Start exercising from zero and improve your productivity

People say it all the time. Experts say it too. In fact, it’s said often enough, by so many people, that over the years it’s begun to feel commonplace and maybe even trite to our ears. But you know it’s true. Very simply:

Exercise makes your life better in, like, a million different ways.

Exercising even just semi-regularly has been proven in study after study to decrease stress levels, improve your cardiovascular health and your sleep, and boost your mood and your immune system. But odds are good you already knew that. You probably already knew this as well, but just in case you didn’t:

Exercise helps your productivity, too.

But as surely as we all know those things, we also know that for us human beings, it’s not as simple as proclaiming, or even proving, that exercise can change our entire world. It’s not even as easy as describing it, as many do, as a “magic pill” that provides all those listed benefits, plus many more, with no side effects and no downsides. We’re just too jaded, or dense, or something, to heed that advice a lot of the time.

Something about working out in modern life is hard for us. Most people have tried to start exercising multiple times in their lives, and fallen off for one reason or another. And most of us have it in our minds that exercising is an actually hard thing to do day in and day out. But seasoned “exercisers” will attest that once you’re in a kind of a groove with your workouts – a routine if you will – it gets easier. It might not be a cakewalk, but it becomes more compulsory, and more like something you just do. Like any other kind of habit or chore. (And if you’re really lucky, it actually gets to be fun at some point – or so I’ve heard.)

The issue, then, is actually much more simple. It’s the same one that we all face every day in our work and productivity journeys. It’s just another coat of paint on our old friend: procrastination. But just like when we’re sitting at our desk staring into space and stuck, the answer to our problem is a simple one:

Just start

Starting itself, of course, can also be hard. And when you’re first beginning, every subsequent day can feel like you’re breaking through that wall of resistance again.

But keep in mind the reasons we’re doing this. You want to perform at your best during your workday. You want to feel that brain fog lifted. And you want to try to bottle, if you can, that feeling of being bright-eyed and fresh and mentally capable to take things on. That’s one of the feelings I’m chasing every day. And fit people and enthusiasts honestly seem to have it coursing through their veins sometimes.

Thomas Frank maintains that there are really only three things you need in the morning to get your brain kickstarted and in the right place, shaking off the sleepiness: movement, sunlight, and water. You can try it yourself. Even on a day where you’re forced to get only five hours of sleep or something like that, just get outside and walk around. Work up just enough of a sweat that you crave a glass of water when you walk in the door. It’s so simple, but you’d be amazed at the difference you feel as you stare down the rest of your day.

I used to hate running. Growing up, I always told myself that I’d never be one of “those” people that ran around the neighborhood to get their exercise. I played sports in school, and that kept me reasonably in shape. But as I got older and sports were less available – and working out became more metabolically necessary, I gave running another look, reluctantly. But I started to see what drew so many people to it. For one, it’s simple. It requires literally zero equipment, or experience. It’s relatively difficult to hurt yourself, unless you’re one of those beasts that runs hours and miles every day. It can last exactly as long as you need it to – ten minutes, or four hours. And you can go as slow as you want. You can run slower than you normally walk, if you want to, and it’s still a net positive.

So, to an ultra beginner, a fellow starter from zero, I recommend running as your first entrée. At least try it before spending the money on one aspirational set of dumbbells or a yoga mat destined to be thrown in your closet. And if you do manage to stick with it, try a pull-up bar as your “next step.” (Many say you can construct a brilliant full-body workout with just body-weight exercises, cardio, and the help of a pull-up bar.) But again, one thing at a time.

Pick a time that works best for you. I highly recommend morning if you can swing it. It’s helpful to anchor this new routine we’re building to a routine that already exists, like your morning routine. If it requires getting up an hour or two earlier, negotiate the possibility of going to bed an hour or two earlier. I know those kind of changes in circadian rhythm and routine can be painful, if not impossible-seeming. See what you have the bandwidth for.

Make it easy to keep going

The key to maintaining a habit like this is to make it easy to come back to again and again. To remove so much resistance and make it so painless that it actually takes more mental gymnastics to convince yourself not to do it than, you know, to just go ahead and do it.

Your mileage may vary on how much friction you need to remove in order to make this make sense for you. For me, it took a lot.

First off, I sleep in the next day’s workout clothes. It helps that they’re loose and soft and baggy, but the main incentive behind doing this is making it really hard to convince myself to start my day any other way. I’m already wearing the old ratty Champion compression shirt with the worn-out collar. I’m not gonna go to the hip bagel shop around the corner wearing this, or much less the office. I should just workout and get it over with. Alternatively, you can just set your workout clothes in a neat pile in an area you know you’re going to walk by early in the morning. Same effect, if you have a bit more willpower than I do.

