It’s no secret that regular physical activity is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. According to the CDC, its benefits include weight management, stronger bones and muscles, improved mood and mental health, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
For these reasons, it is currently recommended that adults get a minimum of 20 minutes of physical activity each day. Yet even with overwhelming scientific evidence available, many are falling short of this goal – and the percentage is even higher among women living with a chronic illness.
What is one of the greatest obstacles to an ideal exercise routine? Most often the answer is motivation.
For many women, the symptoms of illness and disease make it challenging (if not altogether impossible) to engage in even mundane daily tasks. Some days, just rising to take a shower and prepare a meal is all that they can handle before collapsing back into bed. Activities such as running, hiking, swimming, biking, and lifting weights feel completely out of reach.
It’s a dilemma to consider that the very habits you know could improve your quality of life also have the potential to leave you feeling exhausted and in pain. How can you break free from this vicious cycle? Here are some proven tips to make regular physical activity an enjoyable lifelong habit – even with chronic illness.
1. Set a goal. Get clear on your why for exercising – whether it’s to maintain mobility, increase strength, lose weight, or improve your mood. Doing so puts you in a better position to know if you’re on track, especially since the vision you have for your own health may be different from someone else’s.
To that end, write down your goal and put it somewhere you can look at it every day. Some have found a vision board or bullet journal to be helpful. Even a post-it note on your bathroom mirror has been proven to keep your goal visually in the front of your mind.
2. Enlist a buddy. There’s nothing like accountability to make you think twice before abandoning your goals, so decide ahead of time who that person is for you. Whether it’s a professional like a personal trainer or health coach or a peer like a friend or fellow gym member, choose someone who understands your needs and wants to be there to support you.
It is even better to select a partner with whom you share common goals. Make time to engage in physical activity with someone you like, which provides the added motivation of social interaction – and the deterrent of healthy guilt if you don’t keep your plans. Take it a step further and document your journey on social media if you are a person who benefits from the validation and encouragement of a tribe.
3. Set the mood. It isn’t necessary to be glamorous or materialistic, but it doesn’t hurt to feel good about the aesthetics of your workout routine. First and foremost, planning where you are going to work out every day removes some of the guesswork as you build new habits.
If you prefer the gym setting, find one with a vibe that is inviting and fits your groove. If you prefer to exercise at home, designate a specific space to store your equipment and trigger your brain that it’s time to focus. Make it fun, select a playlist of your favorite tunes or turn on your favorite TV show. Wear clothes that make you feel confident.
4. Schedule an appointment. Plan in advance exactly when you are going to work out and then write it down wherever you keep your other appointments – whether in a day planner, on your desk calendar, or in your smartphone. Go a step farther and set an alarm if you can and then – no matter what – don’t let anything get in the way.
Like any other important appointment – such as a visit to the doctor – don’t allow yourself less than 24 hours to cancel and reschedule. If the scheduled time arrives and you realize you’re in a rush, rather than cancelling the session altogether, keep it short. Instead of walking for 20 minutes, stand up and do 10 jumping jacks – anything to help your brain get used to its new routine.
5. Measure your progress. There’s nothing more motivating than knowing what your aim is and seeing your efforts pay off in positive ways. If your ultimate goal is to run a marathon, break it down into more manageable micro-goals and pre-select ways to reward yourself as you reach each milestone.
If given your current health status it would be an accomplishment just to get out of bed and shower every morning, then set up a chart and give yourself a gold star when you succeed. Aim for two times a week at first and then gradually increase the frequency as you are able. For those who feel that the time involved to keep a record is too much, then invest in a fitness tracker to do the work for you. It can be very rewarding to watch your number of steps climb each day.
6. Be flexible. Listen to what your body needs from day-to-day. Sometimes the activity you had planned doesn’t seem to fit how you’re feeling, so don’t be afraid to shake things up and tailor it to your mood and energy levels.
If you’ve been feeling pent up all day, go ahead and try some high-powered cardio. When all you want to do is crash on the couch, try some gentle and relaxing stretches with a foam roller or on the mat. When your pain is at a minimum, it might be time to try some strength training.
No matter what, be sure to engage only in activities that have been approved by your doctor. Even with their approval, always use your best judgment. If gentle stretching can trigger a flare, reduce the intensity and quantity of repetitions. Even taking a shower counts as physical activity when you are living with a chronic illness.
7. Enjoy it! Consider it “me” time. As with any self-care habit, the best way to motivate yourself is to find a routine you truly enjoy so that it doesn’t feel like work. By creating new habits that are rewarding and progressive, you are setting yourself up for lifelong success.
For some help getting started with your own routine of physical activity, click here to download your FREE worksheet.