We are continuing our discussion of The Habit Of Exercise. This is Part 3 of 4.
Consistency Is Key
We do need variety to keep it interesting and to keep the nervous system stimulated for growth. But it is also very important to be consistent in a regular routine. Your body and your mind will adapt and come to expect and even crave whatever routines you impose upon them. If you deliberately do something positive and physical every single day, your whole being will orient to that activity.
Another way of saying this is that the longer you’ve persisted in the activity, in terms of weeks and months and years, the more momentum you feel in keeping up the habit.
When you are new at forming an exercise habit, being consistent every day is important because the day off can trigger the old sedentary habits you are trying to erase. Initially, your body’s inertia is in the direction of laziness, not exertion. Exercise as part of your life, as part of your being is not firmly established yet. When you’ve been doing it for months, you can afford a day off periodically and it won’t seem like you are losing ground physically or mentally – you can sense that your average amount of activity is quite high and that is encouraging. When you’ve been doing it for years, you can afford a week or more off and not feel like it has threatened your identity as a dedicated athlete. Seeing yourself as a faithful veteran of a particular sport or activity is part of that sense of momentum. You want to get to the place where, even if you are taking some time off, you can say “I am a swimmer” rather than “I was a swimmer”, or worse, “I swim sometimes“.
But there are always going to be interruptions and competition for that precious exercise time. Find a way to do something productive each day, no matter how small. Even if you absolutely cannot do something physical with your body, you can at least practice mindfulness, and that mindfulness skill and strength will serve your physical activity later on. You can practice mindfulness while walking, driving, cooking food, standing in line, sitting or laying down scanning the body. You can do it for 3 minutes or just 3 breaths. Now matter how little, you can do something. You can do some form of training for the body and/or the mind each and every day.
Break Into Small Components Of Activity
Keeping the routine is important, but it is not always possible. Normal life has all sorts of interruptions and competitions for your time. You need to be prepared to handle those interruptions in a productive way so that it is easier to slip back into the routine.
In order to feel productive even with a small amount of time, look for ways to break any activity down into smaller, simpler components. And, if your day offers only one small window of exercise opportunity, or has it chopped up into small windows scattered over the hours, find a way to do something physical, even the smallest productive thing, in those small windows.
For swimming – I have a 25-minute warm up routine and a 15-minute cool down routine. If I only have a half hour, I just do my warm up routine. If I have only 45 minutes, I do the warm up and a short, high-quality set. Or I might do my warm up and the cool down routine. If I had only 15 minutes, I would swim for those 15 minutes focused on making the smoothest movements I could, so that my nervous system would be wonderfully buzzed when I got out.
For running, though I prefer going well over an hour, if I only have 30 minutes I will take it. I would still prioritize my warm up mobility routine at home before I go out, and start soft and easy. Providing some stimulation for the performance systems is better than providing none.
If I don’t have time or not in position to do all the stuff involved in going for a swim or a run, I can do some productive activities right there in my home or office or hotel room, or in an airport terminal. I can do a little mobility work, a little body-weight strength work, or just move the body to keep the metabolism humming.
For my mobility or strength conditioning I can break my routine into a 5 minute routine, 15 minutes, 30 minutes or a whole hour. Rather than do one conditioning activity for 15 minutes, I cycle through 4 or 5 activities in 15 minutes. The more 15-minute chunks of time I have available, the most cycles I can do. But if I only have time for one cycle, I can at least stimulate each section of my body and that is enough to make it feel good.
In ancient times the natural seasons and weather of the year determined what humans could do. But in modern life, the ‘seasons’ are whatever you need them to be based on your lifestyle, your circumstances, your environment and the activities you enjoy.
If you have a few different sports you want to stay devoted to, you can break up your year into seasons, giving emphasis to a different sport in each season. It’s easier to do this if the skills and fitness for each of those activities overlap with each other, like cross country skiing in the snowy months and cycling in the others.
In some places, the local pool is shut down for the winter or it is shut down for a particular month for maintenance. Swimmers have to find another place or another activity to keep their bodies going.
Triathletes might take this seasonal approach also. Since there are three disciplines to develop technique and fitness for, and all three need to be maintained at the same time if you always tried to give equal emphasis to all three, it is hard to get a boost in any one of them. Rather than give 33% of your time, energy and attention to all three, you can devote one particular month to emphasizing swimming and give it 50% of your time, energy and attention (planning, study of technique, etc) and give 25% to the other two. And next month you can switch to cycling, and then the next month switch to running. You may be particularly strong in one of them and particularly weak in another, so give less emphasis to your strong one and more to the weak one.
In swimming, I like to alternate between long-distance emphasis for deep aerobic work and sprint emphasis to build muscle power (or to restore it after something has interrupted my swimming fitness). Both of those have unique technique work that keeps my nervous system challenged. I might devote 2 or 3 months to one of them, then switch to the other for another 2 or 3 months.