Ah, February. Or perhaps, uh-oh, it’s February already? On the positive side, the days are getting longer, spring is approaching, and there will even be hope of extra chocolate around Valentine’s Day. But, what about those New Year’s resolutions? Are they starting to fade? Are the extra holiday pounds and sluggish feeling still with us? This can be a challenging time of year for many.
If you find yourself with a gym membership you bought on January 2nd and haven’t used since January 3rd, or a treadmill that you got for Christmas or Chanukah which now has your dry cleaning hanging on it, you are not alone. One national gym chain did a study and found that while gym attendance drastically rises in early January, it falls equally drastically by mid to late February.
The American Heart Association has named February “American Heart Month.” How about making it our own “Fitness February?” In this article I’d like to present some ideas to try to help you transform February with fitness in mind. At the same time I’d like to address the challenge we often have of being very short on time.
Think About Resolutions and Goals in a S.M.A.R.T. Way
We may have woken up on January 1st saying to ourselves: I am going to be more fit, I am going to get much stronger and lift weights a lot, I am going to do better at work, do more volunteer work at my church, recycle more stuff and take care of the planet, make all of my relationships better, exercise the dogs twice a day, learn tai chi and chi gung thoroughly, finish a black belt in martial arts, read the 100 books on my “to read right now” list, clean the house or apartment and fix everything in it, and on and on. You know the feeling that this can lead to, which is basically that of being overwhelmed and ready to quit.
We each have our own unique to do list, and many of us do have multiple resolutions on our minds.
First, it is a good idea to think about priorities and limit ourselves to only a few at a time. For example, what are your top three priorities? Let’s say improving your health and fitness is one of them.
Next, let’s think about utilizing S.M.A.R.T. goals. These are (1) Specific, (2) Measurable, (3) Attainable, (4) Relevant and (5) Time-Bound. Here is an example. Instead of saying “I am going to improve my cardiovascular fitness” let’s try this: I will do a cardio workout twice a week for 30 minutes each session using an elliptical. I will get a heart rate monitor or use the one on the machine, and work out at a moderate level of intensity, where my heart rate is about 65% of my estimated maximum. I will do this for four weeks.
Now, you have something you can actually do. Try to use this smart method of goal setting. It really can help.
I start every workout with a faith-based thank you. Depending on your personal view of spirituality, the specifics can vary for you. But I say thank you first because I am able to do a workout at all. If you have ever been or are now injured, disabled or ill, and nearly everyone has been at some point, you know that there are times that it is either impossible to work out, or some forms of exercise are not possible. It can be helpful to just say to yourself, I am grateful for what I can do, right now, today.
Try to find your own way to be thankful for whatever level of heath you may have. This will be unique to you and your body. I have seen many who cannot move their legs do cardio on an upper-body ergometer, which can be used seated and only requires the use of arms and hands. There is almost always something for nearly everyone.
Don’t Get Stuck in the Circle of Weakness, Tightness and Discomfort
It is a well-accepted concept that tight muscles become weaker and weak muscles become tighter, if we let them. Put this together and we all know that if we don’t move and exercise, we grow tighter and weaker pretty much every day. In addition, tightness and weakness often lead to pain. It is important to move those muscles and facilitate both flexibility and endurance strength to address this issue.
Feeling tight or feeling weak can also sometimes make us not want to work out. But try to remember this: it’s perhaps not, “I’ll work out when I feel better,” it’s “I’ll feel better when I work out.”
What About My Time?
Many studies have shown that the most frequently cited reason for not exercising is feeling a lack of time. We are busy. Normal life is demanding. You know already what keeps you busy.
In the next few sections, I’d like to address some options we have when we are feeling really pressed for time.
Can I Multitask while Working Out?
Most fitness professionals would recommend that during a workout, you focus solely on the workout and perform your exercises mindfully. In an ideal world we would attend to our heart rate, breathing, how various muscles and joints feel, and so on. But in real life, we know that may not be feasible on some days. What if you’re a student, and you have to read several book chapters by tomorrow? What if your boss at work wants you to read a 50-page article by tomorrow’s staff meeting and prepare a discussion? Reading is one thing we can often do with a multitasking strategy.
