What I Learned from Getting in Shape

The miles, reps, and meals are only part of the story.

I remember peeling off my soaked, Rocky-esque gray sweatshirt, stepping in front of my bathroom mirror, and being genuinely surprised with what I saw. I wasn’t in shape by any stretch of the imagination, but I looked very different than how I’d always seen myself.

Though the change was slight enough that probably only I could notice, I was leaner and more fit than I ever had been before. The four exhausting weeks of strict dieting, daily sprint sessions, and pushing light dumbbells with questionable form had somehow amounted to change I could see. I actually felt anxious to get back into the gym and reach my next milestone. That wasn’t a familiar feeling.

My next seven months were dotted with personal victories: five more pounds added to a lift, two more miles added to a run, one more healthy recipe memorized. Immersed in routine and raring to set and reach new goals as quickly as I could, I shed 45 pounds and gained an appreciation for fitness that I’d never thought I’d come close to having.

Eight months isn’t a very long time, but during the process of making fitness an integral part of my life, I learned more about myself than I ever had before. Granted, I was sixteen; I had yet to travel away to college, live independently, or succeed in a long-term relationship, but I’m firm in my belief that the lessons learned during that period were essential to the person I’ve become since. At the very least, they’re lessons that can offer a great deal of help to anyone starting a fitness journey, no matter how distant their goal.

Find What Works Best for You

I'll admit that getting the wheels off the ground was a huge struggle for me. I didn’t know a thing about fitness and was under the impression that if I ate only greens and chicken breast three times a day, I’d have washboard abs in no time. I was surprised by my initial success, but I knew that it probably wasn’t the best idea to free-hand the rest of the process.

So I went about learning as much as I could about varied weightlifting methods, cardio workouts, and nutrition science, spending quite a bit of my free time studying up on what’s worked for others and what I could apply to my own routine. I found the right combination of cardio and strength workouts to support my goals, developed a routine of cooking and packing my own meals, and tried to adhere to the regimen I’d established as strictly as possible.

This isn’t to say that what worked for me will work for everyone else (or anyone else, for that matter), but the point here is that starting a fitness journey isn’t so much about what precise methods and techniques one uses as it is about learning as much as you can, experimenting with different things, and finding what works best for you and makes the process as manageable as possible.

Consistency is Everything

As I continued to learn as much as I could about fitness, I was often tempted to change my eating and exercise routine to match whatever each new YouTube fitness guru touted as the key to success. While adopting new techniques and experimenting a bit will keep your grind from becoming monotonous, I strongly advise against second-guessing and changing your entire routine just because you’ve heard a sound argument in favor of a different one. Sure, learning and adopting new exercises and diet tricks can help you, (it helped me tremendously) but what’s guaranteed to bring the change you want is remaining consistent for long periods at a time.

This doesn’t mean that it’s wise to change nothing if you’ve been grinding away for months and have seen few results, because if you discover what you’re doing isn’t working for you, you need to fix it as soon as possible. But you won’t know whether or not a fitness or nutrition regimen is actually working unless you stick to it for a few months and keep records of your appearance, weight, and performance to track your progress. Sure, it requires patience, but it’s well worth it in the end.

Don’t Fall into Obsession

Once I became fully confident in what I’d learned and accomplished after a few months of hard work, I’d started to beat myself up over the inevitable gaps in my routine, and the infrequent breaks from the gym and dieting I sometimes needed to take. After all the time I’d spent compiling fitness know-how, I felt that I should be capable of controlling every detail of my diet and workout routine, and that it reflected poorly on me when I wasn’t able to. I became unhappy with my rate of progress because I felt that every mistake I made added unnecessary yardage to my journey. For a few weeks, fitness stopped being rewarding, and started making me feel like I’d been failing all along.

I sought the opinions of fitness coaches and fit friends alike to break through this roadblock, and received just about the same bit of wisdom from almost all of them. “Give yourself a break,” they advised, usually with a pat on the back and a subtle eye roll. And they were right: I’d been so focused on staying disciplined and adhering to my routine that I set ridiculous standards, then derided myself when I wasn’t able to meet them. I now see that perfectionism and impatience has no place in any man or woman’s fitness story.

If you become obsessed with the makeup of every calorie you’re consuming and the perfection of every rep on every set, you’re simply setting yourself up for failure and dissatisfaction. This was, in my opinion, the most important thing I’d learned from the process as a whole: that the ability to remain hopeful and surefooted along your path, and continue to tread forward over any small failures, is essential to accomplishing any long-term goal.

So by learning to forgive myself and install fitness an important but not dominant part of my life, I found that it (and any long-term endeavor, for that matter) isn’t about reaching one static goal and gaining insurmountable satisfaction when you do. It’s about seeing yourself as a work in progress and setting new goals once you’ve taken care of your old ones. Striving to achieve absolute perfection will never help, but finding what works, sticking to it, and allowing yourself to enjoy each step in the process will.

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