The past year has been pretty hectic for me. I bought a house, moved from Los Angeles to Portland, got engaged, and planned a wedding. Saying “there’s been a lot going on” is an understatement.
But one area of my life that hasn’t had a lot going on in this year?
It pains me to admit, but I have officially fallen off the workout wagon. My once-regular fitness routine has dwindled to hiking on the weekends, the occasional run (where I huff and puff my way across a mile or two), and a few half-hearted attempts at forcing myself into the gym.
We’ve all been there, in some way or another. Maybe you’re recovering from an injury or maybe you’re just getting back from a beach vacation where your only activity was walking from an oceanside cabana to the bar for a daiquiri. Hell, maybe life just got in the way! Whatever the case, sliding back into a solid fitness routine after a break can be tough (especially when you’re going it alone).
Tough… but certainly not impossible. After a year of spending much more time on my couch than on the treadmill, I’m ready to make working out a regular part of my life again. To help make that happen, I’ve asked experts for their best advice.
Here are five tips for getting back in the fitness game after a short (or, if you’re me, very long) break:
1. Define your “why.”
When I first decided I wanted to get back in the gym, I’ll be honest—it’s because I noticed my favorite jeans were getting a little on the tight side. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that a too-tight pair of jeans might be enough to get me back in the gym, but it’s not going to be enough to keep me there.
It was time to bring in the big guns. I started with Amanda McVey, general manager of Bulletproof Labs in Santa Monica, CA, which uses science-backed technologies to boost brain and body performance.
“Most of the people who walk through our doors say ‘I want to be thinner,’ or ‘I want to have bigger muscles.’ This is about the ‘what’ of the body—how they can fix an imperfection,” McVey says. “What we try to do instead is connect people back with the superhuman that lies within them, and part of that is really connecting with your ‘why’.”
And that “why” has to be about more than losing a few pounds. It has to be something that truly motivates and inspires you to keep pushing through your workouts—even when it’s hard, even when you’re tired, even when you’d rather stay in bed.
“Ask yourself: Why is making a change now so important?” McVey says. “That ‘why’ is what will make getting out of bed at five in the morning when nobody else is getting out of bed so worth it… because it’s about more than five pounds, right?”
If you’re not sure why you want to get back in the fitness game, it’s important to dig a little deeper and find your motivation. Why do you want to make fitness a more regular part of your life again? Is it so you can have more energy to play with your kids? So you can finally cross “run a half-marathon” off your bucket list? Whatever it may be, your “why” is what’s going to push you forward, even when it (inevitably) gets hard.
And when it does get hard—maybe too hard to keep going on your own—there’s Aaptiv. It’s like a personal trainer in your pocket (on your phone) that has tons of trainer-led workouts you can do right in the gym. It’s an awesome way to get professional instruction without having to actually workout with other people (BIG relief, we know).
2. Feed your body the right fuel.
I’m not proud to admit this, but for me, taking a break from fitness typically also means taking a break from a healthy diet. I know that if I want to get serious about my body again, I’m going to need to feed it more than animal crackers, popcorn, and diet soda.
“My favorite thing that Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey says is, ‘There are foods that you eat that make you feel bad. There are foods that you eat that make you feel nothing. And there are foods that you eat that make you feel great. Eat more of the food that makes you feel great,” McVey says.
This strategy might be simple, but it’s also brilliant. If you want to make working out a regular part of your routine again, you’ve got to give your body the foods it needs to make that happen. For me, the foods that make me feel great are a mix of protein, vegetables, and healthy fat (my favorite pre-workout snack is a smoothie with kale, banana, vegan protein powder, and a scoop of peanut butter). Experiment and find out what foods make your body feel great and give you the energy you need to get a real workout in.
3. Enlist the help of an “accountabilibuddy.”
I find getting up for a 6 a.m. solo run nearly impossible—I’ll come up with any excuse to hit the snooze button. But when I know a friend is waiting for me to hit the pavement, it’s much easier to roll out of bed, lace up my shoes, and go.
“There’s nothing like accountability to make you follow through on a commitment,” says Vivian Eisenstadt, physical therapist and CEO of Vivie Therapy. “When you exercise solely for yourself, you can find any excuse not to do it. When you have to answer to someone else who is counting on you, it’s a whole other ballgame.”
Eisenstadt suggests finding a friend who works out on the regular, asking if you can join them for a few workouts, and then putting it on the calendar. “Set aside time in your schedule like an important appointment,” she says. “Then it’s not something to do ‘if you have time’—it’s a necessity.”
Knowing your friend is counting on you—and seeing that time blocked off on your calendar like any other important commitment—will help you follow through and show up for workouts until you’re back in the swing of things.
If you don’t have a friend interested in working out (it happens!), using an app like Aaptiv can also help you feel accountable to someone other than yourself.
4. Incentivize yourself with new workout gear.
Some people are intrinsically motivated and work out just because they know it’s good for them. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people—which is why adding incentives to my workout routine is super helpful. When I know there’s something in the deal for me, I’m much more likely to get my booty to the gym.
“Incentives are great for people who are competitive and motivated/driven by environmental factors,” says Jonathan Maxim, CEO of Vea Fitness, a workout-tracking app that gives users incentives like discounts, prizes, and cold, hard cash as a reward for working out.
When I know there’s something in the deal for me, I’m much more likely to get my booty to the gym.
Technically speaking, you can reward yourself any way you like. But if you want your incentives to have added, fitness-boosting perks, try gifting yourself some new workout gear.
“If you upgrade your look—say, with a new pair of stylish workout pants—it really encourages you to go put them to work,” Maxim says. “New running shoes can help you want to at least go try them out, just like stylish yoga pants can inspire you to go sport them in class.”
The point is, it’s easier to get moving if you know there’s a reward waiting for you. And if that reward is a new pair running shoes? Even better.
5. Listen to your body.
I’m lucky that my fitness hiatus was self-imposed and not a result of an injury. But if the reason you’ve been out of the fitness game for a while is injury-related, the most important thing you need to keep in mind is that you should listen to your body.
“One of the biggest signs that you might not be ready to return to working out is if you’re experiencing a lot of pain—unrelated to regular muscle soreness,” says Michael Perry, M.D., co-founder and chief medical director of the Laser Spine Institute. “If a certain action or activity hurts, stop doing it immediately,” Perry says. “The pain is your body’s way of telling you ‘not yet.'”
Do yourself a favor—if you’re dealing with post-injury pain, pay attention. If you push too hard when getting back in the gym, you put yourself at serious risk of re-injuring yourself—which might keep you on the bench even longer the second time around.
I’m not going to lie—initially, the thought of getting back in the fitness game after a year on the sidelines was a bit intimidating. But as I’ve learned, it doesn’t have to be. With a little inspiration, a complementary diet, a dash of accountability, and a couple rewards along the way, I know I can do it. At this point, it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other.
Which I’m going to do now—on a run.
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Deanna deBara is a freelance writer and accidental marathon runner living in Portland, OR. Keep up with her running adventures on Instagram @deannadebara.