One year ago today I decided on my New Year's resolution for 2011. I set a goal to work out every single day for the entire year. And barring some shocking event like an attack by dogs with bees in their mouths, and when they bark they shoot bees in the next few days, I will achieve that goal.
Here, in New Year's resolution season, I wanted to share my experience and share what I learned. I did a workout streak but setting a daily streak goal can be applied to virtually anything -- and, if you power through, it can lead to some really great results. At least better than 99.9999999 percent of other New Year's resolutions, right?
A chart capturing several things I refused to count as workouts.
My ground rules for the streak. Going into the year, I identified the subtle semantic differences between "working out," "exercising" and "going to the gym." I wanted to make sure I was working out daily. I didn't just want to "exercise" -- to me, it feels like people generally define exercise as anything that gets your heart rate above "near-dead on the couch watching Becker" levels -- that's too "everybody gets a trophy" for me. And I didn't just want to "go to the gym" -- because I see plenty of people there who wander around, fist-bump fellow gym folks and only ever so occasionally lift up a weight.
So, for my streak, I defined a "workout" as a bare minimum of 20 minutes of intentional, intense exercise. That way I wouldn't count, like, walking around a Six Flags or doing a bar crawl on bikes as my workout. That felt attainable but fair to me, and it that to be the case.
I also defined a day as waking up to going to sleep -- no beating the system by working out in the morning, then doing "tomorrow's" workout at midnight. Seems pretty weak to try to beat a system you've established yourself.
However, I never just hit the minimum. Checking back on my records, I only went as short as 20 minutes one time all year -- the day I had a benign cyst removed from my leg, knew I couldn't shower, and squeezed in 20 minutes of lifting. My other 360 workouts have all been longer and better than that one. Also, sorry for talking about my cyst excising. I guess we're intimate like that now.
Establishing the streak early in the year was the toughest. Most New Year's resolutions fail miserably. To make a topical and hip comparison, they're like a William Jennings Bryan presidential run. I knew that. So I knew I had to work extra hard in January and not miss a single day when it would've been easiest to skip one and say, "Well, that resolution never had a prayer anyway." So I went just a little crazy with focus in January, and that momentum sustained me into February. The momentum from there sustained me into March. And beyond that, the workout streak became second nature.
No workouts or Mondays here.
Working out daily was actually *easier* than resolving to work out four or five times a week. My goal with the streak was to take my own free will away. In the least dark, fatalistic sense. I knew that no matter how strong my resolve was, eventually, there would be times when sloth would win if I had the decision whether to work out today or tomorrow. Like when it's the choice between dragging myself to the gym after a long day at work when I'm already under a blanket on the couch... or waking up at 9 am at a bachelor party to squeeze in a run before going out all day... or paying $15 for a day pass to use a crappy gym at a crappy hotel -- "I'll just work out tomorrow" would win.
But, in past experiences, tomorrow that make-up workout wouldn't happen. And soon enough, it's been months since I've gone to the gym. I knew that's what would happen unless I committed to working out daily. Basically, I took away my free will a la Hobbes so I wouldn't be lazy like Garfield. (Ten points to anyone who deciphers that jumble of a cartoon/philosophy reference.)
That being said... keeping the streak can be incredibly hard. I say it's easier to maintain a daily habit than a four-out-of-seven days habit, and I believe that's true on the macro level... but it's certainly not always easy on the micro, day-to-day level. Working out had to jump to the top of my priority list. I had to unpopularly jam workouts into trips with friends. A few times my only choice was working out on a full stomach or after some drinks. (Note to the world: A full stomach of barbecue is undoubtedly the biggest extra challenge you can give during a workout.)
But I always did it by reminding myself it's ridiculous to say I can't cram a half hour in every day to prioritize my health. I always find a way to eat every day, to go online, to dick around on my phone -- I forced myself to make exercise an equally important staple of daily life. (Not that dicking around on my phone is "important" per se, but it is a staple. These plants aren't gonna kill these zombies without my help.)
Vacations were hard, but random nights were harder. I figured the most challenging days would be on trips, and at times those were extremely tough. But some of the hardest times to drag myself up for a workout were random nights at home. I hadn't worked out in the morning, I procrastinated, and I was staring down going to bed versus the gym.
