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Do what you love – and take it easy: eight ways to get back lost fitness and motivation

Updated: Jan 11

Many of us have been working at home for more than a year now, without the “ambient” exercise we used to get during the 9 to 5 – walking to and from the station, say, or up and down the office stairs. And so we’ve made a conscious effort to get our feet moving and our hearts pounding.

Even in the gloomy months of January and February, it was surprisingly easy to stay motivated. Endless mournful laps of the neighbourhood park, brisk jogs past shuttered high streets and empty window displays; they gave you a legitimate excuse to get out of the house. But now that pubs and bars have reopened and we can finally see our friends, many of us have found that our fitness and enthusiasm have plunged off a cliff.

How best to get back into exercise? The experts weigh in.

Don’t be ashamed

Exeter-based personal trainer Joe Edmonds sees this all the time: people who want to exercise more, but are terrified to venture into the gym because they are worried that regular users will laugh at them. The reality, he says, “is that, generally speaking, other people don’t care. They’re doing their own thing.” Edmonds advises people to push past the discomfort for a few sessions. “I find that if people can just get in for one or two weeks, they soon change their perception of the gym space, and themselves within the gym space. They just need to get in in the first place.”

Find your personal incentive

If you’re naturally inclined to be sedentary, or don’t particularly enjoy working out, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to lace on a pair of trainers and head out for a run. “I would try to encourage that person to find another reason for them to exercise,” says Zahir Akram, personal trainer and founder of Akram Yoga Studio in Addlestone, Surrey. “For me a huge motivation to continue training and get healthier isn’t aesthetics, but because of my son. I like to remind clients that there are people who rely on them and they need them to be strong. If you can’t exercise for yourself, do it for the people who rely on you to be healthy.”

Don’t overdo it

Although it’s tempting to embark on a full-throttle fitness kick when you feel that you’ve been slacking, it’s actually counterproductive. “When I work with clients who are getting back into things, I tell them not to go from doing nothing to being Jet from Gladiator by the end of the week,” says the London-based personal trainer Hannah Lewin. “I know it’s super-tempting when you are in a down phase to amp it up to the max, but it’s not realistic.”

Identify something you enjoy

If you hate running or find yoga boring – don’t do it. “If you start with something you really dislike, it won’t help you get back into anything,” says Lewin. “Finding something you don’t hate is a good place to start, and it will also help build your confidence level. Confidence and motivation go hand in hand, so if you are finding something makes you feel bad, exercise will be even more stressful, and your motivation will decline even further.”

Don’t obsess about the gym

There are many ways to exercise that don’t include gyms. Skating in the park with friends; a dip in the lido; a long walk down the beach: all get the blood circulating, and, more importantly, are enjoyable (providing you don’t fall over on the skates). “You don’t have to think of exercise as going to the gym or for a 5km run,” says Akram. “Just going for a 15-minute walk every day will contribute to health, make your joints feel better, and loosen you up. Lots of people have a mistaken idea of what exercise is. If you go walking regularly, that’s exercise. So if you don’t want to go to a gym, at least get up and move around more.”

Consider measuring your progress

“Incremental gains can be really motivating,” says Edmonds. Fitness apps such as Strava have free-to-use versions, and are great for monitoring your progress. “A lot of people are numbers-based,” says Edmonds, “and being able to write down and see their progress and logging it can be very beneficial for them. Others will be motivated by training with someone else. You have to understand what motivates you.”

Use the resources that are available

We’ve all heard of Couch to 5K, but there are many other brilliant programmes that can help you get into fitness for the first time, or rediscover your motivation. “The FIIT app has some indoor-based workouts that are really good for lots of different levels,” says Lewin. “I also like to recommend Keiser’s The Ride, which is an indoor cycling programme that is much less intimidating than Peloton, and you can use any indoor bicycle.” Nike also does a very good free-running app with plenty of beginner routes. And avail yourself of your local gym’s reopening offer. “Most of the bigger gyms are doing free back-to-the-gym personal training sessions,” says Lewin. “You’ll get 45 minutes for free with a personal trainer. Even if you’re a seasoned gym-goer, it’s really worth it, as it will give you a bit of fire for trying something new.”

Be consistent – and kind to yourself

“It’s better to have a few shorter sessions a week that are manageable than packing in lots of classes, and then dropping out,” says Lewin. “The more consistent you are, the higher your motivation levels will stay. But consistency needs you to be realistic. Otherwise, it gets overwhelming.”

Lewin would encourage people to be kind to themselves. “Compare where you are now with where you were a year ago,” she says. “My God, we have all gone through such a lot since then. And instead of thinking: ‘Oh, I was fitter last year’, think about how this year you’re going to build back better.”

[Originally published in the Guardian, Mon 21 Jun 2021]

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