In a word, how are you feeling in this moment?
Maybe you’re feeling hopeful that maybe, just maybe this is the blog post that will help you make exercise part of your lifestyle. (I hope so, too!)
At the same time, you may be feeling stressed and overwhelmed from carrying a heavier than usual load of responsibility, made more difficult by the uncertainty of the time we are living in. Women’s lives especially have been upended by this pandemic.
Ladies, this post is for you. Yes, these are unprecedented times, and yes these strategies can still help you figure out how to fit exercise in your life, beat stress, and improve your overall health, which is more important now than ever.
How Exercise Helps Us Beat Stress
Stress not only diminishes our ability to navigate the present, but chronic stress is also a serious health risk factor that impacts our long-term health and how we will experience our future.
Moving our bodies with regular exercise is a proven strategy to kick stress to the curb (or at least to the little strip of grass between the curb and the sidewalk).
Exercise helps us manage stress by providing all these benefits…
- Directs our attention from our thoughts to our body
- Releases endorphins, “feel good” hormones that lift our mood and calm anxiety
- Outdoor exercise brings the bonus of mood-elevating sunlight and fresh air
- Gives us a confidence-boosting sense of accomplishment
- Motivates us to make other healthy choices
- Improves the quality of our sleep
Not to mention the many other health-promoting benefits of exercise from improved digestion to lowering blood pressure, increasing HDL “good” cholesterol, and more.
How to Overcome Obstacles to Exercise
You might be thinking, that all sounds amaaazing…but what about the obstacles that make building a regular exercise habit seem impossible?
Before we talk about the many ways you can overcome those challenges, I invite you to imagine how your day might be different if you could consistently enjoy the stress-reducing benefits of exercise.
If that picture puts a smile on your face and brings a preemptive sigh of relief, you’re in the right place. Because I’m going to give you tools you can use to make that vision a reality.
As a health coach, I’ve witnessed my clients overcome barriers similar to the ones you might be facing now, by helping them use a variety of mindset and practical strategies to support their success.
I hope the tips below generate some ideas to help you figure out what works best for you.
As with any behavioral goal you commit to achieving, you’ll set yourself up for success by preparing and planning before taking action steps to create your exercise habit. I like to view the phases of goal setting as ready, set, go.
This phase is about shifting mindset around the process of change.
Start with the positive
Think about what is already going well. Simply having a desire to get more exercise is positive. If you have previous exercise experience you will be able to use what you learned. If you’re already exercising and want to be more consistent you’re already on your way.
On your exercise journey, it may be challenging at times to find the positive. If you feel negative emotions about yourself you can use your self-compassion tools to get back on track. Commit to being kind, nonjudgmental, and patient with yourself. You are a human being doing the best you can.
Focus on progress, not perfection
Building a habit takes time. Commit to the long-term game and celebrate incremental progress or “baby steps” along the way. This tip is also a gentle reminder to avoid comparing yourself to others, especially if they are farther down the road than you are. When following a workout video or participating in a Zoom class, your push-ups or chair pose might look different and that’s okay. Continuing to show up and build your habit is what matters most.
Remember your “why”
Your dream of experiencing a (relatively) stress-free day, thanks to regular exercise, is your “why,” or your motivation to push through challenges. Role modeling, staying healthy to enjoy retirement, family, and friends in your later years are strong motivators for some. If you have weight loss or aesthetic goals, ask yourself how those goals are important to your health and well-being to come up with your “why.”
This phase is about creating an environment around you that supports your success.
Take some time to identify your barriers to exercise and think creatively about how to work through them. The tips below should help address some common ones for busy women with full lives. I’ll talk briefly here about a perceived lack of time, the number one barrier to exercise.
- How to “find” time to exercise
To ensure that you spend some of your precious time doing the exercise that will help you manage stress and be healthier, I encourage you to assess how you spend your time. Bottom line: If you’re spending time on priorities lower on the list than your health and stress management you have a few choices about the lower priority tasks/activities:
- Delegate. (ex. partners and kids help with cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.)
- Discontinue. (ex. over volunteering, one-sided friendships, etc.)
- Allocate less time. (ex. watch one or two Netflix episodes instead of three or four)
- Multi-task. (ex. watch Netflix while exercising, cooking, or doing housework)
- “Create” time by sleeping less. (Reminder: most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep)
Use your support system
Ask your family, friends, and coworkers for their support. Be specific about what you need, whether it’s childcare, help around the house or with a work project, a workout companion (don’t forget family dance parties!), or an empathetic ear to listen.