Next, I step into the bathroom to do exactly one thing: put in my contact lenses. I need them to see, and don’t like working out in glasses. Then, I step out of the bathroom. Notice how many self-care and hygiene steps we skipped? That’s not what this moment in the day is about. Those are for later. You could brush your teeth and put on moisturizer and all that – some people legitimately do shower before they workout, then come back inside and shower again, if you can believe it – but what would be the point in any of that? Terry Crews makes a point of doing absolutely no grooming before his morning workout. As he puts it, “you’re going there to get funky anyway. I don’t want to talk to anybody.”

There’s a pair of athletic shoes next to the door. Put those on. Then, walk out the door. For many people, if you can believe it, that’s “the hard part” already done. What’s next is just whatever follows. Start walking.

People who know what they’re talking about might disagree, and I’m not a kinesiologist and don’t play one on the internet, but I think for us beginners doing our low intensity little running workouts, it’s okay to skip stretching at this stage. In fact, there is actual scientific evidence that suggests static stretching might not be the ideal pre-workout activity. Static stretching before your workout can sort of “put your muscles to sleep” and lock them up, instead of the limbering and loosening we’re aiming for. Instead, some experts recommend “dynamic” stretching, like high knees or leg kicks or lunges, to get the effect you’re looking for. And for us beginner slow-pokes, I feel like a walk that turns into a brisk walk that turns into a gingerly jog is more than enough of a warm-up process.

Again – we’re about removing obstacles, and things that will bore and annoy you. Stretching can be boring. We want you to associate exercise with feeling happy and alive, and feeling the wind in your hair. Not sitting on the ground for an indeterminate amount of time incorrectly performing that same calf stretch or whatever that we all did in middle school.

After you walk a little bit, and walk a little faster, start running. Run at your own pace. Run as far as you’d like – just bear in mind wherever you go, you’re going to need to travel that exact distance to return home. If you overshoot your capacity to run a longer distance, just walk the extra distance back home. You don’t really have a choice, actually – unless you wanted to call an Uber.

Good job. You just exercised. Not so bad, right?

After I’m done, I walk inside and start my morning bathroom-type-activities routine. Take a long luxurious shower. You earned it. Use every self-care type product you have, if you have the time. As a recovering guy-who-knows-nothing-about-skincare, I use the moisturizers and cleansers that my girlfriend recommended for me, as well as brush my teeth, swish mouthwash, and take vitamins. Enjoy this time. It’s supposed to extend that feeling of freshness and doing-everything-right to start your day.

Then, optional, whip up a quick breakfast or protein shake (you might like a coffee, again optional), and sit down to work. That’s it.

That may look a whole lot like your current routine. But making those few slight changes to my own – adding any small degree of exercise and building on it, and creating a renewed emphasis on consistency, even on silly things like moisturizers – has done so much for my mental state and my work life.

Initially, I tended to get stuck with the fact that exercise was not something I did every day – rest is important, of course, and many experts advocate for four to five days a week of exercise on average. That’s all well and good, but in my experience it’s much easier and more satisfying to create a habit that occurs every twelve or 24 hours, than one that happens “every Monday Wednesday Friday, or Thursday, weekends optional,” or whatever. It’s so much less compelling, and has so many more holes for excuses and willpower lapses to fall into.

So I recommend that on the days when you’re not exercising, you still get up, still do the intro routine, and still step outside. Walk around the neighborhood. Get sun exposure. Now you’re training all the memory and routine muscles you can without having to exercise every day. Some days you walk, some days you run. Either way, you’ll be in the same place at the same time every day, and it will benefit you.

Begin to branch out

Once you have the habit, and it genuinely is no longer a struggle to Get Up, Put On Shoes, and Step Out The Door, then you can start to have a little fun with it. Mix it up. Branch out toward different things that might interest you. You might think that nothing in the fitness world interests you, but I would wager that at least something does. You have a favorite sport. You have a part of your body that you would like to look really good in the mirror. We’ve all been working out and done a certain exercise and thought “for some reason that felt better than the rest of them.”

I love tennis, and have played it for years. It’s my favorite kind of exercise and “cross-training” because it doesn’t feel like work. It’s so fun it barely even feels like exercise. We’ve all seen the groups of four-to-ten guys playing super intense pickup basketball in the gym or at the park. Those dudes are always working harder than anyone in the whole gym. But they’re also so obviously having the time of their lives, every single minute. Try to be like those dudes. If you have a favorite sport, don’t be shy. Sign up for Nextdoor and look for buddies.

