Sticking with a Fitness Goal is Easier than You Think
“Start small," they say. Exactly how small can you get away with?
Tomorrow is “Quitter’s Day” aka January 19th* – the day that Strava, the exercise tracking app, says most people drop their New Year’s Resolutions. Other (barely more promising) data suggests that 80% of resolutions are abandoned by the second week of February.
If building a new fitness habit is one of your goals in 2024, please don’t let your dreams die. The results you seek are much closer than you think and they likely require far less effort than you imagine.
I would venture to say that starting small is the BEST way to get fitness results. But what does that actually mean?
When it comes to gaining fitness there are two principles that really matter:
Consistency: If you showed up for a workout twice per week for the entire year, you will be fitter than if you go all in 7 days a week and burn out after January.
Progressive Overload: Getting fitter is a response to the (good) stress we put on our system. But our system is smart. What stresses it today, won’t be that hard next time. So you have to increase the challenge over time.
If you keep picking up the same 10 pound dumbbells week in and week out, doing the same number of reps, you will hit a plateau and you won’t see results. Which will make consistency tough to maintain. The good news is that this progressive overloading is not the hellish spiral into oblivion (my husband’s words) you may fear – more on that later.
More good news: You can make incredible progress in very little time. How little?
Here are some examples supported by peer-reviewed research.
10 Minute High Intensity Interval Workout
Warm Up: 3 minutes
Main Workout: Sprint for 20 seconds, rest with light activity for 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat for a total of 3 rounds.
Cool Down: 2 minutes
A 2014 study showed that doing this workout three times per week for six weeks resulted in a 12% boost in cardiovascular fitness. These results are on par with what you could get from doing 135 minutes of traditional endurance training, but with only 30 minutes of workout time (of which 3 minutes is actually hard work).
25 Minute High Intensity Interval Workout
Warm up: 3 minutes
Main Workout: Bike, Run, or Row hard for 8 seconds, then rest for 12 seconds. Repeat for 20 minutes (60 intervals)
Cool down: 2 minutes
A 2012 study showed that performing this workout three times per week for 12 weeks resulted in a 15% increase in cardiorespiratory fitness AND body composition changes (people lost fat).
If you would like to learn more about why interval training is so powerful, why these short workouts work, and get ideas for additional workouts, I enthusiastically recommend the book: The One Minute Workout by Martin Gibala, PhD.
Building Muscle & Strength
It’s easier than you think to get stronger and gain muscle. You only need 10 working sets per muscle group per week to make great progress. What could that look like?
Squat: 5 sets (quad & glutes)
Lat Pulldown: 5 sets (back & biceps)
Romanian Deadlift: 5 sets (hamstrings, glutes, quads)
Pushups: 5 sets (chest & triceps)
Deadlift: 5 sets (glutes, quads, and hamstrings)
Dumbbell Chest Press: 5 sets (chest & triceps)
Hip Thrust: 5 sets (glutes)
Seated Row: 5 sets (back & biceps)
You could spread these lifts over more days too – what matters is total volume per muscle group per week. Weight training is where progressive overload is king. You could do the workouts above every week for years and see incredible results. BUT, you have to up the ante every time you workout. This is not nearly as daunting as it sounds. Calm your nerves here.
Where to Start
A lot of people get hung up on deciding if they should do cardio or weight training. If your goal is living well for a long time, the answer is both. If your goal is losing weight and improving your body composition, the answer is both.
Both cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength and mass are correlated with longevity and looking good.
So yes, in a perfect world, you would work on building muscle and strength, and improving your cardiovascular health every week. But you don’t need to start there.
If I was starting from scratch, here is what I would do.
Commit to EITHER three 20-25 minute HIIT sessions per week or two or three weightlifting sessions per week for 12 weeks. At the end of 12 weeks, you will have major wins under your belt. For the next 12-week period, you can either add in more sessions OR you can switch and focus on the other area. Accomplish that, and you will have been exercising consistently for 6 months in a manner that is scientifically proven to lead to results.
Shit Happens, Stay Committed
Life gets busy, things come up. Workout anyway, no matter where you are.
Stand up from your desk.
Set a timer for 10 minutes.
Do 30 seconds of jumping jacks to warm up. Then spend the remaining 9 minutes and 30 seconds alternating between 30 seconds of a bodyweight exercise (pushups, squats, etc) and 30 seconds of running in place. Voila.
If you have a bike or rower at home, you could also warm up for 3 minutes, power through 4 minutes of hard work, then cool down and get back to your day.
You don’t even need to change clothes and you’ve accomplished two things:
You maintained your consistency streak
You made progress - even these styles of workout are proven to improve your fitness
Last piece of advice from this chronically optimistic believer that everyone can achieve their fitness goals. If you miss a day, it’s ok. Get back to it asap. Don’t let one day become 365.
You’ve got this!
*I had the day wrong and it was actually last Friday… it’s the second Friday of the year. Regardless, I think today (and any day) is a great day to start going for what you want!