Exercise and I have a tumultuous relationship. At best, it’s sunshine, roses and defined triceps; at worst, it’s, in the wise words of Miss Britney Jean Spears, toxic. Here’s how it usually goes: I get really into working out, I go too hard, get burnt out and then stop exercising for months (or years).
Here’s an example: After playing sports my entire life, I got recruited to play soccer in college, which obviously meant working out constantly. At the start of my sophomore year, I decided that, for the sake of my mental health, I was going to quit. For the first time in 19 years, there was no coach yelling at me to do another lap—no real need to exercise at all. I was completely over the idea of physical exertion, so I just…stopped. Unsurprisingly, I gained weight and was completely unhappy, so I embarked on another intense bout of fitness, which eventually led to another break.
In the year since, the cycle has continued. A few months ago, as I’m wont to do, I decided that enough was enough and it was time to get back into some sort of workout routine. Not only was I not happy with my body, but I felt down, mentally.
So I set out to do some sort of physical activity every day for two weeks to see if it would make me a happier person and—spoiler alert—it did.
What Did I Do?
It would be silly (and physically dangerous) to do intense workouts seven days a week, so I planned out a variety of high- and low-impact forms of exercise to cycle through. Some days I rode my CAROL stationary bike; some days I did a full-body workout on YouTube; some days I decided to walk to get my coffee at the Starbucks that’s a little further from my house.
Because I’m still working remotely, it was easier than ever to commit to an everyday workout plan. I could take a 30-minute walk during my lunch break or do a Pilates video before logging on without having to wake up at the crack of dawn.
And even though I’ve always preferred group fitness classes to solo sweat sessions, I’ve learned to love working out alone. Whereas I used to push myself extra hard to prove to the instructor how athletic I was, now I’m doing it for me. It’s been refreshing.
How Did I Feel?
In a word, amazing. Once I got through the initial soreness that’s to be expected from not working out for a year, my body felt lighter and looser than it had in a long time. I also noticed that I was falling asleep easier and waking up feeling more refreshed than usual. Mentally, I felt happier. Not happier in the sense that all of the world’s problems had gone away, but happier like a little dark cloud that had been hanging over my head moved slightly to the left.
It wasn’t just a placebo effect: Countless studies have shown that there’s a clear relationship between exercise and the brain. A few years ago, I spoke to Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, who told me that 30 minutes or more of daily exercise “increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to the regulation of mood and social behavior, as well as sleep, appetite and memory, all of which contribute to a balanced mind and body.”
But exactly how much fitness do you need to reap the rewards of a sharper brain? According to a study published in the Journal of Neurology and Clinical Practice, it’s not actually a ton. Researchers found that low-intensity exercise for a cumulative total of 52 hours over the course of six months—about two hours a week—is enough to see serious brain benefits, including global cognition, processing speed and attention span and executive function (a set of mental skills that helps you get things done).
5 Things That Helped Me Get Back into a Workout Routine
1. Start Small
If you’re not currently working out consistently, don’t expect to hop right in without feeling sorer than you thought was possible. Instead, start small and work your way up to exercising every day. Soon enough you’ll be so used to it that you’ll almost forget about a time when you didn’t have to do laundry twice a week just for workout clothes.
2. Plan Ahead (But Don’t Be Scared to Stray from Your Schedule)
When it comes to a consistent exercise plan, preparation is everything. At the beginning of each week (say, Sunday night), take a look at your schedule for the week and map out your workouts. Whether that means blocking off an hour for a yoga video or scheduling a long outdoor walk with a friend, you’ll be way more likely to stick to a routine if it’s on your calendar days in advance. That said, don’t beat yourself up if your schedule is out of control and you have to skip a session.
3. Invest in Workout Clothes (and Accessories) You Love
By now we’ve established that the clothes we wear and how we present ourselves are linked pretty closely with how confident we feel. The same goes for workout attire and gear. Whether it’s an expert-approved new yoga mat or a cute and motivational water bottle, fitness accoutrements that make you feel like you can kick ass make it a whole lot easier to actually kick ass.
4. Don’t Go All Out Every Day
Working out intensely seven days a week is not only tiring, it could be dangerous. Your body needs time to recover, which is why it’s essential to set aside days for light, restorative workouts like slow-flow yoga or even a long, brisk walk.
5. Don’t Beat Yourself Up if You Miss a Day
We get it, life happens. Sometimes you don’t have any time to work out or you just really aren’t feeling it (or you’re really sick, of course). Those days, it’s totally fine not to exercise, as long as you get back in the groove soon.