Other ideas: yoga. Search YouTube for “Yoga With Adriene.” This lovely smiley woman named Adriene will coach you through the most basic of yoga exercises all the way up to more complicated techniques. If you most like the part of yoga where your abs are burning, shift towards pilates. There are YouTube videos for those too. If you have a bunch of disposable income and like to ride bikes, look to Peloton or SoulCycle or one of those group-stationary-bike experiences. People talk about those things and their intense drenched-sweat calorie burn sessions like they’re religious awakenings.

If you want the general, Choose Your Own Adventure-style fitness experience, join a gym. Most of the machines have instructions on them, and – little known secret – gym people, especially weight-lifting bros, are some of the most kind and helpful supporters you could ask for. They’ll show you the right way to do an exercise, spot you when you do a set of lifting heavy weight, and tell you “good job,” and mean it. Great people, those gym rats.

Reap the benefits in your work

But let’s talk about why you’re reading this article on a productivity blog.

If we’re working to improve your work life and overall productivity here, there needs to be a shift in mindset. Exercise is so helpful, and can be so important to an effective workflow, you almost need to slot it in to your life as part of your work day. It’s been proven so extensively that some more progressive companies have even begun adding exercise to the set schedules of their employee’s workday, or literally paying them to exercise at work.

We should try to emulate the same thing. You sit down at your desk at 9am, but you wake up at 7:45. You go running at 8am. Your workday starts at 8am. Get it?

There are real studies that prove the existence of a change in headspace and mental capacity after working out. You might remember feeling feelings of clarity or calm even as you just walk inside after exercising. Use those feelings. Don’t waste them. Use them to dive into your work for the day and conquer your procrastination with a full head of steam.

What if you’re already deep in the middle of a procrastination session? One of my big problems is starting my day with degrees of laziness so overpowering that they threaten to derail my entire day. I’m talking laying in bed for hours, not brushing my teeth, and once the afternoon rolls around, opening a bag of chips and calling the whole day a lost cause. But that’s not a way to live. Even at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you can “get your day started.” Exercise, shower, do the full routine, brush your teeth and take your pills, and “start.” It’s so, so much better than not doing it at all. And as you do all those things, you can reset your entire mindset. You can trick your lizard brain into thinking you’re having a good day and there are bright moments ahead of you. And it will actually be true.

The other great thing about exercising is that, even if you only do a little, even if you do it badly, you still exercised that day. And that instantly renders the day, especially as you just start out, a net positive. Even if you throw the rest of the day away, you still did a great and positive thing for yourself. So take that momentum forward. In those more slogging work days, lack of motivation can turn into lack of self-belief or lack of confidence, which can lead into a predictable and painful vicious cycle. But you ran three miles today. You held a plank for 75 whole seconds in a row even though it really hurt. You got this. You know?

That self-belief is a truly significant thing, in everything you attack in your day from this point forward.

Also – you don’t have to listen to an obnoxious pump-up playlist on Spotify to exercise effectively. I used to think I could only listen to high-energy, high-BPM stuff to match my intensity level. But I’ve found that my morning runs, and the half-hour to hour-plus of “open time” they require, are the perfect time for some heady, academic style podcasts and audiobooks. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but “people talking” goes great with exercising. Terry Crews swears by it – he listens to an audiobook over the course of a full multi-hour weightlifting and cardio session every single day.

I love The Daily by The New York Times for a quick hit of news, before jumping in to an interview podcast like The Tim Ferriss Show, to start myself thinking about work and productivity and excellence, and things like that. In the rest of my day, I always struggle to find a place for these more straitlaced and informative podcasts – I usually prefer to mainline my favorite comedy shows. But as you’re bushy-tailed and clear-minded and still a little blinkingly tired in the morning, something with a productive edge just feels like it fits.

So use this time to get your work brain fired up, and prepared for the day ahead. Again – that doesn’t mean you have to boot up a recording of last Friday’s HR meeting and listen to it on double speed, but it does mean that you can get your brain booted up and thinking about problem solving, or creativity, or whatever you need to tackle the day with.

Enjoy

If nothing else, you’ve made efforts to break through that barrier of resistance we all face. And that is no small thing.

If you manage to create a habit out of exercising, congratulations. You’ll know you made it when you actually truly feel the urge to exercise – not necessarily because you want to, but because you know all the good that will come to you if you do. Pay attention to how the world changes around you, and how much more you’re able to take on and enjoy in your world. It won’t make everything better overnight, but I guarantee you’ll feel some kind of progress and improvement. And that will prove to you, on a deeper level, that improvement is possible. And that’s powerful.

You have no idea how healthy and helpful and positive the work you’re doing is. Add a meditation practice and you’re well on your way to basically perfecting the human condition. Have fun out there.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.