It is usually easier to multitask during cardio than in other workout formats. Most cardio machines such as treadmills and ellipticals are equipped with a reading rack. So on those days when you have a choice between not working out at all, or working out while reading, please do the workout and put your book, article or eReader on the reading rack.
When I was a student I often ran stairs at the gym while rehearsing exam review material in my head. You may want to think about what else you might do that will work for you. There are many ways to approach this.
Can I Do Cardio, Strength and Flexibility All in the Same Workout, and Fast?
Yes you can. Realistically, you will need 45 minutes to an hour to do a full body workout using this approach. Here are some tips.
Many gyms have group fitness classes which are specifically designed for this purpose. Try those out. A trainer can also create workout plans for you with this in mind.
One idea to try is a weight/cardio circuit. First, warm up for about 5 minutes doing simple cardio or body movement. Try to make nearly every joint move. Some machines are very good at this, e.g. an elliptical or a rowing machine. Now, start a pre-arranged weight circuit. Most gyms have machine circuits set up for you which are laid out in a circle, and will work nearly every major muscle group. Start the circle and go around it for your strength training.
Here’s where the cardio comes in: between every 2 weight machines or so, go out in the area between machines and do 1 minute of cardio. You can do jumping jacks, plyometric squat jumps, running or marching in place, punching and kicking, mountain climbers, squat thrusts, and so on. Do this cardio for 1 minute to get your heart rate up, and then go back to do your next weight machine in the circuit. Do 30 seconds of cardio instead if that is all you have time for. Your heart rate will stay up for quite a while as you then work on your weights.
After you complete the weight circuit interspersed with these cardio intervals, remember to do a cool down and stretch. If your heart rate is still high, walk around for 1 or 2 minutes to let it recover. You can then do a full body stretch quickly in about 4 minutes. This may not be optimal, but when you are pressed for time, it’s a reasonable approach. Here is one method: grab a fitness ball and lay on your stomach over it, releasing your arms and legs downward toward the floor. Hold this and relax for 30 seconds. Now flip over, and lay on the ball with your lower back on top of the ball, and your back, legs and arms relaxing towards the floor. Hold that for 30 seconds. Now stand up, and do a yoga side bend to the left for 30 seconds, then to the right for 30 seconds. You just stretched the front of your body, the back, and the sides!
Yet another option is to perform exercises that address multiple areas of fitness all at the same time. For example, a kettlebell swing done with good form will work your core, your legs, your arms and your heart all simultaneously.
There are many options in this same vein, and many possible combinations. I hope the ideas above can help get you started when you are feeling pressed for time.
Please do keep in mind your own limitations and constraints. For example, if you have lower back issues, you might need to revise certain exercises and stretches. If you are deconditioned, you may need a milder intensity and shorter durations. If you are concerned about any pain or injury issues, it is often best to see a trainer, physical therapist and/or M.D. to advise you before attempting any exercise.
What About Minimums?
I am asked often about minimum exercise recommendations. The current generally accepted guidelines for cardio and strength are to do cardio 3 times a week for 30 minutes each session, and strength training 2 times a week for about 30 minutes each time.
Try a Gym or Go Outside… And Get Away from To Do Lists
Often when you try to work out at home, many things call out for attention. A stack of bills, a pile of homework, laundry and many other tasks seem to call out for your time. And have you had your dog or cat walk across your stomach while trying to do a peaceful yoga pose on your living room floor?
The visual stimuli of piled up work to do may make you feel even more pressed for time. It may often be easier and a lot more fun to complete a workout when you go to a gym or do an activity outdoors.
Thomas Jefferson Said it Well
Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about fitness. He loved to walk, to hike and to ride horses. One of his more famous quotes goes something like this: “Make time for exercise now, or make time for illness later.” The last time I visited my M.D. for a checkup, he had that quote taped on the examination room wall. ‘Nuff said!
Ann Ford Tyson, M.S., is an American Council on Exercise (ACE) Certified Personal Trainer and ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor at Premier Health & Fitness Center. She specializes in improving posture, movement patterns, flexibility and balance, strength training, weight loss, and the concerns of those over 40, seniors, and anyone experiencing health challenges. Ann can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-431-4822.