Exercise is the best medicine. It’s capable of curing obesity, along with many of its related diseases: Heart disease, diabetes, even certain cancers. It can also help with depression and arthritis, and generally make you feel like a brand new human being. Once you make the choice to start a healthy lifestyle, and you get the green light from your doctor, working out should top your new to-do list.

But change is tough. Especially the forever change you’re making to your body and your lifestyle. It can seem overwhelming to look at the laundry list of options out there for people who want to get started with a workout routine. So let’s boil it down to the simplest possible approach, and kick this party off right.

Step 1: Gather the tools of the trade.

To get your fitness routine up and running, you will need:

  1. You.

That’s it. No I-can’t-afford-to-work-out excuses. Even if you buy nothing at all, not a single DVD or yoga ball, you can work out. But if you really want to perk yourself up with some sweet new purchases, you might invest in some of the following:

  1. Comfortable shoes, designed for the kinds of activities you like
  2. Light, breathable clothing
  3. Supportive sports bra

Step 2: Find lots of activities you love.

If you plan to keep this exercise thing going for the rest of your life, you’ll need to inject some serious fun into it. This is a highly individual choice, depending on your personality, your physical capabilities, your budget, your schedule, and the available resources in your neck of the woods. Try to use your imagination, and think outside the gym.

If you can’t come up with anything that sounds appealing, think back on your childhood. What got you running out the door when you were six? Or ten? Or in high school? See if you can get back into that.

A few possibilities to consider:

  • Yoga
  • Beach volleyball
  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • Gardening/Landscaping
  • Kickboxing
  • Geocaching (on foot!)
  • Mountain biking
  • Dance
  • Dodge ball
  • Tennis
  • Freeze tag
  • Soccer

You can also use exercise in place of motorized transportation. Walk to work, or bicycle to the grocery store. Any excuse to move your body is valid. Even sex. So you might as well choose a few (or ten) that make you happy. That way, even if you can’t stomach the thought of an evening on the treadmill, you’ve got options.

3. Make it a habit.

In the beginning, you’re not aiming to win races or knock out your boxing partner. Your first goal is to string together 21 days of consistent workouts. If your fitness level is super low, that could mean something as minimal as 10 minutes a day of walking. That’s it. Ten minutes every day for 21 days. There’s your goal. Once you hit the 21 days mark, set a new goal– maybe 31 days this time. A whole month of fitness success.

Have patience with your body as it adjusts. Go easy on yourself. This isn’t a punishment. This is your new lifestyle, and it is beautiful. If one activity is causing you pain or boredom, change it up. The goal is not to suffer, but to enjoy your body and your life. You should start to feel better and better, and the rewards will feed into a loop of positive affirmation for your healthy choices. After that, you won’t be able to NOT work out. It’ll be a habit. The best habit you’ve ever had, probably.

4. Set yourself up to win.

Goals are magical. And they’re completely customizable, too. You could set a goal to walk every block in your entire neighborhood by the end of the month. You could set a goal to finish a summer-long spin class at the Y. You could set a goal to hike that steep waterfall trail on the edge of town before the snow hits. Whatever gets you going is perfect.

It doesn’t have to be a marathon or an Ironman race to be a good goal. It simply has to be something you can actually finish, in the real world, with the body you have now. Something that takes you a few steps forward, and has a clear beginning and ending. Then when you blow that goal out of the water, throw a party. And set a new goal.

5. Become a motivator.

Just because you’re new to this whole exercise bandwagon, that doesn’t exclude you from dragging a few hapless victims along with you. If you look at the studies, people who succeed in making long-term fitness changes tend to have a major factor in common: community.

We’re social animals. We need people like us, who do the same crazy things we do. Otherwise, we tend to drop back and try to blend in with the other humans– the sedentary ones with the potato chips and the Netflix.

So look around your circles of influence, and find your new fitness friends. Ideally, you should have at least one who acts as a mentor, someone encouraging and nurturing who knows a little more than you do about this fitness lifestyle. Along with a mentor, find a mentee. This could be a sibling, or a younger friend, or even your kid. It doesn’t really matter who it is. The point is to set yourself up as an example of healthy choices. You’re much less likely to relapse into your couch potato ways if you’ve got an audience.

6. Keep going.

This is everything. This is the difference between a retirement on the bike trails of the Rocky Mountains, or a cushioned chair in a nursing home.

You have to keep going. Don’t let that perfectionist voice in your head sabotage your health. It whispers things like:

  • “Oh, you skipped a day (a week, a month). Guess that’s over.”
  • “You don’t have time for an hour-long aerobics class, so might as well give up for today.”
  • “Well, that injury just set you back a good three months. It was fun while it lasted.”
  • “You barely lost a pound. This isn’t working.”

That jerk just wants to see you fail. Don’t let him win. Instead, take control of your thoughts by investing in healthy self-talk:

  • Every minute I spend exercising counts.
  • This is a journey, not a race.
  • I’m doing this out of love for my body, not a number on the scale.
  • I feel better when I work out.
  • This is my new and improved life.
  • I’m getting stronger all the time.
  • This workout is adding days to my life span.

Yell your mantras out loud while you run, if you have to. Just get it done. Keep getting it done. Make it as normal as sleeping and eating. Crave it. And keep going, keep going, keep going.

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