When non-exercisers ask me advice on how to get started I usually tell them to start ridiculously small. Some examples are:
- Doing 1-2 stretches in the morning, every day.
- Doing 1-2 pushups (e.g., wall pushups, half pushups, or regular pushups – depends on their fitness level) every day: These are not 1-2 sets of pushups, these are just 1-2 pushups!
- Static marches in front of the TV.
- Thinking, yes, just thinking, that they are exercising every day.
The usual reaction I get is:
- “This is so tiny it’s not going to help.”
- “This is not even exercise!”
- “I don’t see how this is going to help.”
Then I explain to them that tiny steps like the above are enough to get them to do more and more exercise as time passes.
Then they say:
- “It’s going to take forever to actually do some exercise then!”
- “This doesn’t work.”
- “Oook…” (then change subject)
Attention smarty-pants: Here is why you are acting silly like the Brainy Smurf
All those naysayers end up dismissing the tiny steps ideas, and instead go with the default option: do nothing.
Some of them, at some point, will get started with “regular” steps (e.g., exercising 2-3 times a week for 1 hour each). However, the truth is they could have started a lot earlier (even years earlier!) had they started with tiny, baby steps.
Here is what these people remind me of:
Yes, they remind me of the Brainy Smurf! Why? Because they think they know it all, when they don’t. Actually they are certain they know it all, even though they don’t.
Why baby steps will help you get fit
I understand those people. They are only saying what seems to be rational. I constantly get into this trap as well. After all it’s true – how can just imagining yourself exercise make you fit? It doesn’t make any sense, right?
Yes, it doesn’t make any sense and this is how it should be.
Here is where the fallacy is.
Let’s divide the mind in the conscious and unconscious part. The conscious part if your rational thought, while the unconscious part takes care of everything you do when you are on auto-pilot: driving, eating, brushing your teeth, etc.
When people say that “tiny steps are so small that they don’t work” they think with their conscious mind.
However, here is the trick: your exercise success does not really depend on what you conscious mind thinks.
If things were so, then you would always do what you think is the right thing to do. For example:
- If you thought that you should exercise, then you would already be doing it.
- If you thought you should eat healthier, then you would already be doing it.
However, you are not doing it. And the reason is that the conscious mind is not the boss. The unconscious mind is.
And guess what? Tiny, baby steps are not meant to work with your conscious mind – they are meant to work with your unconscious one!
So some things, may not make sense to your conscious mind, but they may make a lot of sense to your unconscious one!
The only thing you need to get started with exercise, is permission from your conscious self to do something ridiculously small. Then, the unconscious mind will take care of the rest.
“I still don’t get how a few static marches in front of the TV will help me get fit!”
I would be more than glad to tell you that it doesn’t matter what your conscious mind thinks, since it’s the unconscious mind that is the boss. However, I do understand that your conscious mind has to allow marching to take place if you want to get started with exercise, so I will try to explain it better.
To do that, I will share a story from one of my favorite books “One small step can change your life: The Kaizen way”, written by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. Robert describes one of his patients Julie.
Julie is a single mother with no time to exercise. When her doctor told her that her lab results were such that she needed to exercise – she felt overwhelmed. She had heard that before, and she knew that further attempts to exercise could result in being let down one more time. She was afraid she would let down herself, and her doctor as well.
So she started with a tiny step: marching for 1 minute each day in front of the TV.
Of course, this action did not really help her aerobic capacity. It would be safe to say that, from a medical standpoint, this action alone did not do anything to improve her physique.
However, this baby step did something quite important. It built new neural connections in her brain: connections that would open a window to the possibility of fitting exercise in her life.
The author says that after a couple of weeks, Julie decided to try marching for the duration of the commercial break. Once she got that, she decided she would aim for two commercial breaks. And after that…she forgot to stop. She would be marching during the whole show!
This is how Julie managed to meet the requirements of the American Medical Association for 30 minutes a day.
Here is an interview of the author. Go to min 4.15 to learn about the story of one of his patients with deep fear of exercise who was asked to just stand on the treadmill for 30 sec…[Seriously, standing on the treadmill drinking her coffee was her first step in fitness!]
Watched that story at 4.15? That woman became a regular exerciser after a year. She was like Julie!
But Julie isn’t the only one successful with tiny steps, I have tested them to.
In a recent post I talked about how I wanted to start meditation for years, but I would never get myself to do it. I would do it of course, if e.g., I was in a yoga class and this is what the teacher told us to do, but I would never do it at home, or make it a habit as I wanted to. I just couldn’t bring myself to doing even 1 minute of meditation consistently.
So I started by meditating for 2 breaths every night.
My conscious mind thought: “I don’t see how meditating for 2 breaths a night will help, but I will give it a try just in case it works. There is nothing to lose after all”.
Well, I started this practice in January. It’s been 2 months since I started and I have to report that I do it every night, and in addition to that I also meditate for 10 min 2-3 times a week.
This is great news for me – I wanted to insert 10 min meditations a few times during my week and I got to my goal already!
I got to it, by trying something ridiculously small. Compare that to doing nothing in the years before.
What to do if you don’t exercise but want to start doing it.
Pick something really small, like doing one back stretch, imagining yourself doing pull ups, or doing 1 crunch, and then tie it to an activity that you are already doing every day.
Sample activities: wake up in the morning, pee in the morning, eat breakfast, drive, go to the bathroom, …. , put kids to bed, watch TV, brush teeth, lie in bed, read book…
Now match your new activity to one of your existing daily activities. E.g.,
“I will be doing 1 crunch after I brush my teeth in the morning”
“I will be imagining myself doing pull ups after put my kids to bed at night.”
“I will be doing 10 marches in front of the TV when I watch the news in the evening.”
Matching your new activity with an existing regular activity is key – it will help you remember to do it, and it is fundamental on making your new activity a habit.
Voila! It’s that simple. And you can start today!
Photo Credits: Kooz Top 5