How to Get Back Into Shape—Even After Years of Inactivity

Updated 09/25/19
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Sometimes, as an adult, you forget to do things that were pre-planned for you as a kid. This particularly applies to things that you may have taken for granted, like things that were built into your school day... things like exercise. While most people had physical education growing up, not everyone was taught how to use the gym. Although it might shock the fitness junkies out there, there are plenty of people who live their lives—wake up, eat food, go to work—and carry on without so much as breaking a sweat. No cardio, no conditioning, no heart-pumping movement or muscle-toning repetitions. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

While others go to the gym post-work, and walk around on weekends in their envy-inducing active wear, plenty of people exist as though exercise was not a thing. Not for lack of wanting it to be, and not for lack of trying—but when it's not ingrained in you, it's hard to change that behavior. And for some people, it feels like it just never sticks. You just have other things to do with your time, you're not into it, you're just not cut out to work out; but in all honesty, at the end of the day, those things feed a cycle of denial about your own autonomy as it pertains to working out.

It can even be a problem for people who were very regular about their exercise at a young age, though. Once you get to college, things are different. You're without any adult supervision for the first time, and don't have a regular daily schedule. So no matter who you were in high school, you might make it through all four years of school without ever exercising regularly. So how are you supposed to get back on track?

get on a workout routine

"You are your own competition and judge," says Rodrigo Garduño, creator of 54D Miami. It's often disregarded that getting into an exercise routine is fraught with a whole lot of expectations, desires, and self-pressure (let alone the societal pressure). Initially, you might get grand ambitions about what you'll would accomplish and how committed you'll be, as though waking up at 6 a.m. and trail-running is somehow in the imminent future.

And then life, as it does, gets in the way: a trip, unexpectedly getting sick, a busy week at work. And when the dust settles, it's easy to feel like you've failed. It's discouraging, and the idea of starting back up all over again seems overwhelming and—at times—pointless. As soon as you have a small setback, it can feel as though any effort you have made doesn't matter. 

So, as hard as it is, you need to let go. If you've been doing great at exercising for three weeks, and then go to Vegas, and somehow find that seven days have passed since your last workout, don’t stress over it, or let it demotivate you, or discourage you—don’t even think about it. Just look forward. You will only be able to get into a routine again when you stop letting setbacks depress and derail you. (Which, honestly, doesn't just apply to working out.)

Don’t think about what you haven’t done, or how much work it’s going to take to get you to where you want to be. Don’t think about how out of shape you are, or how terrible it is that it’s been so long since you last exercised. Overthinking is momentum’s enemy. Let the past stay in the past, and just do something.

In addition to overthinking things, the other trap it's easy to fall into is trying way, way too hard when first starting out. Don't try to atone for a decade of inactivity. If you do a super-intense spinning class, and then are sore for 12 days after, you're going to give up. There's no point in being fast and furious if it keeps you from being consistent. Remember that if you haven't worked out for ten years anything you’re doing is better than nothing. Who cares if it’s 10 minutes—it used to be 0 minutes! The pressure comes from yourself to start back up with intensity, even though it sabotages the long-term regularity.

As Garduño advises, "Everybody is different and we all react different to working out." Letting go of that pressure will free you up to be consistent without the negative and discouraging thoughts. Only do things you think your body is ready for. So what if you’re only capable of a leisurely walk? It'll keep you active and in a better headspace than losing momentum because you did Barry’s Bootcamp and were so sore you couldn’t work out for the next two weeks. Don’t try too hard only to overdo it. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

The key word here is acquaintance—not friend. Someone you want to impress, someone in your industry, someone you feel you cannot cancel on for one reason or another. Being locked into a workout date with someone you can't cancel on is a pretty good method to avoid bailing. See, the beauty of semi-strangers is that, like when you’re first dating someone new, you’re on your best behavior. You might feel bad, but wouldn’t hesitate to cancel on a best friend, family member, etc., if you're too tired to work out. They’d understand. 

If you’ve locked yourself in with someone you don’t know that well—a new coworker, a friend of your boyfriend’s friend—it’s too awkward to bail. You can’t. You might even regret having arranged a workout date when you have no method of escape, but as the saying goes, you never regret working out. It's a way of forcing yourself to exercise at times I never otherwise would have.

Sign up for classes that require you to reserve a space in order to attend. Most places have a cut-off window of when it’s too late to cancel and you’ll get charged regardless. Sign up on the day-of, and let yourself miss the cut-off window. Unless you're fine with wasting money, you’ll feel obligated (in a good way!) to plan your day around making the class—i.e. getting your work done, or taking a break to attend the class and finishing up afterwards.  

Most people find that working out consistently is easier to do when you’re in it with other people, especially if they share a similar passion. It’s the very nature of team sports: a shared, communal experience that’s empowering and motivating. "Staying motivated to continue on a fitness journey sometimes can be hard," Garduño explains. He advises that you "grab a friend to keep each other going, or join a program where you have a group of people with the same goals that will help you keep young."

"Showing up" is easier when you have people to workout with, to sweat and suffer with, all while music plays overhead. Compare that to “showing up” when you alone are holding yourself accountable to go for that run; it’s a bit more difficult, isolating, and, for many people, less fun.

Still stuck? Here are 5 tips from Garduño to keep in mind:

  • Don’t wait until tomorrow to start
  • Keep going, even though it may seem to be taking forever.
  • Getting back in shape doesn't happen overnight, you have to be consistent.
  • Always think of your nutrition as a big part of your workout routine.
  • Try different workouts out of your comfort zone.
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