17 life-changing lessons I learned about exercise in 2017

I once thought that exercise would be a lifelong struggle. I’d always dread it, it would never not suck, and I’d be constantly searching for more motivation to somehow keep going.

But these days, I can honestly say, that’s all changed. I no longer hate it. I don’t dread going. And, while it still takes some effort to make it happen, I no longer struggle to find motivation.

Here are 17 tips, strategies, and lessons I’ve used to change the way I see exercise in 2017.

1. Quit telling yourself you’re not athletic.

I used to think this constantly. Growing up I couldn’t skate. I’m legally blind, so sometimes my depth perception is off and I end up feeling clumsy and awkward.

But I’ve learned that athleticism isn’t something you’re born with. It’s a skill you develop.

Once I started to believe I could become more athletic, things started changing for the better. I felt more confident at the gym, started trying new things, and began to actually work on improving my athleticism.

I know a lot of people don’t like working out or running or playing sports because they don’t think they’re athletic. And the truth is, if you haven’t played a sport or ran around or done anything active for a few years, you’re probably not athletic right now.

But that can easily change. By moving more, you become more athletic. You just have to give it time.

And sure, some people are born more athletically gifted than others. But in general, that’s overblown. People who seem super athletic often just got off to a good start in life. They had encouraging parents and coaches. They spent their adolescence playing, learning, and getting better.

If anything, athletic people are proof that athleticism develops over time, not that it can’t.

2. Stop worrying about the weight.

Growing up I never had a flat stomach. At my biggest, I was over 250 pounds. But over the past couple years, as I’ve started to eat better and exercise more, I’ve dropped to 190.

I’m still not thin. My abs are still nowhere to be found. I still don’t look like the dudes you see in magazines.

And honestly, for a long time that bothered me. I thought, “What’s the point?” Why bother running and working out and eating better if I still couldn’t look like a fitness model?

But over the past year, it’s finally sunk in that exercise isn’t about weight loss. It’s not about the abs, or the scale, or even the comments from other people.

Exercise is about me. It’s about who I want to be and the life I want to live. My constant focus on weight loss made it a struggle. I never saw progress fast enough. Nothing I did was ever enough.

Now it’s more. Now I’m more. More confident, more energetic, more productive, more fun.

And, to be honest, the weight loss thing is so deeply engrained that, of course, I’d still like to lose 10 pounds and finally see my abs. But will I care if that day never comes? Not really.

I’m enjoying working out right now. I’m enjoying my life. And that’s what matters.

3. Focus on the mental benefits.

One of the things that helped shift my focus from weight loss, was a new focus on mental benefits. I love how creative I am after I go for a jog in the morning. I love how confident I feel after a morning of weightlifting. I love how relaxed I am after an hour of hot yoga after work.

Studies show that focusing on the mental benefits can actually make them greater. So, pay attention to how you feel after exercise. Focus on that feeling. And you’ll be more likely to want to do it again.

4. Do what works for you.

Everyone is different. And my office is a perfect example. Like you’d expect, ParticipACTION is filled with active people. But we don’t all do the same things.

Phil loves working out at lunch. I love going to the gym in the morning. My coworker Jon never goes to the gym, but he runs marathons and bikes to work almost every day. Georgia goes to yoga. Jesse plays team sports. Michelle bowls. Natalie and Diana do a little bit of everything.

Exercise is so much more than lifting weights in a gym. You can get active in a ton of different ways and incorporate movement into your day however you like.

Just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it’s the best way. The best routine is the one that works for you, your life, and your priorities. 

5. Feed off others’ success.

Another benefit of working at ParticipACTION is that I’m surrounded by active people.

Eight of the 22 people who work here ran a half-marathon in October—many who had never even run a mile before. And, even though I didn’t personally run, it was super inspiring to watch. It boosted my own confidence vicariously. They did it and that helped me feel like I could too.

6. Create motivation.

Another breakthrough was how I approached motivation. It’s no longer something I rely on, because I know I don’t always feel motivated to run or work out.

What I do know, however, is that I always feel more motivated after. It’s a consequence, not a cause. Action comes first. I know that if I just manage to show up that the motivation will come, and that’s a huge relief in a weird way. Like a burden has been lifted.

7. Set better defaults.

Making my everyday habits more active has also helped in a big way. I stopped taking escalators. I started walking downtown instead of riding the subway whenever possible. I started taking walking breaks after lunch or in the mid-afternoon. ‘Every little bit helps’ isn’t just a cliché—it literally does. Both in terms of health and in keeping the momentum going. Even on days I don’t run or go to the gym, I know I’m going to move more than I used to. Not by conscious choice, but by default.

8. Put consistency before rigidity.

This shift in mindset has also helped immensely. I used to be obsessed with sticking to a rigid schedule and would beat myself up when I missed a day.

All that negativity was toxic. It made getting back at it harder than it needed to be.

