Confession: Before I started working out, I was confused by people who willingly woke up early and went straight to the gym. My god, I thought, that sounds terrible.
I truly thought most gym-goers were shallow and superficial. Scrolling through my Instagram feed only cemented my ideas: People lauding body “transformations” hinged on nearly-disorded eating. They bought into the idea of “bikini bodies” sold by the Dalai Lamas of fitstagram. And they paid a premium for cultish studio classes where competition mattered more than health. I wanted no part of it.
You get the point. I was all vitriol—as judgmental as the people I deemed judgmental. My mind was filled with tropes and stereotypes. Now, the reality is that while there are some damaging ideas proliferated by the wellness industry, there’s also a LOT of awesomeness out there. Take it from me, because I’m now one of those people who wakes up at 7 a.m. to work out.
Three months ago I had high cholesterol and blood pressure, I was overweight, and I was uncomfortable. I have arthritis and the extra weight was putting a lot of pressure on my joints. I needed to get fit.
I am by no means a fitness expert after a few months, but here’s what I learned when I started working out regularly (four-five times per week, every week).
1. Don’t let aesthetics guide your workout.
Obviously there is an aesthetic component to any fitness regimen, but obsessing on the inches and numbers will only drive you crazy. (A watched pot never boils, and all that.) We all want to look our best, but letting looks lead you entirely probably won’t get you anywhere but stuck in an obsessive rut. You’ll definitely want to hop on the scale every day, clinging to some iota of physical progress—I get it. But don’t.
If you work out with discipline and regularity—without checking the scale every day—you will eventually start to feel and see the changes. The number one most important thing I realized is that change happens when you’re not looking for it, so enjoy the process. Work out because it does good things for your mind and body, and know that you’re buying yourself years of better health. Your midsection will follow suit (and if it doesn’t, it’s OK; the way we feel is key).
2. Exercise changes your psyche.
Flat abs and the ability to wear cute yoga pants are fine goals, okay? They’re totally FINE. But the real benefit to working out is found in its transformative effects to your psyche—your relationship to yourself, your mood, and the way you move through the world. Going from feeling tired, lazy, overwhelmed, and out of touch with my body to feeling confident, strong, energized, and self-loving was a major emotional process for me. It may sound woo-woo (I totally recognize my soap box here, but I’m on it because I want others to be happy), but this transformative process is so much more intense than I ever imagined.
I’m talking life-changing. These days, I’ve got toned legs, strong arms, and killer endurance, but I’ve also got a sense of self-sufficiency and pride. This colors the way I approach the world. I feel capable, in-touch, and totally alive. I give thanks to all those wonderful little endorphins that flood my system when I work out.
You can have the good feels, too. According to the British Journal of Pharmacology, exercise creates its own kind of euphoria—it elevates endorphins (happiness chemicals), stabilizes your mood, favorably influences cognitive functions, facilitates recovery from depression, and mitigates psychological stress. I can vouch for each and every one of these benefits (and remember—I was the exercise-hating curmudgeon).
3. You might not lose weight.
When I started working out, I dropped 10 pounds within a month. I thought, success! (My doctor had recommended I lose about 15 pounds to be in a healthier range.) But guess what? I checked my weight a week or so later—without having changed my eating or workout routine—and it had gone up a bit.
Newsflash: Unless you’re working with a medical professional, nutritionist, or fitness coach on a major body transformation (where, say, your goal is to lose a great deal of weight), your weight fluctuations may elude you. Water, sodium, and whether or not you’ve gone to the bathroom—all of these might change your weight from day to day or hour to hour.
I went from wearing a size 12 to wearing an 8, but my weight hasn’t changed all that much. What gives? I lost some body fat but mostly I increased lean muscle tissue. It’s not that muscle weighs less or more than fat (it doesn’t, a pound is a pound)—it’s that muscle takes up less space. Muscle is more compact and tight, and (bonus!) it’s more metabolically active (which means having more muscle helps you burn more calories and feel more energized). In short, don’t let your weight guide you.
That’s also why BMI isn’t everything. According to the World Health Organization, a normal or ‘healthy’ BMI would fall between 18.5-24.99, an overweight BMI would be between 25-29.99, and an obese BMI would be anything 30 and above. But your BMI doesn’t count muscle, bbone mass or other metabolic factors.
In short, numbers around weight and fat aren’t everything. When you’re exercising and eating healthy, checking your blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin resistance levels is probably more effective a marker for your success. Your progress is so much more than a number.
4. Fitness can be super-expensive—or super-cheap. Whatever gets you going is what matters.
I used to think it was ridiculous for people to spend hundreds of dollars at fancy boutique studios. It felt excessive, especially when running is free. Why go for pricey gyms when low-cost alternatives like Blink exist? Well, it’s personal (and obviously contingent upon your finances). I decided that I didn’t love the grunt-y, smelly, dude-bro-filled gym, and that I loathed everything about running. To top it off, I wasn’t disciplined enough to do HIIT routines on my own in my house. (And when you hate a workout, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do it.)
However, I did fall in love with swimming and aqua cycling—both of which were expensive to a stupid degree. But I decided, since the water got me moving, that I’d budget for it. And I’m glad I did.
On the flipside, I do the occasional Blogilates routine at home, for free. Basically, whatever gets you moving is key—and free YouTube videos absolutely have the ability to get you in shape. You have to find the workout that works for you; sometimes that requires challenging sacrifices—and a little money management. But again, the Internet offers a treasure trove of free workouts.
I think of it this way: It’s definitely a privilege worth recognizing, but spending a little more now may help me save money later on when I might be knee-deep in medical bills due to health negligence.
5. Promoting body positivity is SO important.
Fitness is an incredibly loaded topic, and the people around you in the gym or in the pool are each on their own journey. When I felt down on myself, weak, and overwhelmed, I surrounded myself with people and instructors who made me feel good.
It’s a challenge, but don’t talk badly about yourself or others—at the gym or outside it. I’ve overheard people say things like, “I hate my body” or ” she’s fat.” These comments (and they happen a lot) only serve to greenlight self-hate and judgement. Fitness and healthfulness is a process—at times an emotional one—and treating yourself and others with respect is key.
Make space for all bodies and fitness levels and never beat yourself up. If you hear people making fun of someone at the gym, or if you think an instructor is guilty of inappropriate behavior, don’t stay quiet. Finding gratitude is key, too. Some people with disabilities don’t have the option to work out, while others may find the gym intolerable due to chronic illnesses.
6. One day you will magically become more powerful than you think.
I remember my first week at Aqua Studio, a studio that lets you cycle in water AKA oh-my-god-this-burns. It’s intense—the water provides tons of resistance and really ups the ante. On the bike, there are two standing positions—with my butt hovering just over the seat I felt like I would actually just explode. I couldn’t do it, I thought. Lactic Acid became my mortal enemy, and I was convinced that I wasn’t strong enough! So I sat down. And then I’d stand up for a few seconds before sitting down again. I gripped the bike like I was falling down into the depths of hell, and my breathing sounded like a medical emergency.
Then one day I did it. I didn’t sit down. I stayed up. My posture was tight and strong. And I killed it. But this happens—it takes time and work—without you even noticing. Enjoy the process, whether that means you need to take several breaks or not. There’s no speed you need to meet, no one you need to compete with, and nothing more important than your happiness.