You Make the Call #5: New Year’s Resolution Exercise Program
You Make the Call is a series of posts aimed at answering real-life situations with various possible solutions ranging from bad to better to best. You may remember this series of commercials from the 1980s NFL TV broadcasts.
You have decided this year is your year to get in shape! You have made this resolution every year for the last 5 years (10 years? 20 years???) yet you never make much meaningful progress. You have resolved to begin a new year’s resolution exercise program as a stepping stone to a healthier lifestyle. You have learned that too much at once – exercise, sleep, nutrition, standing desk, no TV, etc. – just is too overwhelming. You will begin after the first of the year on a new exercise program. But…where do you start? What program should you do? YOU MAKE THE CALL!
Option 1: The Bad Idea
You decided to go jogging every day of the week. You get yourself some new shoes. You get up early, get out in the cold and run. This is obviously a poor decision for a few reasons. First, it is too much too soon. Same could be said for deciding to lift weights every day. This will beat you down, make you horribly sore or injured, and make you quit soon. Second, if you are going to do only one thing, jogging should not be it. High impact pavement running is just not a good idea. Of all the options that exist for exercise, I would place jogging in the bottom 10%. Deciding to become a “runner” may leave you as as fat as when you started and injured to boot. It is a good technique but nothing to base an entire program on in my opinion.
Option 2: The Better Idea
You find a great program online at a place like Mission: Capable (shameless plug), join a gym or buy some equipment, and get after it. A good example is something like this training cycle review.
This is far far better than just jogging aimlessly in the cold for sure and is a solid strength and conditioning program. This should be the perfect solution, right? I mean, ZAP wrote this program! The problem is it is too advanced for a beginner and probably too complicated for most people. While there are ways to scale this to a beginner level, using this for someone who is not already in good condition and/or who isn’t an advanced exerciser will probably leave you confused or frustrated. There is a lot you probably have to know to be able to apply this program effectively, the least of which is using proper form on the exercises. I would write something far more simple for a beginner and especially for someone who isn’t a professional Soldier. Good news is there are more options in this article in which I will explain some better ideas. Keep reading.
Option 3: A Really Good Idea
Pay someone to show you what to do. Two ways you can do this: Get a personal trainer or join a group exercise class.
You can find a personal trainer and let them tell you what to do. This has potential to be a great idea or an OK one, all based on who you select. If you get a good trainer, this can move you forward years from what you’d learn on your own in a few months. Your trainer should outline a basic template, work around your existing limits, and tailor something for you. You can continue on this for a while (months/years) before looking for something more advanced. A bad trainer will teach you bad things and waste your money. Even a bad trainer is probably better than you on your own though, so probably still worth it. Expensive though. And determining who is or isn’t a good trainer is basically impossible for a beginner. Sorry.
Second way to do this is to join a group exercise gym that runs classes. A CrossFit gym is a good example, probably the best one out there. A good CF gym will have an entry program where they take you through a series of workouts individually or in a small group, then when you have demonstrated proficiency in the basics, they let you join the group. Then even there you can adjust the workouts for your level of fitness – substituting simple movements for the advanced ones, using less weight, or doing less reps are all common ways. I have posted some thoughts on what CrossFit is with some critique if you haven’t read it.
You could also find a good yoga studio or find a group exercise class at your gym with varying themes. Zumba looks fun (never tried it). Spinning classes (cycling) are definitely fun with a good coach/instructor running the show. There are also things you will see called something catchy like “body blast boot camp” or “resistance cardio step jumping torture” where they just do a bunch of hard things each time. All of these are good if they keep you interested.
A downside with some of these is you are not given a lot of individual attention since the instructor to student ratio is high (or higher than one-on-one). Another downside is a lot of people are uncomfortable in a group of people who they perceive as fitter than them, so they never get the courage to break into it. Most groups welcome new people very well. Some group exercise situations and some CF gyms are too much too soon also. Going to do anything at full speed right off the bat isn’t good for someone trying to develop a healthier lifestyle.
A major downside of playing in a specific group is the potential to not be diverse. While I love yoga, yoga alone will not be a well-rounded exercise program. Same with a jogging group or a spinning class. But if this will get the ball rolling and keep you engaged, anything you will continue regularly is a good solution ultimately.
A positive is the group becomes somewhat of a social network and may motivate you to go to remain part of the team. That’s excellent. Exercising in groups is also much less expensive.
Option 4: The Best Idea
You begin a very simple program with some basic physical fitness elements that will let you ramp up your progress over the course of many months and years. You recognize doing too much too soon will leave you injured. You skip the group exercise ideas and personal trainers…for now. You start off slowly by combining a lot of psychological techniques to increase the likelihood that you will continue to make exercise part of your life.
