How I Keep Going To The Gym

There was a tiny period, at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, when, upon joining a gym for the 300th time, I blogged about this latest attempt at exercise on my Not Food Blog. I wrote about the advantages of a treadmill vs. an elliptical machine (the treadmill forces you to run), what to think about while exercising (the answer: not exercising), and my fear of quitting.

Then, not-so-shockingly, I stopped. People who were reading these dispatches probably thought, “Ah, he quit.” And, based on my history of quitting gyms, these people would have a very legitimate reason to believe that. Only, I didn’t quit the gym, I just quit blogging about it. And, more than 9 months later, I’m still going and–weirdly–kind of enjoying it. And I’m starting to see changes, like the change in my arm you might notice in the photo above. That’s a strong arm! How did I manage that? Here, then, is my advice for those of you who, like me, always quit gyms but want to learn how to stick to it (a pretty essential thing to know if you enjoy eating like I do!).

1. Decide what your goals are first. Most people who join gyms do so to look hot. That’s a fine reason to join a gym, but if you’re a food person and you eat lots of delicious, not-so-nutritious food all the time and you don’t plan to change your diet, that result is unrealistic. So the first thing that I did, this time around, was to come up with a realistic goal: I wasn’t doing this to look like Matthew McConaughey in “Magic Mike,” I was doing this to feel better and to stave off impending obesity. My goal was just to incorporate exercise into my life, whatever the results might be. If I started looking better because of it (and–spoiler alert!–I was surprised at how much better my face looked after exercising for a few months, maybe because I sweated out all my toxins?) that would just be a bonus.

2. Have a trainer help you make a plan. I realize trainers are expensive and that many of them create a dynamic where it’s hard to function without them. You don’t want a trainer who demands that you meet them 3 times a week for $100 a session (unless you’re, like, a millionare). What you want is someone who gets you and your specific needs (mine was “an exercise program that I’ll actually do”) and then meets with you often enough to reinforce it. In my case, that was every 2 weeks for 1/2 an hour at $50 a session. My trainer, Danny, did a great job of keeping me honest and that’s a really big part of it: by having that trainer to answer to every two weeks, you’ll reinforce your gym-going behavior. In many ways, it’s not what you get out of those training sessions, it’s the fact that those training sessions exist that should keep you on track.

3. Tell yourself 5 days, really go 3. At no point did Danny say I had to go to the gym 5 days a week. I told myself that I was going to go 5 days a week, though, and in doing that I created a dynamic where 3 days felt like cheating. This psychological self-trickery is an important tactic if you’re not a natural exerciser. So, for example, on the treadmill before I run 3 miles (using interval training) I force myself not to think about what it’ll feel like at 8.5, running like crazy, heart pumping, feet slamming. Instead I focus on what TV show I’ll watch: “The Barefoot Contessa,” “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” or “Judge Judy.” Which leads me to….

4. Watch your guilty pleasure T.V. at the gym. This has been a big draw for me, being able to watch the trashiest T.V. without guilt as long as I’m running on a treadmill. It makes sense, right? You’re doing something wonderful for your body, so why not give your brain some candy in the process. It’s the inverse of eating a box of Oreos while writing your dissertation. So think of the trashiest show you can’t permit yourself to watch at home and then let yourself watch it at the gym. For me, I draw the line at Bravo shows about gay realtors, but even then, sometimes, I’m watching that guy with a chihuahua tell a soulless billionaire he won’t be able to sell his house. For that show, though, you have to increase your incline by 0.5.

5. Make yourself go on Monday. This is the most important rule. After a weekend of lounging about, eating like a pig, the hardest thing in the world is to make yourself go to the gym on Monday. In many ways, you’re breaking the seal of lethargy that made your weekend so pleasurable. So, no matter what happens, even if it means hopping up and down for 10 minutes on a rubber mat, make yourself go to the gym on Monday. Because once you go on Monday, you’ll start to feel good right away: you’ll have more blood rush up to your brain, so you’ll have greater clarity at work the next day. Plus you’ll sleep really well. And once you have both those things–clarity and a good night’s sleep–you’ll crave them again the next day and will be more likely to go. But skip Monday, and you’ll very likely skip the whole week.

6. Eat breakfast. Ya, ya, ya, I know you think you know that already, but something clicked for me about eating breakfast recently. When people say, “it starts your metabolism moving” what I think they’re really saying is: “It makes you poop.” I never put those things together before, but after starting to eat breakfast on a regular basis (and it doesn’t have to be a super healthy breakfast, I eat toast!) I realize how very much it does get my metabolism moving. I won’t be graphic here, but getting that cycle started early in the day makes going to the gym much more pleasurable. Yes, I just talked about poop on a food blog. Sorry. (But when you think about where food ends up anyway, it’s pretty remarkable that more food bloggers don’t talk about poop…am I right or am I right? Anyone? Hello?)

