Q: How can I stick with an exercise program? Every new year I start strong but burn out after a month or two.
A: To stay with your fitness goals—a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, 30 minutes of resistance exercise each week, and 20 to 25 minutes of vigorous cardio three times per week—you want to stay motivated, be accountable and pace yourself.
To remain inspired and accountable, we strongly recommend getting a fitness buddy or trainer. Why buddy up? Because true friends don’t let friends age prematurely. Having a buddy or trainer is one of the best ways to get a second chance at being your healthiest and erasing past health mistakes such as being overweight or unfit.
If you opt for a buddy, this person should be someone you feel comfortable admitting your lapses to (e.g., that you watched Netflix and inhaled a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos instead of jumping rope) without fear of being shamed. This system works best if you’re willing to be vulnerable—to share not only your successes but also your failures, because that’s when you most need your buddy.
Just as important: Your buddy should be supportive but not afraid of giving you a (nonjudgmental) kick in the pants when you need it. So the person who says, “You have no willpower; you’re never going to get fit” is a lousy choice. Ditto the person who’d say, “You skipped a workout? Don’t worry about it.” You need someone who says, “Don’t beat yourself up, but it’s my job to help get you back on track because I care about you. Let’s figure out what to do the next time you feel like bailing.” Bonus points if your buddy can also model the behavior change.
A paid trainer provides added benefits:
• Knowledge of exercise and proper form. This is key for resistance exercises; you never want to sacrifice form as you lift, which can cause injuries. A professional trainer can analyze your form and give instant feedback. To make sure your trainer is legit, look for certification from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) or the National Exercise Trainers Association (NETA).
• You may likely feel more obligated to show up and give it your all because you’re paying this person.
• Trainers are usually upbeat. They tend to have smile-all-the-time personalities, a trait that makes working out with them fun. They can inspire you about living a happy, energetic and healthy life.
Cost varies, depending on where you live, with a range from $20 to $300 an hour. If you’re on the fence, remind yourself that this is an investment in your health. And remember that a trainer will cost a lot less than rehab or surgery if you’re injured.
Finally, pace yourself at the outset. If you go too hard at first, you can injure yourself and be sidelined for months, or you might be unable to sustain the crazy-high amount of exercise you started with and give up. Instead, gradually increase your program with low-impact exercises that strengthen bones and muscles as well as improve cardio. Initially we favor swimming, rowing, cycling and exercising on an elliptical over running or stair-climbing, which can hurt bones and joints if you overdo it. You can add these later when you’re in better condition.
A couple more safety tips: Don’t lift weights on back-to-back days. Some soreness is normal when you start any new activity, but if you’re constantly pained and stiff, you’re in danger of injuring yourself. Reduce your intensity and take a day off between sessions.
Special caution: If your wrists, knees or shoulders hurt, you may be doing strength-training with poor form. So again, we heartily recommend at least one session with a personal trainer to learn proper form. Many gyms offer one session free to new members, so ask.
Q: I’m 33, go to the gym, watch what I eat and see my doctor every year. What else should I do to make sure I still feel great at 63?
A: First off, good for you for hitting the main components of exercise, diet and regular doctor visits. But you didn’t mention stress management, which is another thing you should pay attention to. A little stress is good—when stress hormones are released (such as cortisol and adrenaline), they stimulate us to “move it” and meet deadlines (or run away from danger).
When stress is high or ongoing, it’s harmful. Chronic stress can burn out your ability to manage cortisol levels (resulting in energy crashes), lower your immunity (making you more susceptible to infections), cause muscle tension and pain, and increase your risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
Exercise helps with stress, so keep that up. But it’s vital to find other ways to manage stress.
For instance, we can control how we respond to stressors. Whether the stressor is a bad boss or the cable company, learning ways to blow off steam and think differently can prevent stress hormones from going haywire. Meditation quells anxiety and lowers stress hormones; simple relaxation exercises and deep breathing help, too. You also can learn cognitive behavior tricks to talk yourself out of stressful thinking patterns. You might consider making an appointment with a behavioral health professional. And, of course, spending time with people who make you laugh and feel good is an easy way to keep stress at bay, as are spending time in nature and sleeping enough.
Do this, and you’ll be set for healthy twilight years, feeling and looking like you were 20-plus years younger.
Q: How can I instill healthy habits in my kids?
A: The foolproof way is leading by example. This isn’t just good parenting advice; it’s biology. Mirror neurons are important physiological components for habit formation. Simply put, the mirror neurons in your brain work like tiny video cameras and allow you to observe someone else performing an action (say, fellow members of the tribe starting a fire), and that observation makes your brain want to perform the same action. Yawning after someone else does is the classic example. Or playing peekaboo with a baby: Do it a few times, and the baby will do it right back.
It’s also why the common parental mantra “Do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t work. If you tell your children to eat vegetables while you’re gobbling bacon and cheddar-smothered fries, what do you think they’ll want to eat? Show youngsters that fruit makes a great snack by munching appropriately so they’ll imitate your positive behavior. Also model walking, playing basketball or other exercise rather than being a sofa spud. If you do physical activity and show that you enjoy it, they will, too.
And because kids are creatures of habit, once they start mirroring something, they’re likely to continue until it becomes a real habit.
One more thing: Make it fun. Physical activity that’s gamelike will be a bigger hit than just running for the heck of it. And make it part of a regular schedule, not a rare event. Pretty soon, your kids will be reaching for the carrots and getting physical without any reminder from you.
This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.