—Written on January 6, 2017—
The first time I ever felt competent in P.E. class went like this: for the daily “x” number of laps around the school building, I resolved one day to run with the pack of guys at the front, all of whom were at least a foot taller than me. And I did it. I remember it feeling dramatic, filmic—the wind rushing through my hair, my legs and lungs burning, but I didn’t care. I was fast. I had to take roughly twice as many steps as my gigantesque counterparts to cover the same distance, but I kept up. Every moment was agony, but the victorious feeling of success in this elusive area evidently pumped enough adrenaline to counteract the misery.
As we rounded the last turn and began overtaking the final stretch, I went into an all-out sprint. The guys were suddenly behind me, and they were cheering me on (they weren’t normally that nice, but everyone likes an underdog). That wonderful day, there was an orchestra soundtrack to my one claim to middle school fame: I finished my P.E. laps first. One guy actually patted me on the back. I remember being ecstatic and yet truly horrified at how sweaty that pat must have been for him. I didn’t dwell on it. Instead, I kept running…to the nearest trash can, where I threw up my breakfast.
There were other such anti-climactic victories throughout my education. Once, when I had to make up the mile run, I was ecstatic to have pushed myself into a 9 minute mile, only to find out I had miscounted my laps and had to do it again the next time. I won’t tell you my actual time. On another occasion, I found I was actually quite good at badminton, only to discover I was playing it wrong. I will say, I *have* frequently been praised by my teachers for “setting a good pace I know I can finish with.” Awww, shucks.
Really, my only athletic prowess to speak of was doing marching band, which involved a lot of marching on our toes and resulted in some rock-solid calves for the duration of each fall semester.
My many years of physical education really only proved one thing to me: I would never be athletic in any sense of the word, and I certainly wouldn’t ever enjoy exercise. Quite the opposite, I was convinced I would always loathe anything that involved my heart beating more than 120 times per minute.
If the sole motive of P.E. class is to get students across the country moving and keep them healthy, it succeeded for the short duration of my education, but in doing so, secured an unhealthiness that might have lasted the rest of my life.
Physical education might not fail everyone, but it failed me.
The Failure of Group Fitness
I always assumed that everyone felt nauseous when they exercised, but that everyone else was just exceptionally disciplined, unlike me. Since high school, I’ve probably tried once per year to make exercising a long-term habit, and each was just one giant three-month-long battle with my stomach. Over the last couple of years, a handful of conversations indicated to me that I was wrong—there were at least some people who didn’t get nauseous and actually enjoyed physical exertion. That caused me to question whether or not my experience was normal.
Evidently, that’s just what happens when you exercise at your maximum heart rate for minutes on end. Turns out, I’ve overexercised literally *every* time I’ve exercised. It took investing in an Apple Watch and closely monitoring my heart rate to make this discovery.
Group exercise taught me to gauge my exertion level based on what the teacher told me to do, and based on what the other students were capable of doing. If you lagged behind in P.E., the assumption was that you were being lazy, not that you were keeping your heart rate in a reasonable range. Sometimes, you’d even be called out by name! Being out of shape *and* having an ego was a recipe for disaster. And by that I mean a lot of throwing up.
I do remember being taught how to take my heart rate, but I was also bad at math, and the numbers were so ridiculously high (go figure) for still being well behind the other kids, that I always figured I did something wrong. I also wasn’t willing to admit that, even at max effort, I still sucked at P.E. as much as I did. I feel a lot of pity for my fifth grade self!
Group exercise never allowed me to take the time my body needed to get into shape. I also might hypothesize that genetics and other factors might play into this process—I am convinced that other people can get in shape faster than me, but that’s beside the point. I know there are others like me!
To this day, even with a heart rate monitor that will turn red when I’m in the upper heart rate zones, I have to be very careful in group fitness classes.
Instead of things like, “Come on, keep going!” Or “Don’t slack!” or “You’ve got this! Keep moving!”, I would love to hear group fitness instructors say more phrases like, “Listen to your body, whether that means picking up the pace or slowing down!”, or “Get your blood pumping, but don’t kill yourself!”, or “Maybe you can’t do all the reps, but that’s okay! Maybe next month!”
Already Revising Your New Years Resolution?
You also don’t need a new year to set new goals. Regardless, don’t give up! If this article hasn’t made it obvious enough, I’m not a fitness expert. But I have learned a great deal about trying to sustain an “average Joe,” everyday, healthy fitness lifestyle. So, let me encourage you.
- Think Sustainably, but Not Too Sustainably. When you work out, don’t push yourself so hard that you hate every second of your workout, so that there is no way you’ll ever come back tomorrow. But don’t let that thought extend too far past tomorrow—if you’re sweating, it’s not going to be helpful to think, “I have to do this every day for the rest of my life. That’s like, a billion hours or more of this!” That’s a recipe for quitting, too. It’s most helpful to just ask, “Could I do this again tomorrow?” and leave it at that. Take it one day at a time, but don’t burn out.
- Start Slow. No, Even Slower. Your goal is to get your heart rate up. For people that have been exercising consistently for months, 130 BPM might look like a nicely paced jog. For your first few months, it might look like a walk. Not even a brisk one. Is your heart rate up? Are you sweating a little? Great. Don’t be a hero.
- Stop Comparing. Don’t make the mistake of judging your progress (or your heart rate level) based on what a group fitness instructor says, or what other people are able to do. Get your heart rate into a range that’s good for where you’re at, and don’t let your ego smart if you look like a snail compared to everyone else.
- Exercise Well. The theme is: don’t overexercise. Overexercising consistently and for long periods of time can not only be retroactive, it can actually do serious damage to your body.
- Build It In. Find a way to make exercise an irrevocable part of your routine, so that you can’t procrastinate or talk yourself out of it. When I worked out three times per week on a flexible schedule, I frequently said to myself, “I can do it tomorrow and still make it three times this week.” Daily exercise has been key for me, personally.
- Do What You Like. Why is running the celebrity of exercises? There are so many options. Yes, do Zumba if you like it. I’ve been using Beach Body On-Demand. It’s cheap (less than $10/month) and many programs don’t require equipment. Other benefits include: most videos have a “modifier” doing easier, lower-impact versions of the exercises; you don’t have to leave your home; you don’t have to find or invent your own exercise plan or think about what you’re doing tomorrow; and best of all, not all of them feature Tony Horton if you just can’t handle him (which, I can’t). P.S., I’m not getting paid for that endorsement, I just really like it!
- Invest in What You Need. Honestly, the Apple Watch absolutely changed exercise for me. In the years to come, you may even find me saying that it changed my life. It was worth the money, even though I felt silly making that investment. It felt frivolous, but it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. And now, there are more cheaper alternatives to choose from, such as the FitBit line. To exercise, I need to monitor my heart rate, and still feel lost if I don’t wear my watch during a workout. What do you need to make it work?