7. Vary it up. One nice thing about the plan Danny made for me is that it never gets boring. That’s because on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I do some kind of weight routine with cardio after, and Tuesdays and Thursdays I just do cardio (that’s the 5 day plan I was talking about earlier; if I do 3 days, I still go by the day of the week to decide what I’m doing at the gym that day). So, on Monday this week, for example, I started by warming up on a treadmill. That usually means 5 minutes at 1.0 incline, speed 3.0 and then I go to 5.0 and 6.0 until I work up a sweat. As soon as I feel like I’ve worked up a sweat, I hit “stop” because I’m warmed up. Then I go upstairs to the weight area and do my weight routine. On this particular day, I did pull-downs on a pull-down machine, Bosu ball push-ups and Bosu ball sit-ups. I do a circuit so it’s 15 pull-downs, 15 push-ups, 15 sit-ups, rest, then that circuit over again 2 more times. After that circuit, I could do another circuit (maybe with barbells, more push-ups, etc.) but don’t have to. Either way, I go downstairs after that and do 20 minutes of interval training on an elliptical machine. That means I start at resistance 30 for the 1st minute, go to resistance 60 for the 2nd minute, then back to 30 and so on until minute 8 when I go down to 15 for 2 minutes and then repeat the cycle again. When I’m at 30, I try to stay above 130 glides a minutes; at 60, it’s 110. And that’s Monday. On Tuesday (yesterday) I just did cardio on the treadmill: I do 10 minutes of warming up at 3.0 (that’s really a treat to myself, just to walk and get into the groove) then start going up to 5.0 for 1 minute, back down to 3.0 for a minute, then up to 5.5, back to 3, up to 6 and so on until I’m running at 8.5 and then you start alternating back down (to 3, to 8, to 3, to 7.5, and so on until you finish at 5 and then 3). Today, if I go, I’ll do another weight routine: maybe this time I’ll try planking or burpees with a Bosu ball. But, as you can see, I’ll vary it up and keep it interesting.

8. Splurge on a nice gym. I really like my gym, and I think that matters. The worst gym I ever went to, a former bank in Park Slope, was gray and depressing inside. I chose it because it was cheap and convenient. Those are the wrong factors when choosing a gym, especially if you’re the kind of person who quits gyms often. So my gym is a little fancier (it’s a Crunch) and it’s always clean, always full with attractive, healthy-looking people, and nicely situated next to a movie theater, a Starbucks and a store that sells the worst Smoothie I’ve ever tasted. But because my gym is nice, I enjoy going there…and, at the end of the day, that matters.

9. If you fall off the wagon, don’t stay off the wagon. The hardest hurdle to overcome, in my experience, is the feeling of having really fallen off the gym-going wagon. It usually happens during a period of over-indulgence, like the holidays, when you eat so hedonistically you realize that going to the gym would be absolutely futile. You’re probably right: after eating all that fat, there’s no way that a week or two at the gym will make a difference. So stop thinking of it in terms of how you’ll look and more about how you’ll feel. Try to tap into that feeling of clarity and being well-rested that got you excited about the gym in the first place, then look at that picture of my arm to get yourself sexually aroused, and realize that if you force yourself to go on a Monday, that you’ll probably go again on Tuesday, you’ll get back into the groove, and burn off all of that turkey and cranberry sauce you stuffed your face with. And even if you don’t, you’ll get to watch “Judge Judy” guilt free!

10. Have fun. No, really. When I’m on the elliptical, these days, and I’m listening to my iPhone and David Byrne comes on with the “Make-Believe Mambo” I start to swivel my hips a little and make like I’m dancing. I’m sure I look like the biggest dork in the world, but I start to have fun. And that’s really the most essential survival tactic for gym-going. If you can’t watch trashy T.V., if you can’t dance on the elliptical, if you can’t ogle attractive people, what’s the point of going to the gym? I try to think of the gym now the way a child thinks of going to a playground. It’s a chance to move your body, to play with machines (swapping a swing-set for a Stairmaster), to interact with other people your age. If you think of it in those terms, as a form of “playtime,” it makes going to the gym way easier.

So there you have it. Of course, as I get ready to click “publish” I worry that I’ve just jinxed myself before heading to New York, where going to the gym is slightly more complicated (here you can just drive up to it, there you have to walk 15 blocks in the snow) but that’s why I’m going to bookmark my own post and read it when I get there. And if you happen to be on the elliptical next to me, while I’m bopping along to “Call Me Maybe,” please don’t judge. I’m doing the best I can.

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