Monday, February 16, 2015

Stumbling Into an Exercise Habit

The first 6 weeks of 2015 were, on the face on it, very ordinary ones in my life. But underneath it all, it has been a time of profound transformation for me. Of small changes that led to big realizations. One of the biggies was the start of an exercise habit.

I hardly need to repeat the benefits of being active- there are too many to list and we are all aware of them- but it is one of those things that is definitely easier said than done. I've been trying to embrace an exercise habit for so many years, and I've failed repeatedly. By last year, I wasn't even really trying any more.

Then one thing led to another. It started last April, when our neighbors across the street came over for a meal. Neighbor lady said, hey, how about we start going for walks around the neighborhood after dinner? It sounded like a good idea- low key, low commitment. And it was. Since then, we've been walking a few times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on our schedules and the weather. Our neighborhood is hilly, so there is some exertion involved. But the important thing is that I felt like I was doing something active. Of course, going on long walks is also therapeutic as you get to have a heart to heart chat with a friend.

When May rolled around, this neighbor told me about an outdoor pool in town that is only open during the summer months. I loved to swim as a child, but hadn't been in a pool for almost 2 decades. She urged me to go check it out. I already owned a swimsuit that I'd bought years ago for a beach vacation. So I gathered up some courage and went to the pool. And saw men and women of all different ages and all different body types and body sizes swimming gracefully. I swam several times a week last summer. A cool dip in the pool in the hot Georgia summer, with blue skies overhead, surrounded by shady trees- my lunch-time swim was the highlight of my days. At the end of the swim, I often felt a wave of exhilaration- the exercise "high" that I've heard about. On swimming days, my sleep was deep and sound.

I can swim laps easily and stay afloat indefinitely but my swimming technique is not great. Basically, I keep my head above water- and if you've seen good swimmers doing the freestyle stroke, you know how they submerge their faces and come up for air every few seconds. My poor technique was straining my neck and slowing me down. By the end of summer, I made a promise to myself to take some swimming lessons so that by the time summer 2015 rolled around, I would know how to swim "properly" once and for all.

After summer came our trip to India and there was very little time or opportunity while we were there to get any real exercise. Back home, I knew I wanted to get moving again. The pool was closed and it was getting too cold and dark for regular post-dinner walks (although we still go a couple of times a week). I found this post with some free home workout ideas and tried some of them. I was doing one of the routines (a YouTube video) every other day for a couple of months and it was OK but I wasn't too excited about it.

Meanwhile, a friend gave me the phone number of her occasional babysitter, a young nursing student who also works as a swim instructor. In Jan, I texted the instructor and set up a 30 minute swim lesson at a community gym with an indoor pool. She turned out to be a wonderful instructor- she knew how to teach the right technique of breathing during freestyle swimming plus she was very sweet and reassuring. The first time I dipped my face in the water, I started spluttering and choking. It feels very unnatural for a land-dwelling mammal to put their head underwater. But I was told that the whole inhale-outside-exhale-underwater cycle comes with practice.

I might not love to exercise but I LOVE to learn. I feel alive and happiest when I am learning something new. And as an "obliger", I want to please my teacher so I work hard for the praise. Granted, most times, I'm learning something that requires mental skills (knitting a lace pattern, using a new computer program), but still, I embraced this physical challenge of learning to breathe correctly while swimming. I needed access to the pool to practice, so I got a 30 day membership (it was super cheap, since it happened to be January, the month of enticing gym discounts). I went to the pool 2-3 times a week and did my best to practice what the instructor taught. It was hard but in a matter of weeks, I'm about 75% of the way there. It turned out that wearing swim goggles made a huge difference in being comfortable with putting my face underwater. And it is exciting to feel like I will soon be a "real proper swimmer" zipping through the water quite effortlessly.

When I got the gym membership for the pool access, the person at the front desk told me that all classes come free with the membership. Well, if I'd sort of already paid for the classes, why not drop in and see what they are like? The first couple of classes weren't ideal- the first one was too crowded with about 25 people jammed into the room, and in the second class, the teacher kept chatting about sports and politics during the class, which I did not enjoy. Then I found a twice-weekly class that is quite perfect- at a good time (in the morning after I drop off Lila), with a half hour of stretching and a half hour of strength training. It has all the ingredients of being perfect for a beginner- an enthusiastic and welcoming instructor, 5-7 people in the class, upbeat music, workouts that are not too easy and too not hard for my out-of-shape self. Again, this taps into my true nature. I am not inclined to exercise on my own at home, but I am very good at showing up on time for a class and obediently doing whatever the instructor says to do.

For the last month, I've been swimming twice a week, and doing these classes twice a week. And to my utter disbelief, this is all a lot of fun and I look forward to it. It is a small and basic community gym, with friendly and mostly older patrons, so I don't feel out of place and intimidated like I might in a swanky gym surrounded by picture perfect bodies. I've paid for another 3 months of gym membership.