- Make you goals SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-related. So instead of resolving to “exercise more” or “lift weights”, you opt to “walk for at least 20 minutes once per day, 3 days per week for the month of January.”
- Get an accountability buddy. You can either get someone to do these things with you in person or to find someone else to hold accountable for something else. You keep each other in line. For example, you can get your spouse to walk with you. Or your spouse can quit eating deserts on weekdays, so he or she makes sure you are walking like you said and you make sure he or she isn’t eating cupcakes on Wednesdays.
- Make your goals public. This is another form of accountability. If you let everyone know on Facebook you are going to walk 3 times per week, you may opt to do it when you may have skipped it because they will ask about it.
- Associate something positive with your new desired behavior. This is sort of a reward system. For example, you resign to only watch your favorite TV show after you have walked for 20 minutes. Or you bring a tablet to the gym to watch your favorite show as you walk on the treadmill – but you only watch the show while walking.
- Get some small wins and keep yourself on a streak. Getting the ball rolling is often enough to get people over the hump of starting a new behavior. If you were to do something every day or every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for a few weeks, you will likely feel motivated to keep doing it to keep it going uninterrupted. This is akin to the “don’t break the chain” technique of famous comedian, Jerry Seinfeld. If you have done something every day for a month, you may keep it up just because you have got a good streak going.
Now that you have your techniques to keep yourself on track, here are some specific recommendations:
- Start walking more. Simply walking should be the basis of your new program. It is so easy, almost seemingly too easy, which is why few people start with it. They try to do too much too soon.
- You can walk every day, but if this is too often to start with, walk at least 3 times per week for 20 minutes. Increase in length and frequency from there. I wrote a post already on how to make walking part of your lifestyle with some more tips and strategies. Adding a backpack or weight vest are great options to increase effectiveness for sure. But this is down the road after a few months of regular walking.
- Move your bodyweight a few times per week. I would start with just bodyweight as resistance for a while before moving on eventually to kettlebells or other resistance such as bands. I recommend you perform a simple 20-minute circuit two times per week consisting of squats or lunges, push-ups, and planks. Here are some variations:
- 10 squats, 5 push-ups, 30-second plank hold (on the elbows) repeated over and over for time.
- 5 alternating rear lunges, 15-second side plank, 5 push-ups, 15-second side plank (other side), repeated for time.
- You can walk or do the resistance circuit any time of day. More important you do it then worry about when is better.
- You can walk and do the circuit on the same day.
- For the bodyweight circuit, move purposefully between movements and rounds with as little rest a possible. Adjust range of motion to make it possible for you to complete the movement. If you can’t squat with your femurs to parallel, go as close as you can. If you can’t do good push-ups, do them on your knees.
- If you have some weights in the house or a pull-up bar, feel free to sub them into the circuit. I used squats, lunges, planks, and push-ups because they are very easy to do and require no additional equipment. This is a baseline circuit. Ideally there would be some pull-ups or rows for the back and a hinge movement like a deadlift to make it “total body”, but that can be added later once the habit is ingrained into your lifestyle.
- Wait until you are at a good place before you start pumping up the volume. I would say three months is enough for you to start trying to increase in volume, intensity, or frequency of exercise. When that time comes, email me. I will work something personal up for you free of charge.
All of this advice assumes you are a novice and you have no major physical limitations. If you had a hip replaced recently or used to be a college football player, you may find some of this less useful. You may want to start off at a higher level here because you used to be in good shape or have advanced programming knowledge. I know a lot of guys who aren’t in bad shape but just don’t exercise like they used to. For them, using the psychological techniques or just identifying a specific routine may get them on their way. Even if you are capable of doing something more advanced, you have to ask yourself why you haven’t been. It may be a good idea to just stick to some walking or bodyweight circuits for a while to get back into it or maybe even forever. If you are a 40-year-old insurance salesman, you can do this for the rest of your life. This isn’t a performance-based program for athletes obviously. Walking, lifting things, and some occasional sprints is a lifelong exercise regimen.
I didn’t address the concepts of improving sleep, eating well, reducing stress, or reducing sitting/inactivity at all in this post. Ideally, I would focus on all of these things even before exercising! In fact, I would rank a formal exercise program as the fifth thing you should do to be “healthy”, behind those other four. However, I am a realist and know most people will find adding exercise to their bad sleep, bad diet, desk job, and stressful life more preferable than working on fixing those other ones. But be clear, I would tell you to focus on nutrition and to get a standing desk as the first two steps to health if you paid me to advise you and would do whatever I said.
Good luck in the new year with whatever your fitness goals are. I am happy to help with some specific questions or recommendations. Post your questions or thoughts to the comments section for collaboration. If you have a question, someone else may have the same one.