How I finally joined a gym & found an exercise habit

I recently started consistently going to the gym for the first time in my adult life. It’s now been five months of going at least two times a week—and most importantly, I’m enjoying it.

Until I had kids, I was always physically active without extra effort. Swimming, hiking, rock climbing, swing dancing, or just walking with friends to catch up. I even rode my bike to my first professional job post-college, putting my heels in the basket of my beach cruiser. Looking back, it seems unbelievably idyllic.

But then, kids. Running around after a toddler keeps you moving, but that’s not really the kind of exercise that adds to long-term health and strong bones.

I know many parents incorporate regular exercise into their day even with kids, doing push-ups in their backyard, but that’s never worked for me. Yet I’ve always preferred to move my body outdoors, away from machines and screens.

But recently, I admitted how sedentary I’d become and was determined to find a solution. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me the benefits of exercise: energy, creativity, mood and long-term brain health. I was convinced. I just need to make it happen.

I did what seems like it should be obvious: I identified the problem. Gretchen Rubin said this one time, and it was a huge lightbulb for me.

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The first problem was this: I wanted to regularly exercise, but I needed childcare. My husband’s work schedule is inconsistent, making it impossible to create routine if I have to rely on his availability to be with the kids when I exercised. If I wanted to make this a habit, coordinating my working out with his schedule just wouldn’t work. I had already tried.

Although I resisted the idea of exercising in a gym, I realized finding a gym with childcare was the only way to make regular exercise both affordable and realistic. I signed up for the local YMCA and put on my yoga pants.

The next thing I did may seem silly, but remember, it worked for me (and I’ve now been going to the gym at least twice per week for the past five months, so don’t judge). I told myself that all I had to do was go to the YMCA two times a week even if I didn’t work out. I could just drop off the kids and read for 30 minutes if once I got there that’s all I wanted to do. For me this would be a huge treat!

My goal was to start with the habit of just putting on my workout clothes and getting to the gym. I needed to avoid the moment of indecision and just go. Once I was there, sometimes I would read first for 15 minutes, but by then it was usually fairly easy to make myself do something active.

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Getting into the habit of going and not questioning if this was the right time, or if I should be doing something else instead… that’s what I needed.

Unfortunately, I was still dreading going to the gym, even though I’d found a way to make myself get there. So, I identified the other problems with my gym experience, and decided to not judge myself for whatever made the “problem” list.

The “problems” with my gym experience:

• I ended my workouts not feeling relaxed. I was still mentally stressed.

• I didn’t have well-fitting, comfortable clothes to wear.

• My headphones were constantly falling out of my ears, and the cord flapping on the treadmill bugged me.

• There were too many distracting screens on the cardio machines and walls!

• Feeling guilty for putting my kids in childcare when they were already in childcare while I worked.

I looked at my list and realized a few things:

I may be an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). The overstimulation of screens and the physical discomfort of cords and clothes were weirdly significant in their distraction.

Also, having a mental break is an important workout goal for me. I had never identified this before, but its value suddenly seemed obvious. I wanted to leave the gym feeling relaxed, with the happy endorphins from working out and feeling like I’d given my brain a break from thinking about work, the news, or home management tasks.

I needed to stop trying to “use that time well” with multi-tasking. I also needed to further identify what was causing the decision fatigue feeling.

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Here’s what I did to solve the problems:

• Bought a new sports bra. Life changed.

• Bought cordless bluetooth headphones.

• Decided that I would not let myself listen to podcasts, books, or anything related to work or politics while exercising. Music only.

• I created my own routine for my workout so I didn’t have to have to make decisions. It’s a default plan that requires no decision-making, but it still gets me moving. I also created a coordinating playlist of songs so I don’t even have to decide what to listen to, and I know which songs cue a shift to the next activity. Sia comes on? Time to stretch.

• I also decided to just let myself do what works for me, instead of continuing to think, “Doing X works for So-and-so, so why can’t I make X work for me too?” If another working mom can find ways to exercise regularly without childcare at the gym, kudos to her. But I just couldn’t. I had to be realistic.

• I also reminded myself how happy it will make my children when they’re adults and they have a mother who’s been taking care of her body for the previous 20 years. I know my children will be proud of me, and even relieved to know I’m as healthy as I could be. Time to stop feeling guilty about prioritizing exercise.

• I found the places in the gym with the most windows, where I could focus on the hills and trees outside instead of going crazy from all the screens.

Many of these solutions came from continued tweaking—I didn’t figure it all out during one workout. But, I’m delighted that, for the first time in my adult life, I look forward to going to the gym.

I put on my comfortable sports bra and workout shirt that fits just how I want it to. I know that when I’m done, I’ll feel relaxed, happy, and energetic.

I look forward to putting on my headphones and listening to my special playlist, and even looking out my favorite window. And I’m content, knowing my future self will thank me for identifying the problem and making it happen.

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