Getting in shape might be the most universal of goals, right up there with saving more money.
And just like savings, it’s easy to over-complicate a simple goal until it becomes totally impossible, or at least unsustainable.
The good news is that sustainable fitness is not really an issue of physiology, but mostly one of habits. It’s the sum of many small things done right and done repeatedly.
And the little things we’ll see in a moment are exactly what I consciously did on the way from overweight (and far too weak for even a single chin-up) to leaner and fitter than average…and to stay there through the chaos of grad school, children, and a whole lot of other stresses along the way.
As a disclaimer, of course, I am not a health or fitness professional, so talk to yours before deciding what does or doesn’t make sense to pursue.
With that said, here are what I consider five foundational steps in a sustainable fitness journey.
1. In the morning, reach for water first
“Wait,” you’re thinking. “If we’re talking about fitness, what’s up with water?”
Good question. We all know it’s essential to stay well-hydrated, but we don’t all start the day with enough water. Between our kidneys working through the night, and even simply breathing, we lose quite a bit of water.
Ever notice that you weigh less after waking than before bed? That’s why.
Your body urgently needs water for cellular function, blood consistency, and a lot of other purposes.
Set yourself up for healthy activity by downing a big glass first thing in the morning. While it’s probably a bigger deal for some people than others, I notice a real and consistent difference in energy levels, and have heard too many similar anecdotes to ignore.
2. “An object in motion stays in motion”
Newton was talking about physical momentum, but this is every bit as true for our psychological momentum.
Unless your morning already begins with manual labor, it’s critical to fit some light but brisk movement into the start of your day, and at least every few hours thereafter.
While it’s great to “get in the groove” with work, the temptation to stay there for hours, and put off much-needed movement, is simply too great.
It’s great if you can commute by foot or by bicycle, or even just park farther from your workplace, so that movement becomes a natural part of your routine.
If that’s not feasible, then even 15 minutes of walking around the neighborhood — or even some gentle bodyweight squats and lunges — will do just fine.
In any case, this relatively low-effort daily habit will yield energy, concentration, and worthwhile calories burned throughout the day.
3. Punctuate the day with stretching for posture
If you, too, spend a lot of time at a desk, then your body has probably started adapting to it.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a beneficial adaptation like night vision or extreme physical prowess. Quite the opposite: it’s more like rounded shoulders, tight hip flexors, and a kinked neck.
Not only is that uncomfortable, but it predisposes our bodies to injury when it’s time for real exertion. Not just when lifting weights, but also when putting something heavy on a shelf, carrying groceries, or picking up a squirming toddler.
Speaking from experience, the worst part is that those injuries are usually too random to prevent, but serious enough to disrupt our real training and exercise. Talk about derailing your progress!
Fortunately, even just three- or five-minutes bouts of stretching throughout the day make a world of difference.
See a physical therapist for specific issues, but as a rule of thumb, focus on motions directly opposite your normal working posture.
For most of us, that means arms out and back, legs behind hips, chest slightly elevated with a relaxed neck, and so forth.
4. For strength training, start with bodyweight
Strength training can be overwhelming as a newbie. Magazines with elaborate routines, supplements galore, expensive gyms with piles of equipment…
Where do you even begin?
It’s easy to get intimidated by the muscle-monsters pumping iron, and figure that you, too, need to budget two hours a day for brutal and complex routines.
But for most people, it’s more like an 80/20 thing. We get the vast majority of the results from simple and consistent training, and eking out that list bit of potential may require turning our lives upside down.
For most of us, that’s not worth it.
However, the simplicity of that first 80% also means there’s no excuse not to develop a strong body that helps us experience life to its fullest.
To get started, you’ll only need three movement at a time:
- One pushing motion, like a push-ups or dip.
- One pulling motion, like a bodyweight row or chin-up.
- One lower-body motion, like a bodyweight squat.
Ease into three sets of each, resting about a minute between sets, or even less. Always use the full range of motion with a slow and controlled tempo. Stop the second you’re too fatigued to continue with perfect form.
Rest one or two days, then repeat this scheme using a different set of pushing + pulling + lower-body movements. For the upper body, try to pick ones in a different plane of motion. For the lower body, alternate between squatting movements and pulling/lifting movements.
Naturally, a gentle dynamic warm-up as well as stretching afterward will keep your joins feeling their best.
5. Remember that “abs are made in the kitchen”
Strength training and cardio are certainly necessary for fitness, but there’s no getting around the role of diet.
No matter what magic pills the internet might put in front of you, or what fix-all routines you see on slick-looking fitness sites, your body cannot and will not gain much muscle without decent nutrition.
Likewise, your body cannot and will not lose much fat unless you keep your food intake in check.
It’s the understatement of the century to say that diet is a big topic. But, in a nutshell (pun intended), it’s easiest to give your body what it needs when your diet emphasizes whole foods and abundant plants.
Many people find it helpful to count calories for a little while, just until they get a sense of what’s a reasonable amount of food — and of just how many empty calories come from processed fats and sugars!
However, it’s worth emphasizing that this is a short-term learning exercise, not a lifestyle. For most people, counting calories has too many negative psychological effects to sustain.
What’s more, a wholesome diet with a modicum of self-control makes it unnecessary in the long term anyhow.
Minimal habits, minimal worries
Sustainable fitness is all about simple, daily habits.
Start off on the right foot by hydrating first thing and building easy movement into your day. Stretch briefly, frequently, and gently to stay loose and mobile. Take up a minimal, three-movement bodyweight strength routine. Above all, nourish your system with modest amounts and ample variety of wholesome foods.
Of course there’s plenty of room to experiment, if you’re inclined, but this minimalist fitness game plan will take you far.