Now I put consistency before anything else. Just showing up. If I’m not feeling it on a particular day, I don’t run as far or lift as heavy. The biggest benefits from exercise come from doing it consistently, not from the extra 10 minutes on the treadmill or the extra set of reps.

9. Don’t underestimate the power of one.

On the flipside, I’ve stopped discounting the power of one activity. This year to celebrate Canada’s 150th, my office has done a bunch of different activities. We went skating. We did an obstacle course race. We played wheelchair basketball.

I haven’t since picked up any of these sports or activities. Trying something new can lead to a lifetime love, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that all these one-off activities add up. They’re a little bit more. And when it comes to exercise, a little bit more is always a good thing. Just because you’re not going to start skating every Sunday, doesn’t mean that going once doesn’t matter.

10. Get into good cycles.

I’ve also started to appreciate how important cycles are. It’s a recurring theme in exercise research.

More exercise leads to better sleep. Better sleep leads to more energy for exercise.

Consistent exercise leads to more confidence. More confidence leads to more consistent exercise.

Intense exercise leads to less stress. Less stress means I feel more like giving it my all at the gym.

The same applies to energy levels, moods, motivation, and competence. It’s all about getting the cycles on your side. Because vicious cycles are a thing too. And they’re tough to break.

Keep momentum on your side by getting the good cycles going.

11. Get better sleep.

One of the most important cycles has been my sleep. I used to think that it didn’t matter when I went to bed, that I should be disciplined enough to get up and get moving regardless.

That was a silly mindset. Getting enough sleep isn’t a weakness. It’s a source of strength, energy, and motivation. When I get enough sleep, I always move more.

So, I’ve started to make it a priority, rather than the first thing to go. I’ve tried to implement a consistent bedtime. I try to read or journal for at least 10 or 20 minutes before bed, rather than watching TV or scrolling through my phone. And as a result, it’s been easier to stick with getting up and going for a run in the morning, or getting to the gym.

12. Realize walking counts.

Understanding that walking has massive health benefits has also been a big shift.

I used to think that walking didn’t count as exercise because it was so easy. But in fact, just adding 10 or 20 minutes of additional walking into your day can help with all sorts of things, like your blood pressure, blood sugar, weight management, energy levels, moods, and more.

Walking counts as exercise. Don’t underestimate the benefits of walking more. If it seems too easy, walk faster, farther, or do the stairs. But don’t avoid walking because you don’t think it matters. It does.

13. Believe that exercise can be the best part.

This one might sound crazy if you’re currently not into exercise at all. It might sound like one of those things people say, but isn’t really true or could never apply to you.

But I’m serious when I say that exercise is now often the best part of my day. Maybe not the first five minutes. Maybe not the deep burn at the bottom of a squat on leg day. But the feeling when I walk out of the gym at 6 AM having already put in a workout? That feeling is awesome.

And there’s no doubt that it takes time to get there. There’s no doubt that some days, it still feels like work. But when I look back on the last year, some of my best memories were times when I was huffing and puffing. Jumping into a frigid lake in early March. Taking my first few quick strides on skates. Reaching a new personal best bench press.

Runner’s high always sounded fake to me. But now I get it. Exercise can enrich your life. It can be more enjoyable than watching TV. It can lead to fulfilling accomplishments and moments of bliss.

And that might sound far off or impossible. But it also may be closer than you think.

14. Get good shoes.

In the summer I got a new pair of running shoes because my feet always hurt after running. Turns out my feet do weird things when I run and having the right pair of shoes helps a ton. I know they can be expensive, but the investment has made a huge difference.

15. Identify as an active person.

A shift that’s happened just recently is that I’ve started to identify as an active person. This has made a huge difference because as soon as it’s part of your identity, it becomes more automatic. You don’t think about exercising, it’s just something you do.

And that definitely takes time. You can’t go from nothing to active for life.

But I used to think I’d always be lazy. I identified as a lazy person. That was who I was and who I would always be.

Now it’s not.

I know it’s not always that straightforward. But I know making the transition is possible, and worthwhile.

16. Understand that the benefits are super far-reaching.

I used to think that exercise was an isolated thing. I needed to exercise more to look better.

But looking better wasn’t always my top priority, so I struggled to stay consistent.

A huge shift in the past year has been understanding that the benefits of exercise are mind-blowingly far-reaching. It literally affects everything.

Not just physical things, like strengthening your lungs, heart, bones, and muscles.

Not just health things, like lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

But also mental things, like reducing anxiety, depression, negative thoughts, and stress.

And everyday things, like boosting your mood, energy, confidence, and creativity.

And professional things, like increasing your earnings, job performance, and ability to solve problems.

Even personal things, like improving your happiness, relationships, and loneliness.

The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not exercising, you’re selling yourself short. You’re not living life to its fullest.

Once this lesson started to sink in, I realized exercise was a non-negotiable. It wasn’t something I could afford to struggle with. It was something I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Because I know that if I don’t consistently exercise, I’ll regret it. I’ll wonder how much better life could’ve been in every way.

17. Exercise like life depends on it.

Because it does.

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