Mistake 1: No days to every day
If you’re right at the beginning of your fitness journey, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll be able to immediately transition from not exercising at all to exercising every day. It’s also unlikely you’ll be able to exercise every day without burning out or getting injured. The truth is, too much too soon is a recipe for disaster, and adopting an all or nothing mentality can create real problems. Not only is it a difficult mental space to escape, but it also carries over to other behaviors. Before long, you’ll start thinking things like “I didn’t work out yesterday, so I may as well not work out for the rest of the week.”
You might think your fitness routine has to be a fixed thing, written clearly in black and white, but it’s actually okay if there’s a little grey area.
It’s possible to honor your commitments to yourself without being too rigid. Flexibility is key. Remember: getting fit doesn’t hinge on a single exercise session. One workout won’t make or break you. If you can’t get to the gym on a particular day, you can recreate the level of activity you need by tweaking how you manage your time. Activity over time is what leads to fitness, whether that means working out or simply being more physically engaged as you move through your daily routine. In fact, some fitness enthusiasts suffer from what’s called “active coach potato syndrome.” When they’re away from the gym, they lead a sedentary lifestyle which, despite their workout schedule, leaves them at elevated risk for disease. True fitness creates joy for the individual and is achieved by weaving a healthy and sustaining level of activity into everyday life.
Mistake 2: No help and no accountability
Our society suffers under a completely dysfunctional concept of body image and skewed, almost delusional beliefs about weight. Our collective attitude about weight and size is overwhelmingly negative. Our general aversion to anything but waif-like skinniness or a cut, muscular frame might even be viewed as a new form of bigotry.
If you’re thinking of embarking on weight-loss and/or fitness program, it’s no wonder you might feel a slight bit of shame. No one can blame you for not speaking up, because the deck is stacked against you. The prospect that people will heap scorn and disrespect on you is very real. Asking for help can be scary.
The best thing to do is find a fitness professional or a friend you trust—someone non-judgmental who’ll listen to your needs with compassion and understanding. Anyone you pair up with should come from a place we call “weight neutral,” meaning they’re neither brainwashed into thinking skinny means healthy, nor do they believe big is bad. If they’re a friend with a similar goal, perfect. They’ll act as an accountability partner and a motivator. The flavor of the relationship should always be supportive, encouraging, and mutually fulfilling. Both of you should be fully engaged and committed to the process.
One great idea is to get your spouse involved. A study conducted in 2015 by the University College of London followed more than 3,700 couples over age 50 for a 13-year span. Researchers found almost 70% of couples who exercised together were still going strong two years later. Of the couples who worked out separately, only about 25% were still at it. The takeaway from this study is that accountability works. And if it involves extra quality family time, even better!
Mistake 3: Not enough variety or balance
Many people believe cardiovascular exercise—running, cycling, swimming, etc.—is the best way to maximize health and lose weight. Although cardio is wonderful and has many benefits, it’s a mistake to rely on it exclusively. Over-emphasis on cardio leads to chronic patterns which promote inflammation, elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, and hormonal abnormalities.
For many people, fitness has become almost an addiction. They crave an endorphin rush every time they work out and judge the quality of their workouts by how hard they went or how much they did. Unfortunately, neither of these metrics translate to true fitness.
Understanding appropriate levels of intensity and the amount of cardio necessary for your personal needs is essential to your overall health and fitness. Workouts that are slightly too difficult can alter metabolic function, inhibit fat metabolism, and promote carbohydrate dependency. Too much of one thing, particularly intense cardio, puts you at risk of undermining your long-term health and sabotaging your short-term goals.
When first starting out, balance is everything. A well-rounded approach that prioritizes healthy stress and recovery patterns and includes metabolically rich strength training sessions to maintain muscle mass is much more effective than simply killing the cardio every day. Fitness goes beyond how long you can stay on a treadmill, how many spinning classes you can take in a week, or how many miles you can run on the road.
Mistake 4: Focusing on external factors
If you want to get fit, and more importantly, if you want to sustain your fitness and make it a part of your lifestyle, it really comes down to asking yourself three questions:
What about this fitness activity am I enjoying?
How do I feel after each of my sessions?
What about my life is different now that I’m beginning to exercise?
If you can dial in clear answers to each of these questions during and after every workout, you’ll be on a steady path to a sustainable fitness lifestyle.
Too often the focus is on something you can’t control like the number on a scale instead of how you feel or how much you enjoy the activity itself. This is backwards. When making a lifestyle change it’s crucial to set aside the numbers and focus on your internal thoughts and feelings. Your state of mind is key. You’re genetically pre-disposed to a certain weight range; after that, your environment and behavior determine the rest. What you absolutely must understand is that weight is not a direct predictor of health.
That bears repeating: weight is not a direct predictor of health. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the sooner you let go of the number on the scale, the sooner you’ll reach your weight and fitness goals.
Instead, focus on the immediate moments of your life. Things you can feel. Become aware of how much easier it is to get up and down a set of stairs, and celebrate that. Recognize the increased level of energy you have throughout your day. Enjoy it. Measure progress in your strength training as well as how much easier it is to sustain a new heart rate—but don’t obsess on the numbers. Concentrate on how great those things feel. These internal sensations and how you feel about your new ability to do something far outweigh any external goals you set beforehand.
Mistake 5: Failure to address nutrition
“I did this so I can eat that.”
This kind of self-talk happens far too often when people are trying to lose weight, and it needs to be eliminated. Yes, energy balance plays a role in whether or not you lose or maintain weight, but it’s only part of the story. Fitness and weight loss can’t be reduced to a simple mathematical equation. There are many more factors involved than counting calories in against calories out. How you move through your day, your overall relationship between being sedentary and active, and consistent management of your hormone levels are what make the difference—not the relationship between the calories in a slice of cake and the time you spend on an elliptical trainer.
When you start a fitness routine, it’s important to include a comprehensive approach to nutrition in your planning. In some cases, physical activity will make all the difference and can be a great start. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough. Research shows that between 2001 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who were sufficiently physically active increased, but so did the percentage who were obese. This means that physical activity alone doesn’t ultimately mean you’ll reach your healthy weight. Nutrition has to be part of the picture.
If you fail to address the nutrition component, it’s likely you won’t see the changes you want. You may become discouraged, resentful, and give up on your fitness program. You don’t have to tackle everything at once, but you need to make sure you address what you eat. This includes the types of foods you eat and when you eat them—nutrition cannot and should not be reduced to simply counting calories. Along with your fitness program, a sound nutritional program is the biggest behavioral factor contributing your overall health.
To set yourself up for success, begin your fitness journey with the knowledge that working out is not the be all and end all. Accomplishing your wellness goals takes a comprehensive, holistic, and integrated approach. Be flexible, find a partner, change it up, listen to your inner voice, and eat a healthy, balanced diet—these five steps will help you stay on a sustainable track to overall health.