carrying guilt about stopping, it will be that much more difficult to start up again.


Use whatever works to keep on an exercise program.

I think that the most important exercise to do is the 5 or 10 minutes of stretching, crunches, push-ups each day. There is no way it will be enjoyable, but at least it is brief. And, once you have done that you can tell yourself that you are on an exercise program, and that is a boost for the morale. What helps me sometimes is to time the exercise I do. I find it particularly difficult to do the push-ups. Often I would skip them. Then one day I timed how long it took to do them. It was less than a minute. Now, when I am thinking about not doing them, I ask myself “do I really, really, not have one minute available?”.

There is something else that helps me when I am stiff or sore. I will tell myself to try my exercises and if it hurts, I’ll stop. Because we have such a multitude of places that get stiff and sore, more often than not, I find that the exercises I do don’t involve those particular muscles, and I can finish my regular set.

Now, consider the next most important exercise to do - the 20 or more minutes, two to four times a week of cardiovascular exercise. Some exercise – walking, easy biking or roller-blading, tennis or golf – can be enjoyable. But with Ottawa’s climate, many of us have to rely on machines, like an exercise bike, for most of the year. To keep doing the machines, week after week, you need something special. Usually it takes quite some time to find what works for you. I started watching tennis and golf instruction videos, and they seemed to help. Then I found, for a few months, a series on TV at the right time. Currently I use the MP3 player.. What surprises me is that I can listen to the same songs time and again, and they somehow get me through those minutes on my count-down timer. I have a friend who enjoys doing Sudoko, and found that if she only allowed herself to do Sudoko when exercising on the reclining exercise bike, she could usually make herself do it.

Beware of the people who say they enjoy doing exercise on machines. If you believe them, you will be disappointed. In my experience, doing exercise on machines is boring, and certainly not agreeable. But at a minimum of 20 minutes a shot, it does not take a lot of time. Also, a way to reduce the boredom is to mix the exercise. For example, I have a couple of machines and if I feel short of will-power, I’ll do ten minutes on one, have a sip of coffee, and do ten minutes on the other. Sure it would be better to grind out half an hour on one machine (and to not need the coffee), but ten minutes each on two machines is better than nothing.  Another reward comes on the week-end. I do more exercise on Saturday, and then cut down on some of them on Sunday to about 50%. I always look forward to the “easy” Sunday exercises.


Find the time of day for exercise that works best for you.

Let’s face it, we all have different clocks. One person is a morning person while another is an evening person (usually they marry each other). I used to do my exercises later in the day – it was the idea that I would not let myself go to bed before doing the exercises. That worked for quite a while, and then once when I stayed up all night and missed my exercise time, I wasn’t able to get back to a regular program for over a year. (As I said, I am one of the weak-willed) Currently, I do exercises first thing in the morning. For me, it works best. Somehow, half conscious, I get into my exercise clothes before my wife is up, at a time when there is nothing else to do except my exercises. So they usually get done. Two retired friends do their exercise mid-morning. Some make appointments at the gym, and the wealthier ones schedule their personal trainers to show up and force them into it.

I find that, if I miss my normal exercise period of first thing in the morning, then it is just about impossible for me to get myself to do the exercise later in the day (I am talking about machines here, not fun stuff like biking/golfing/tennis). Real Black Belt exercisers will simply re-schedule their daily exercise if they miss their normal slot. If I miss a session, I try to get over it by telling myself that it is par for the course, that everyone sometimes misses a session and that I will make the next day a “testing time” to get back on track.


Decide on the best place to exercise

For the morning stretch, it is hard to beat doing those five or ten minutes at home. You only need enough space on the floor somewhere around the house to stretch out. Those exercises – the 5 or 10 minutes – are your entry fees, what you do, so you can do the other physical activities that you enjoy.

Where do you do your other exercises? If you are lucky, you have a year-round activity – like tennis, and can play indoors in winter. But for most of us, for a regular program, we have to rely on machines at least for part of the year.A common approach is to join a gym. That can work for some of us, particularly if the gym is at, or close to, work. But very often, there is a problem of time. To get 20 minutes of time at a gym usually means two or three times that much time to get there, get it done and get back. And that can be a major disincentive. We all have so many things we want to do, or have to do, and exercise time especially if it involves traveling back and forth can easily fall off the program.

The alternative is to try to do more exercise at home.


Choose some exercise equipment that can be kept at home

It may be practical for you to buy a piece of equipment that you can exercise on, on those days when you can’t do exercise outside, so that one way or another you are getting 20 minutes or more of cardiovascular exercise two to four times a week, at least on most weeks. Have you a place for it? If you are living in close quarters, there are machines than can fold up, can be put under a bed, can be leaned against a wall. A great stand-by is the exercise bike – either sitting or reclining. Doesn’t take much room, perhaps close to a TV to watch DVD’s or videos. Or near the sound system or to be used with an MP3 player. Perhaps a treadmill that can be folded up – you can even drop a sleeve over it, maybe in a material that matches your curtains? Good rowing machines, and elliptical machines are great, but they need more space.


Buy your exercise equipment cheap

Fortunately, you don’t have to spend much to get good equipment. Someone else will have paid a lot for it new, but it will soon come on the market, hardly used, for 50% or less of the original price. People move, or more often fall off their program and don’t like to have the equipment around to make them feel guilty, so they will sell it cheap. (But give them credit. They will have reached a quite acceptable level of exercise before stopping. They just can’t forgive themselves when, inevitably they miss a few days, and have trouble re-starting their program). I bought the equipment I have for about a third of what it is advertised for new, and have never had problems with it, never had to have it repaired. You can do the same, just check Craig’s list or Pennysaver. And you can do a quick Google on the equipment, e.g. users’ reviews, to get an idea of whether it is what you want.

A final piece of advice to my fellow weak-willed is to have a clear plan/vision for resuming your exercise program, even before you start it.

Tags: Brian Northgrave