And then a couple of weeks ago I went down two floors to see a colleague about something, and she was standing at her desk. She gave me a spiel about how sitting long hours is terrible for our health. For a lark, I found some boxes and thick books to put under my monitors and keyboard and rigged up a standing desk for myself. And then I loved it/got too lazy to remove the boxes and so I've been standing (more like fidgeting around on my feet) the whole time during my working hours. I only work 3 days a week, but still, it feels great to not be trapped in a chair. The office manager did order an anti-fatigue mat for me to stand on which makes it much more comfortable.

Walking, swimming, exercise classes, standing at my desk. That's a whole lot of changes in a short time. None were planned but I am so grateful that things started to fall in place. Only time will tell if I continue to stay this excited about exercising, but I definitely have a good feeling that this time it is different and maybe the habit is clicking for real. There's a sense of relief that maybe I'm not the hopeless couch potato that I thought I was. "The best exercise is the one you do", it is said, and I am glad that friends have encouraged me to start doing something and not keep waiting for the perfect moment and the perfect workout.

If you have any tips for an exercise newbie, send them my way! I'd love to hear about how you're fitting exercise into your life, or if you're struggling to fit it in.

30 comments:

  1. Oh Nupur, I am SO happy to read this post. :-) Kudos to you for swimming after decades and learning a new technique. I am so glad you found a class you like to go to, stretching and strength training will benefit you in so many ways, not too easy and not to difficult sounds perfect! I am very happy and excited for you. Hugs!

    I attend zumba classes 4 times a week and do moderate strength training twice a week. I am blessed to have really good instructors. The post workout high is so addictive that I have been regular even when I had good reasons to miss it. I use a FitBit wristband to track my steps, it helps me stay more active at work. I have finally been able to kick the caffeine habit, I still have it as a rare treat but don't need it everyday and it is doing me so good since I am caffeine sensitive. I eat an apple instead of reaching out for a sugary cup of coffee/tea and surprisingly don't crave for caffeine at all.

    My tips for a fellow exercise newbie :-) would be to have a protein rich post exercise snack/meal after workout and to drink lots of water. Finding some kind of exercise you like is half the battle won...this first half is the difficult part, persistently doing it gets easier if the exercise makes you happy and fulfilled.

    Cheers!
    Priti

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    1. You're so right about the post-workout high. In my case, it might be simple relief that finally I'm doing the thing that I've struggled so long to do. And that happy feeling keeps me going back. Good to know that you're now the master of caffeine rather than the other way around!

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  2. Your new routine of exercise sounds like so much fun. The good thing about swimming too is that it's a whole body exercise. Cheering you on.
    I mentioned I've been walking/running since last May. Nowadays I go to the gym 5-6 times a week. It's got to the point where I feel guilty if I don't go. Plus I look forward to the activity and feel so good afterwards.
    I've sustained my habit for nearly 10 months now. Hope to continue this year too.
    Arpita.
    PS. I keep a little sheet of records of workouts every month which keeps me motivated.

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    1. Arpita- Three cheers for you for keeping up the exercise routine for all this time- that means it is sticking. Swimming is definitely a whole body workout and it completely exhausts me in a good way.

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  3. I recently enrolled in a gym. I love to dance and I attend the Zumba classes. When I exercise at home, I give up within 20 minutes. But in the gym, I push myself to dance for an hour. There's good group motivation and I also feel ashamed to give up when people elder than me don't give up. I have noticed that whenever I attend the class, I feel more energized and happy the rest of the day. Apart from Zumba, I also like to attend the Yoga class.
    To keep a track of how often I go to the gym and what I do, I simply jot it down on the calendar. For example, Z for Zumba.
    I am also trying to be more active in the household work. Simple chores such as cleaning, loading/unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming are good calorie burners.
    I want to go to the gym more often and stop making excuses for not exercising. I think I need to set more specific goals for myself.
    -Swapna

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    1. I'm the same way- no way could I exercise for a whole hour at home but in the gym, time just flies in the company of others. You make a very good point about housework. I've been looking at dreaded chores (scrubbing floors, washing windows) in a whole new light, as functional exercise.

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  4. Congrats on your changes! I've also struggled to exercise -- I just don't enjoy it most of the time, so I've gotten a FitBit and I'm really motivated just by seeing the step numbers increase toward my goal. (I've also gotten into an informal competition with a few friends and co-workers...that helps too!) Once the weather gets nicer, I plan to bike/hike some more -- the winter months are tough.

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    1. You have my sympathies with regards to winter weather, Bek! That's when everyone but hardcore exercisers need an indoor option. Good idea to involve your co-workers and friends in the exercise habit. Nothing like positive peer pressure!

