Q & A: On finding a non-despicable workout routine.

By | January 19, 2010

My Formspring.me project forges onward, tall and proud! If you have a question, anonymous or otherwise, there’s still time to ask. Two of the more common ones I’ve been getting are variations on “why are you awesome?” (I’m not! I don’t know! Lesley is flustered by compliments!) and “when will you write a book?” (soon, I hope, if I can find an agent willing to put up with me). You can read my accumulated answers (44 answers to 44 questions so far, according to the site) and/or submit your own inquiry over on my Formspring page. Immense thanks for giving me so many excellent questions thus far, my darlings.

Q. You stated in another answer that your workout routine is “engaging, challenging, and great fun.” I’m a happy fat-lady who hates working out (with capital H) – what is your routine and/or can you give a girl some suggestions for enjoying it more?

A. I enthusiastically love the gym. I am aware that this is kind of unusual. I am also aware that the gym is this preposterous first-world invention, and even as I am exercising I frequently look around and am astonished at how we’re all basically hamsters on different kinds of wheels, chugging away to nowhere. But I LOVE IT.

Without a gym, I am less in love with working out as a concept. For me, my enjoyment is tied up in the ritual of going to a Special Working-Out Place; in truth, I think part of my love affair with the gym is rooted in the fact that exercise is the best self-care I can administer. It’s a huge privilege to be able to afford and attend a gym, and to me, every time I go, I feel a little of what I imagine some women feel when they go to a spa (though I wouldn’t know, having never been to a spa): it’s a big self-indulgent, a bit luxurious, a bit narcissistic.

I document my own daily workout routines on a chart—I am a nerd, okay—but I’m not going to attempt to reproduce it exactly here, because it’s more the philosophy behind it that makes my workouts fun than it is a particular sequence of activities.

First: Only do things you like, or which are at least tolerable. The second I start trying to force myself to use a machine that I hate, exercise becomes a punishment, which is the surest route to me avoiding it. Be unembarrassed about trying every machine; and be willing to try said machines a few times before writing them off as misery-inducing. Years ago I began a great love affair with the elliptical trainer, which persists to this day. However, at the time I was also enamored of the recumbent bike, which I have since come to despise. If you start to hate any part of your routine, do something else.

Second: Don’t force yourself into a lockstep routine you’ll quickly get bored with. I have a general overall time-spent-working-out as a target, but I don’t require myself to spend a minimum amount of time doing any one thing. If this means I spend 52 minutes on the elliptical and 5 minutes on the treadmill and 2 minutes and 15 seconds on the stair-climber-thing on a given day, then that’s fine. Another day I may do a round of lifty-weight machines and then spend 20 minutes ellipticalling and 20 minutes treadmilling. Another day I may swim laps for an hour and do nothing else. Keeping my routine flexible is a big deal, even though it’s rare I change it up much — just knowing I’m allowed to switch things around at my whim, that I’m not locked in to any particular schedule, is reassuring.

[One thing I DON’T do is the ridiculous habit many folks at my gym have of cranking up the incline on the treadmill to a 45-degree angle, so they have to cling desperately to the console to keep from falling off the end as they plod away. Why in hell do people do that?]

Third: Entertainment! ForEVER I just listened to music (via specially-created uptempo playlists) on my iPod at the gym. It was fun, it kept me moving, it occasionally got me stared at for dancing on the treadmill. Unfortunately my gym, like many gyms these days, is chockablock with television monitors, so eventually I found myself tuning out my music and getting distracted reading the closed-captioning on CNN. Which is not so relaxing, and I mostly go to the gym to relax. In search of something more engaging than music, last year I started listening to podcasts and audiobooks. This was basically the greatest idea I’ve ever had. I get to catch up on NPR, something I actually look forward to, at the same time I’m exercising. I can’t use my iPod in the pool (YET) which is a bummer, but I enjoy swimming for its own sake so much that I rarely miss it.

Really, the best advice I can give you is to find something you don’t hate, and ideally, something you like. Maybe you’re not a gym person and would rather go for outdoor hikes. Maybe you’d prefer something less workout-centric and would dig a dance class (or a yoga or pilates class) instead. Maybe a social sport friendly to lots of different fitness levels would work for you: for example, Boston has a foursquare league (http://www.squarefour.org/) I’ve been dying to check out, if I can get over my fear of competitive sports (there are also local kickball teams in my area). Try everything, and know that all kinds of movement “count” as exercise, even the ones that are fun.

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