#11: Lessons learnt from my 52-week workout streak

Today, I have hit a personal milestone: cult.fit app informs me I have been regular with my workouts for 52 weeks in a row — meaning, over the last year, I exercised every single week without exception. From being a high school student who preferred to bunk the sports period to go study in the library, I have come a long way.

Yes, there were bad weeks where my intensity was low or I could pack in just one session. But they were few in number. I don't have the exact stats, but I estimate my hit rate was ~4-5 sessions per week, focused on strength training and cardio, skewed towards the former. Irrespective of the metrics, fitness is primarily about being consistent—and I am glad that my timeline has stretched to one full-year.

Blogging today to document a few thoughts and lessons learnt in this process:

1. How it started: My fitness journey began with an ambitious fat loss goal. I had to maintain a calorie deficit and the primary point of control was food: you can not out-train a bad diet. But of course, workouts are absolutely crucial. Two reasons.

First, to burn more calories and increase my daily energy expenditure (which helps in maintaining deficit). And second, to ensure my weight loss is driven by fat loss and not muscle loss: strength training is crucial to optimise for that goal.

And so I did. It took me seven months — July 2020 to January 2021 — to reach my target of losing 20kgs. (I will blog about my fat loss journey in great detail in a future post.)

Those seven months completely changed my outlook about workouts: no more did it feel like a chore, something I had to forcefully do just because doctors says it's good. I experienced what regular exercise did to me: high energy levels through the day, more strength, better mood and increased capacity to move around. Most importantly: I feel so good after every session — that in itself makes the effort worth it. It is, as some people call it, free therapy.

2. Automating my behaviour: Will power and motivation are overrated. Follow as many fitness instructors on Instagram; watch as many YouTube talks explaining why exercise matters; read any number of books on health; enrol in however expensive fitness programs — none of that works in the long term if you don't convert your motivation to be fitter into a habit operating on auto-pilot. How to do that?

Here is an excellent idea I learnt from behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan. In an episode of the Knowledge Project podcast, he said: going to the gym everyday is much easier than going three days a week. It removes a really difficult hurdle in life: choosing. To install the habit, just go every day — even on days you are pressed for time. Go and leave in five minutes. Showing up is the victory, Mullainathan says. Keeping the bar low and staying consistent is what makes desirable habits stick.

Mullainathan makes the case for eliminating decisions and following a pre-decided list of rules:

The rule versus decision has another element which I really like, which is, there’s a person in my life I just do not trust. Even though I spend a lot of time with this person, I just do not trust them. It’s embarrassing to say, but I don’t trust their motives, I don’t trust them to follow through on anything. And that person is me.

You should not trust yourself? So decisions, it’s like handing over bubblewrap to a five year old. You know what’s going to happen. So rules versus decisions are in part also the recognition that you have an uneasy relationship with yourself.

I relate to this so much. Decision making can be especially hard in the overwhelming world of fitness. As Daniel Lieberman writes in his book, most people are constantly exercised about exercise: the commodification, commercialisation and industrialisation of exercise rarely make it fun. Rampant confusion and doubts only make things worse. Gyms and coaches make a hell lot of money feeding on people's anxieties and insecurities about their bodies. It is easy to get stuck in a decision paralysis, constantly doubting you are missing out and not doing the right thing, not enjoying the process and falling off the track.

If you just simplify what you intend to do and stay committed to it, you are more likely to stay on course. I was able to do that thanks to one of my favourite Indian startups: cult.fit. The Bengaluru-based startup has reduced the friction in accessing fitness: their online product for at-home workouts was just what I needed to meet my goals. They make fitness fun: the expansive variety ensures that the workouts are not monotonous, and I remain excited about what's coming in the next session. 

Cult reduced the number of decisions I had to make: I only had to decide what my weekly workout mix needs to look like and then, as a rule, go to the app and do the session. It's that simple.

3. A strategy that helped me inculcate exercise in my daily routine: doing it first thing in the morning. This works brilliantly for me. Random things happen as the day progresses: an unscheduled phone call, an unexpected assignment at work, mood swing and what not. The result: the 6pm exercise plan falls apart. Mornings are less random, and the likelihood of meeting your goal is higher.

Morning workouts have two other advantages. One, I feel a sense of accomplishment, having struck off one task from my todo list early in the morning. Second, I start my workday with higher energy levels.

4. Finding the time: I am convinced that being busy is not a good excuse for missing out on my workouts. If it features on my priority list, I am able to find time. When I try to bluff myself, I think about Barack Obama's routine. In his memoir published last year, the former President of the United States told us about his workout schedule (Pg 290):

"Each morning, Monday through Thursday, Michelle and I began our days with both Cornell [his athletic trainer] and Sam [his chef], the four of us gathering in the small gym on the third floor of the residence...For both Michelle and me, that daily hour in the gym became one more zone of normalcy...."

If Obama could find time for working out when he had one of the most busiest and stressful jobs in the world, I can too.

5. Mindset: Do it long enough and fitness becomes a part of your identity. Daily choices start revolving around it. This doesn't go unnoticed and you experience a less-talked about problem: fit-shaming. You are shamed for your health choices (those judgemental eyes, gosh!). Multiple fitness-focused friends have experienced this nuisance.  

You eventually learn to ignore it. But I find it useful to keep the big picture in mind and ask the most basic question: why am I even doing this? 

Which brings me to the distinction between two wildly different motivations for staying fit: one is driven by aesthetics; the other keeps good health at the center. While the path to achieve both ends is the same, the reason to prioritise fitness (whether for external validation or internal satisfaction) may have a huge impact on how you feel about your workouts and its outcomes.

Staying healthy is my primary driver. I am not saying aesthetics don't matter to me: I feel good when I look good, or when the shirt I like fits me well, or when a cute girl in the coffee shop cares to notice my existence. But getting three extra right swipes on a dating app can not be the reason to get off my bed at 5.30am to lift dumbbells.

How I look has no direct impact on what I do on a day to day basis: I am a knowledge worker and I get paid for reporting, writing, thinking and coding. If I had a lot of extra time, I would spend it to sharpen my mind. Not only does exercising my mind matter for my professional growth, it is also the thing I enjoy the most: I have been a specs-wearing nerd since teenage and losing a few inches around the waist and adding some around the biceps is not going to change how I think about myself.

In that sense, a commitment to fitness is a philosophical choice, recognising that I can not fully cherish the gift of life and enjoy things I love without good health. It is a commitment to treat the body I occupy with the respect it deserves. 

This is the push that made this one-year streak possible. All other outcomes are amazing and great, but they remain secondary.

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