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  5. This all sounds awesome Nupur. I too try to stand at my desk while working, but I am not too consistent with it. Good work on the new exercise routine!

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  6. My comment on the anniversary post disappeared. Hope this one goes through!
    This post hits home for me Nupur. I have never exercised a day in my life. I want to but, not sure what to do or where to begin. I also don't know how to make time for it at this point. I work full time and have two kids. Between their kids and school stuff, I barely have time for anything else. I have been dealing with sciatica since mid of last year. So, running or walking too much are not an option for me. I am inspired by your swimming experience though. I used to swim back in India too but, haven't done so in two decades. I take my kids to swim class, I should probably inquire about adult classes.

    Keep up with your work outs!

    -Anu

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    1. Hi Anu- Sorry about the previous comment disappearing- no idea why that happens from time to time. I don't know much about sciatica in particular but in general, swimming is a good option for people with chronic pain because it is not a weight bearing exercise. There are numerous instructors everywhere who will teach adults in a group setting or one on one. I'm enjoying being in the water very much!

      Does your workplace have a gym on site or close by? If you could arrange with your employer to take 45-60 minutes out during lunch (or at the beginning or end of the day) to go exercise, that might be a way to buy time. Some places have wellness programs. A friend at work might be a good exercise buddy. Just throwing out some ideas! Getting started is the hard part, once you do something- anything- even brisk walking- you've started and you'll do more.

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  7. You are such an inspiration Nupur. Remember on one of your previous posts I commented how I am unable to conceive because of my weight? I read yours and everyone else's suggestions on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I have made small but important changes to my diet - like eating less rice and phulkas and more salads, dals, yogurt, buttermilk and veggies. I have also included lots of fruits, oats and healthy grains and almost eliminated chips, chivda, farsan and the like. It's not easy at all, but I'm getting there slowly. I'm almost never hungry (OMG!!!), which just proves the dietician was entirely wrong about me not exercising any self-restraint. All I needed was some motivation and a push in the right direction. Can't thank you enough for that. I'm fairly confident of sticking to my new diet, primarily because it does not make me feel hungry. Hopefully, I'll shed enough weight to bring my BMI back into the acceptable range so that I can have a baby soon :)

    I'm a vegetarian who does not eat eggs. I have been asked to up my protein intake. I have never tried tofu and I fear I won't like it because of its smell and texture. Do you have any good recipes for tofu that you think will make people like it?

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    1. Your comment made my day! I'm so happy that the small changes are giving you results. It can only get better and better. I had the same thing happen- I'm not constantly hungry any more- and that's SUCH a game changer, isn't it? Good luck and I hope your dreams come true!

      About the protein. First, don't underestimate the protein content and nutritional content of beans, dals, nuts and vegetables. It is not true that you HAVE to eat tofu or eggs or anything that you don't want to. Protein deficiency is a rare problem for people like us who have access to a variety of good food. If a nutritionist is urging you to try tofu, it may be because they are simply unaware of the great variety of bean and lentil dishes in Indian food. (By the way, tofu is a legume product also).

      Having said that, I personally love tofu and eat it every now and then (probably once a week or so). If you do want to try tofu, my first suggestion would be to go to a good Thai or Chinese restaurant. At home, try marinating the tofu in a tandoori marinade or a soy sauce marinade and sautéing it. To me, tofu has no smell and the texture is like paneer. Nothing too weird at all and no reason to fear it.

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    2. Hello Anonymous,

      I am so happy to read your update. I agree with everything Nupur has said above. I would just like to add that tofu comes in different densities (soft, firm, extra firm) and you can use the firm or extra firm variety in indian curries like you use paneer. You can make chapati/paratha dough or fruit smoothies using the softer one. Tofu is pretty bland by itself so it needs other flavorings to add taste. There are other forms of soy protein you can include in your diet. Steamed edamame is my favorite, I also love using soya chunks in spicy curries but limit its use since it is a processed product. I love to sprout all kind of beans and legumes regularly and make a warm salad with it for a protein rich nutritious meal. Good luck! :-)

      - Priti

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  8. Oh dear, my previous comment was supposed to appear on a different post related to diets. I didn't mean to hijack this exercise post. So sorry!

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    1. No worries- I'm very glad you commented!