On vacation, I was so worried about getting in my workouts that I planned and scheduled ahead. Didn't do that at home. So about one night every two or three months I would find myself exhausted, eyes starting to close, near-dead on the couch watching Becker, and have to smack myself around a little bit to get the momentum to work out.
The type of vacation eating that can really derail you.
The streak was great for keeping vacations from derailing my fitness. Let's keep talking about vacations for a moment. In the past, whenever I got into a good workout rhythm it would eventually be derailed by a vacation. I'd go away for a few days or a week and obviously not work out. Then when I'd get back to L.A. I wouldn't immediately jump right back into my gym rhythm... and everything would fall apart. I'd also start gaining some of the weight back I'd lost.
The streak really helped fight that. Because I was still prioritizing workouts when I was away, it was effortless to jump right back into them once I was home. That alone helped me break my lifelong bad vacation pattern.
And now, all the stuff I did wrong. I'm happy and proud that I fulfilled my goal of working out daily. But... I sure don't feel like I did it perfectly. So starting on January 1st... time to reboot this bitch. (Which is only slightly less time between reboots than The Hulk, Spider-Man or American Pie.)
One, I need to keep better logs on my cardio (times, distances, pace) and on my lifting (weight, exercises, reps). That way, I can actually escalate my workouts in a steady and consistent way -- this year I just sorta did what I was in the mood for every day.
Two, I think it's time to spend an hour with a good trainer to learn some new techniques -- I know I need to vary up my workouts to get better results and keep my body from getting lazier than someone near-dead on the couch watching Becker.
And three, I need to stop my extreme hate toward running outdoors -- I loathe distance running and spent at least a few hundred dollars on guest gym fees to avoid it.
I've finally proven to myself that diet is more important to fat loss than exercise. For the first six months of the year I didn't just work out daily -- I also reduced calories, drastically cut carbs and pulled back on drinking. As a result I lost a good amount of weight and gained some muscle. Then for the next four months I relaxed my diet a bit. And even though I was still working out daily, I actually gained a little weight back -- hard workouts for 45 minutes to an hour a day weren't enough to zero out the equation. Finally, for the last two months of the year; I got my diet even tighter than at the beginning and started exerting even more energy during workouts. And now I'm in the best shape I've been in all year.
I'd always wondered if I could do that thing celebrities talk about where "I actually eat whatever I want but I work out so I stay in shape." And the answer is... no. I am definitely no Ted Danson.
My results. Over the course of 2011 I lost approximately 20 pounds of fat (which is different than losing 20 pounds on the scale). I attribute that to my changes in diet. I gained about 10 pounds of muscle; that I attribute to my workouts. And I call that a nice success. Not a success to throw a party over, but a success.
I'm definitely in much, much better shape than I was one year ago, I'm monumentally more fit at age 32 than I was at age 22... and I'm actually really close to being in the best shape of my life. I sure would like to get there in 2012, at least before the world comes to an end. If I'm getting eaten by a Mayan death god at least he can appreciate my core strength as I struggle.
Final advice for starting a streak. Beyond my physical results, I gained a crucial piece of personal knowledge from this year -- and that's the power of streaks. When I first typed that, I accidentally wrote "the power of steaks." And those are good too. But streaks just might be better.
I plan to start three or four new streaks for 2012. If you're considering doing the same, here are a few recommendations from someone who just plowed through a year:
Start on January 1st, not January 2nd. That gives your streak an extra bit of oomph. Plus, there's something very tidy and orderly in knowing you've done something every day for an entire year.
Decide on the streak now. That way you can be mentally prepared (and have all the necessary supplies ready) for January 1st.
Cross off each day on a calendar and keep a log. Crossing the days off makes for a good mental exercise and also gives one of those weird minor motivational goals -- putting an "X" through each day becomes an exciting ritual. As for the log, it's very entertaining to go back through and look at every day along with your few notes on that day.
Don't make the goal too lofty. Like, don't say "I'm going to write a chapter of a book every day" or "I'm going to watch a different Samuel L. Jackson movie every day" -- there are days when you'll need to just squeeze this streak in to a tiny window. Make it tangible and reasonable.
I look forward to writing a similar list one year from now with brand new findings and advice. And also not to write it while watching super late night syndicated CBS reruns.
This post was originally published on Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Personal.