Getting Back Into Shape by Getting Back Into the Practice of Practice

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I allowed the COVID restrictions imposed upon us to ruin my mental and physical health. I stopped exercising; first “regularly,” then “at all.” This:

  • ruined my fitness level
  • cost me muscle tone
  • led to irregular (and poor) eating
  • made my already poor quality sleep much, much worse
  • and worst of all made me lose the habit (and even the joy) of exercise

Because I have always been body proud, losing this fitness edge added to the damage that the COVID isolation was doing to my mental health.

I was a mess.

About 7 weeks ago I determined I would work my way out of it, but I was in a bit of a bind. I was not just weak and out of shape, I was also so out of the practice of regular exercise that even before I could get back into shape, I had to practice the practice.

Practice the practice?

Yes. I have two sons who are studying piano. One of them is very talented, and needs to be nagged into his daily practices. Even after he sits down at the piano, he must be watched to ensure he gets all of his time and repetitions in.

The other, though less talented, is extraordinarily determined in everything he does. He needs gentle reminders to practice, and as soon as he sits to practice can be counted on to do everything.

Both kids need to practice the piano, but one kid needs also to practice his practice, while the other does not.

Sadly, similar to the less disciplined child and his piano, I have fallen out of the habit of exercise, so one of the great obstacles I have to getting back into shape is relearning this habit. In short, I have to practice the habit of daily exercise.

This is the New Years Resolution conundrum.

Every year we are encouraged to resolve to accomplish some great task. The trouble is that we rarely have the necessary tools to accomplish it. In terms of exercise, we resolve to get back in shape.

Okay, but what does “get back in shape” mean? Does it mean aerobic fitness, to be able to run 5 miles in 30 minutes? Does it mean strength training, to be able to bench press our weight?

Without a clear goal, how can we even make the resolution.

Then comes the problem of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). One hard workout after a long break means that we’re going to be too sore to do anything, for anywhere from 3 days to a week. So we go to the gym once, wait too long for our recovery, go back once or twice, and then make excuse after excuse until the resolution evaporates like a fart in a windstorm.

Since we don’t have the habit of exercise, in addition to exercising our bodies, we need to exercise our habits. We need to practice the practice.

I was in this place.

Over the course of the COVIDiocy, I lost the habit of exercise. I tried to restart a couple of times, but each time I tried, something like the New Years Resolution conundrum stopped me. I’d go for a couple of runs, and the soreness and tiredness would be too much, and I’d excuse my way out of continuing.

One evening my youngest and I decided to do our weight workout. I reduced the weight I was going to use, and we only did 2/3 of the workout, and still I hurt the next day. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to go full on, 3 days a week.

As I said, I had to relearn the habit; I had to practice the practice. Which I have been doing.

For three weeks I took a brisk walk, every day. Even as I felt my fitness levels improve and knew I could do more, I refused to add anything out of the fear of triggering the conundrum.

After three weeks, I added a short (10 to 15 minute) yoga practice to my daily routine. After I’d been at it for 2 weeks I started alternating my yoga between back maintenance and core strength. I’ve been at that for over 3 weeks now, so surely I’ve got the habit of exercise back, right?

Nope.

About a week ago I noticed that it was increasing hard to motivate myself to take my walks, and to do my yoga. The yoga was getting later and later in the evenings, crowding bed time, so I was shortening the routine; doing maybe 2 sets of a posture instead of 3. I love yoga, but that love of yoga wasn’t enough, I still needed to practice the practice.

So I used a technique I learned from Robert Cialdini, laid out in his wonderful book Pre-Suasion, the if/when-then technique.

If/when I do my complete yoga routine, then I can watch an episode of Brooklyn 99. I know, dumb show, dumb reward, but it works. Doing this forced me to better schedule my evenings so that I get in my full yoga routine in order to get my reward, and still get to bed on time.

This Friday marks the 7 week point in my new fitness regimen. I am by no means in anywhere near the shape I was, want to be, or will again get back to. I’m not even fully back into having the habit of regular exercise, it’s still a chore.

But by practicing the practice, day by day it’s getting a little easier to do that chore, and someday soon I’ll break through the barrier and it will go back to being a joy, and not a chore.


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