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  9. Hi-five for sticking to exercise regimen! And kudos to learning how to swim properly. Exercising with bad form can be dangerous and I am glad you learnt the correct technique!
    My current forms of exercise include running for 3 days a week and some sort of strength training couple of days. I have always loved to exercise and I do crave for that adrenaline high post work out. But my sole problem this past year is finding the time to be consistent. Having a one year old and a full time job makes things very hectic. The days I do happen to workout, it is in the company gym. Once home, I lack the motivation to step out and prefer to spend time with my little one. Another thing that we have started doing, my hubby and I will do short exercise bursts in the evening at home. Things like squats, lunges, push ups, abs and core training. Our 15 month old finds it very entertaining that mommy-daddy are jumping around and doing weird things and he gets all excited and squeal-y.
    The most useful advice anyone gave me regarding exercise was: 1) be consistent (that is, no long gaps) 2) Do the exercise that you find most difficult to do. Because that will likely be the exercise you mostly need. And, also, to keep changing exercises. Switch between swimming, running, elliptical, core training, yoga.

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    1. If you inherently love to exercise, that's half the battle won! Good for you for doing the short exercise bursts whenever you can fit it in. And you are so right about doing different kinds of activities because they all have different benefits and work different muscle groups. Being consistent is my number 1 priority right now, I have to keep at it until the exercise becomes a mindless habit like brushing my teeth.

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  10. Hi Nupur,
    Very motivating post. I too try to walk 3 miles a day.
    If it is too hot or too cold outside this video of Leslie Simone
    walk at home is perfect. https://vimeo.com/74437189

    Vinita

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    1. Good for you! The video looks good and something that absolutely anyone can do in their own home.

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  11. hello Nupur,
    I'm thrilled beyond words to hear the progress you've made in such a short time..kudos to you :-)

    I have always loved swimming but somehow cannot get myself to breathe in water. My problem is I've taken swim lessons in summer; but by winter, the water in the pool gets so cold that I just cannot push myself to swim :-( I live in Ohio and winters are pretty cold; so swimming in cold water just throws me off. I've kind of given up on swimming but have found other exercises I enjoy doing 5 days a week. I do yoga 2 days and cardio coupled with strength training exercises for 3 days. I love these classes; and during summer months, I walk a lot. Past few years, I've been walking for all sorts of causes, Komen for cure, relay 4 life, American Heart Association, ALS etc. It's for a great cause and kind of fun doing it with friends; and for them.
    Tips for a beginner would be - dont try to do too much too soon. I ran for few years and have a knee injury. Lesson learned is to take exercising gradually, start with low intensity workouts and gradually move to higher intensity. Stretch regularly and give importance to correct form than speed while exercising to avoid injuries. Keep yourself hydrated.
    Over the years, I've made friends at the gym (including the instructors) and it feels like a second home to me. We workout, socialize, share food, recipes etc and our kids play together as well. There are days when I am not keen on heading to the gym; but my son forces me to go coz his friends will be at the soccer field that day !!!!

    Keep up the good work :-) Stay motivated :-)
    Meena.

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    1. Meena- breathing under water (well exhaling under water and inhaling above water) does feel totally weird. I had to make myself do it- but within a few weeks, I did get used to it which was a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't like swimming in cold water either- luckily our indoor pool is usually pretty warm (a lot of the senior patrons use it for water aerobics and they like it warm).

      Walking/running for various causes is a most fantastic idea, it adds a nice social aspect and community building to the basic exercise. Thanks for the great tips and for sharing how you stay motivated!

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  12. OMG, this post sounded like my alter ego writing about my exact relationship with any activity of any kind that can be compared to exercise rigour :-)

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  13. dont know if my last comment got published. wanted to recommend this blog - http://www.fannetasticfood.com/
    she is a RD and runner. looking at her exercise logs motivates me to exercise. :)

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    1. Too many ads and sponsored posts on that blog- it puts me off!

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  14. That's great, Nupur! Swimming is one of the best exercises (or so I hear, because I can't swim :D). I am not big on gym. I like to have my own space when I exercise..so I do light yoga/pilates at home. My rigorous workout is when I dance - I attend kathak class once a week and practice at home. It's a great workout and still doesn't feel like it!

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    1. Ah I would love love love to be able to take Kathak classes. Learned it as a kid and love that dance form. Good luck to you and keep dancing!

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  15. Hey Nupur, Glad to hear about your fitness plan in action. I enjoy working out but at times I am left with no energy after a long world day and to top it this brutal winter in Pitts. So you get the picture, very easy to not exercise during winter months. I am better off during summer months as I take long brisk walks around the park or ride a bicycle. To not loose the momentum in winter months I do indoor workouts, I do jumping ropes and some abdominal crunches with low weight lifting for upper body. I alternate the jumping ropes with squats some days(count of 50) as it is great workout for the whole body. That is my winter 30 minutes routine to not gain additional pounds if not loosing any pounds :)

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    1. I can just imagine the brutal and depressing weather right now up North! This winter has been tough for you guys. I hear you about not having energy at the end of the day. That's why I am exercising first thing in the morning, to get it out the way before the day really even begins.

      Jump rope is a great idea!! I might enjoy doing that. Good luck with your workouts and hope Spring arrives soon.

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