I’ve never been an exercise nut. Okay, I’ve never even had a consistent exercise routine since I got burnt out of sports after high school. This past week, I tried to change that, by challenging myself to exercise every day for one week.
The results were better than I ever expected.
By alternating hiking, lifting weights, and jumping rope, combined with a low-carb, protein-rich diet, I’ve lost almost ten pounds and feel better physically than any time I can remember.
Focusing on just the first week of daily exercise was the perfect challenge. It was actionable and achievable, yet still significant. I’m nowhere close to stopping, and hope to keep this habit for the rest of my life.
Everybody knows the long-term benefits of a consistent exercise routine, including everything from less anxiety to a longer life to better sex, but daily exercise also carries a number of immediate benefits that provide even better motivation to keep going, day after day.
As a natural-born cynic, I’m prone to spats of pessimism, or more accurately, serious bouts of metaphysical angst. This week, every time I felt like my life wasn’t going anywhere, or started thinking about the “Time is a flat circle” speech from True Detective, I headed out to the woods, the basement, or the sidewalk to get some exercise, and my bad times turned abruptly into good times.
When you have a consistent exercise routine, you’re always focused on progress. Day by day, you notice yourself looking better, feeling better, and doing better. This constant sense of improvement has a strong effect on your overall outlook. Knowing that you’re getting better every day gives you the gusto to push forward and persevere in all things.
You can benefit from this optimism in every aspect of your life, as it lets you see the with a fresh, can-do perspective. As Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
2. Lower Stress
Allowing yourself to be habitually stressed out is a keystone bad habit, and one that I have struggled with all of my adult life. I know that I perform better under stress, and I often seek it out, just so I can rise to the occasion. Procrastinators know how it goes: you wait until the last moment, until you have that rush pumping through you, forcing you into the zone, where the work just flows out.
Unfortunately, this stress has cyclical effects: once I’m through it I still have that buzz going, and to keep it alive I’ll often celebrate with something unhealthy, which only rewards the high stress behavioral cycle.
Daily exercise, from the very first day, evens you out, smoothing the peaks and troughs of your energy and stress levels, and prolonging that happy middle ground where the Zen resides. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), exercise actually fuels the brain’s stress buffers, making you not only better at coping with stress, but also less susceptible to it in the first place.
There’s a reason that a daily exercise routine is one of the ADAA’s top recommendations for treating anxiety. It works, right from the get-go.
3. Increased Self-worth
I’ve never thought I had a problem with confidence; if anything I’ve always been a bit on the cocky side. This week, however, I learned that there is a difference between self-confidence and self-worth. Self-worth is all about how you perceive your own value, and the clearest barometer for this is the way that you treat yourself.
No matter what you think of your own intelligence or abilities, if you don’t prioritize your time and energy into maintaining your mental, physical, and spiritual health, you’re valuing all the other stuff in life, whether it’s work, leisure, consumption, or something else, higher than you value the only thing you can ever truly own: yourself.
On the other hand, when you exercise daily you have a constant reminder that you are your real priority. All the other stuff in life comes and goes, but your body, mind and soul will be with you until the end, in whatever condition you maintain them.
4. Sense of Accomplishment
For years I put off all of the little, tedious errands life requires as long as was possible. In college, if I could get through one more week by recycling clothing, I would, stains be damned. Eventually, I realized that those little things, like running to the bank, buying groceries, or cleaning your room, are the easiest things to point to at the end of the day to say “Well, I actually got something done today.”
There’s nothing better than getting to 3 o’clock on a Saturday, with all of your errands done for the day, and having the remaining hours to do with as you please.
The feeling after getting in a good day’s exercise is like that, but even better. Not only do you know that you have done something meaningful with your day, you also know that you’ve done something good for your mind and body long-term. When this sense of accomplishment mixes with the waning rush of the endorphins, it coalesces into a powerful cocktail of pride which I rarely felt in my former sedentary life.
Martin Seligman, the former head of the APA and father of the positive psychology movement, recently shunned his former notion of happiness as the most important factor in life satisfaction, in favor of the value of a sense of accomplishment, saying in his book Flourish that “accomplishment is the human desiderata in itself.”
If accomplishments are the goal, no matter how small, then the more ways we can integrate significant, accomplishable goals into our daily lives, the better. And there is no easier, more rewarding way to feel a proud sense of accomplishment every day, than through a daily exercise routine, no matter how basic.
5. More Energy
If you’ve followed One Week With/out, you know about my deep love of coffee, which, though abated during One Week Without Coffee, persists to this day. Almost anywhere you go in the world, you’ll find the people obsessing over something, whether it’s coffee, tea, or coca leaves, that offers them the energy to wake up in the morning, keep going after lunch, or stay awake to put the final nails in the project they’re working on.
As it turns out, there’s another alternative to keep fuel in the fire.
According to University of Georgia researcher Patrick O’Connor (via the New York Times):
“A lot of people are overworked and not sleeping enough. Exercise is a way for people to feel more energetic. There’s a scientific basis for it, and there are advantages to it compared to things like caffeine and energy drinks.”
What are these advantages he’s speaking of? In my experience, it’s all about consistency. Coffee and tea offer a quick boost, and an impending crash. Daily exercise gives you the benefit of a steady, even energy that will last all day long (though you’ll definitely feel the exhaustion set in around ten in the evening).
I’ve noticed a clear spike in my productivity this past week, especially when I’ve exercised in the morning right after my cup of coffee, and then jumped right into the day’s work afterwards. I didn’t expect this effect to take hold right from the beginning, but even on the first day of the challenge I felt the energy poring through me as soon as I hung up my hiking boots.
With the dust settled, I can say for certain that One Week With Daily Exercise has been the most successful One Week With/out challenge to date, and I would recommend it to anyone.
In the past, starting an exercise routine, hoping to continue it indefinitely for the rest of my life, always seemed like such a daunting task. Instead, just focus on doing it for one week. Along the way, you’ll start feeling the benefits described above, and probably discover some more benefits unique to your own experience.
Once you’ve made it to the one week marker, you’ll feel too good, and be too proud of yourself, to give up. If it could work for me, it will work for you.
may we all get better together.