Identify the information and items you need to be successful at creating an exercise habit. Do you need shoes or cold weather gear for outdoor exercise this winter? Do you need an online trainer or exercise class? Do you need to subscribe to YouTube and other social media fitness accounts? You can add resources as needed.
Set realistic behavioral goals
Setting weekly “SMART” behavioral goals will help you create baby steps to celebrate. (To learn about SMART goals you can read my post here.) Scheduling time on your calendar to work on your goal, creating a reminder system, and having a back-up plan (an alternate day, time, location for instance) will help you progress faster.
Track your progress
The M in SMART goal means that your goals are measurable, in other words, it will be clear how successful you’ve been toward achieving your weekly behavioral goal, whatever exercise you’ll be experimenting with. The purpose here is to gauge if your goals are realistic to ensure you will see confidence-boosting incremental progress toward mastering your exercise habit from week to week. (Again, check out my post on goal setting to learn more.) Ultimately, celebrate partial credit instead of a letter grade or “pass or fail.” Other tracking systems you might consider are:
- goal tracking apps (I like Habit Share, a free, simple social app that allows you to invite friends)
- a wall calendar or a chart (kids or teenagers in the house love this one)
- journaling to record thoughts and feelings in addition to metrics
- “before” photos to compare to your “after” photos if this is important to you
You’ve planned and prepared. It’s time to take action.
The first three tips below are things you can do to help create the spark of motivation you need to work on your SMART goals before you begin to officially “exercise.”
Imagining yourself exercising tricks your brain into believing that you’re doing it! That connection kicks in when it’s time to get moving. Or you could display an old photo of yourself being active. Recalling our experience can bring confidence.
Another brain trick is to assimilate exercise as part of your identity and values. You might have one or more mantras you can repeat silently or out loud, for example, “My health is important to me,” and “Exercise is important to my health.” You can also “look the part” by putting on your workout clothes and/or shoes in the morning even if you don’t intend to exercise until later in the day.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion, so being more active in general helps you work on your exercise goals. If you work at a desk all day, setting a reminder to get up and walk 100 or more steps every hour is an example. Yard work, playing with the kids, and parking the car farther away from your destination are just a few ways to increase movement.
Time to exercise!
There are infinite ways to elevate your heart to a moderate range. You get to decide what exercise will work best for you. Here are a few tips.
- Keep it simple. If you’re not sure where to start, going for a walk is a great first step (pun intended!).
- Find something you enjoy doing. You don’t have to force yourself to do an activity you don’t like. Getting out of your comfort zone is necessary to see progress, but that’s different than doing exercise that is complicated or worse doesn’t feel good in your body.
- Experiment. To find something you enjoy, you may need to try several forms of exercise. Use your creativity and the resources you’ve gathered to figure it out.
- Baby steps. Remember your SMART goals and “progress not perfection” mantra. From week to week, keep in mind that the status quo can be viewed as a baby step. If you think you’ve taken a step backward, focus on what you learned, connect to your why, and keep going. Perseverance is a BIG baby step.
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Sometimes you won’t be able to execute your SMART goal in the exact way you planned. In those moments remember that something is better than nothing, whether it’s exercising for 5 minutes instead of 20 or just putting your shoes on and thinking about going for a walk. The more you go through the motions, the more you are creating a habit.
How Much Exercise Do I Need?
Gradually working up to the Surgeon General recommended 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity (50-70% of your maximum heart rate) per week (22 minutes per day) is ideal. All movement matters, however, to get the heart health benefits sessions need to be 10 minutes or longer.
Going for a walk is an activity most everyone can do that is likely to elevate heart rate into the moderate range. To calculate your target heart rate zone (based on your age and current activity level) use this online calculator.
Whether you are exercising for stress reduction or heart health you don’t have to do strenuous exercise that makes you sweaty or breathless.
(Adding two or more sessions of resistance training a week is also recommended and I’ll offer some tips in a future post.)
You Can Do It!
Whatever word you chose in the beginning, I hope you can add another word: confident…confident that you can use these strategies to create an exercise habit that will help you better manage your stress, improve your health, and change your life in a way you may have been seeking for years.
If you’re ready, I encourage you to write down a behavioral SMART goal and add time to your calendar to take that action.
I’d love to hear which tip was the biggest a-ha moment for you. Let me know in the comments below!