People always want to know the secret to getting and staying fit.
I used to look for this magic pill, too. Years after I became a personal trainer and got in reasonably good shape, I still spent way too much time and money on programs, books, and devices I hoped would finally help me build the strength and body I wanted.
It took me a long time to figure out that there is no secret to becoming fit for life.
But…there also kind of is.
Move More Than You Think You Should
To look and feel like an athlete, you have to move more than you think you do. If you want to get really good at a sport, build serious strength, or impress bystanders with your muscles on the beach, three half-assed workouts a week isn’t going to cut it.
There are always exceptions, but most of us should be doing some sort of resistance training (bodyweight training counts) at least two or three times a week. You should also include some sort of sprints or interval training, and at least a few sessions of moderate cardio training like jogging, biking, or hiking each week.
Alternatively, you can center these moderate cardio sessions around fun—think playing a sport, dancing, or running around with your kids (or dog). At least a few of those workouts should be hard enough to push you out of your comfort zone.
Move More Outside of Your Workouts
Planning a few challenging workouts a week is a solid start, but if you want to build a lifelong fitness habit, you also need to move more in your everyday life.
Unless you live in New York City or have intentionally created a lifestyle that forces you to walk a lot, you’re probably not walking near enough. The average American walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day. Try and get a minimum of ten thousand steps a day, and avoid sitting too much.
Staying active becomes even easier if you find people who will do active things with you. Go on hikes, play tennis, shoot baskets together. Experiment and discover activities that feel more like play than a workout, and do those often.
Also, get outside and move as much as possible. More and more studies are showing the transformative power of outdoor exercise. Outdoor exercise can help improve your mood, lower anxiety levels, and even help you have a more positive perspective on the chaos around you. Take your workouts outdoors and do outdoor activities as much as you can.
Figure Out Your Priorities
When it comes to fitness, you need to be honest with yourself about how much of your life you’re willing to commit to your goals.
When I first started, I was in that three half-assed workouts a week crowd. Now, I work out six days a week, usually twice a day, without fail. My average step count is 20,000 to 30,000. Much of my day revolves around my training, because I’ve found that I’m happiest when I move a lot.
Most people don’t want to move this much. Maybe you have kids, or a stressful job, or let’s be honest, you’d rather do the least amount possible to maintain a certain level of fitness. If that’s you, that’s fine. No one needs to work out for hours a day. But realize that this will mean slower progress, and maybe you’ll never get to that level you would if you dedicate one to two hours of your day every day to training.
The key is to be honest with yourself and get clear on your priorities.
Healthy Eating Isn’t Really That Hard
When it comes to nutrition, healthy eating isn’t as hard as the diet industry makes it seem. As Michael Pollen says, “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Generally, your meals should revolve around protein, a modest amount of healthy carbs, and a ton of vegetables.
Low carbohydrate diets can work well for weight loss. But for most people, diets that lack carbs lead to brain fog, and are extremely difficult to do long-term. Athletes should rarely go low carb for very long—almost every study I’ve ever seen shows it will mess with your performance.
Food is more individualized than most people think, and what works for you won’t work for me. Learning to listen to your body is key. Take note of how your energy dips throughout the day, whether you feel clear-headed or foggy, how bouncy you feel at the beginning of your workout, your mood, etc.
Your ideal nutrition also depends heavily on your goals, your priorities, and where you’re at in your life. If you want to have much of a social life, you’re going to have to be more lenient about your food choices. The more active you are, the more you can eat. I’d rather work out more so that I don’t have to think as much about what I eat instead of working out less and eating perfectly clean. You might feel the opposite, and that’s just fine.
One Baby Step at a Time
When I first started my fitness journey, if you told me that I’d have to overhaul my entire life to get in the shape I am today, I probably would have quit. It would have been too overwhelming, and I would have felt defeated before I’d even started.
Instead, I needed to take the journey it one baby step at a time. Rather than trying to eat perfectly right away, I started by adding more vegetables to my meals. Instead of immediately going to two-a-day workouts, I began with a three-day-a-week workout habit.
The point is that I started small. Then I built up my habits over time as my identity slowly shifted away from someone who didn’t work out to someone who identified as an athlete. This slow, chunked down approach allowed me to try in the first place.
Identity shifts don’t happen overnight. Even David Goggins, the now recognized toughest man on earth, didn’t start out tough. To become the person he is today, he built up his toughness over time.
No one can go from zero to epic in a short amount of time. This stuff takes time to build. If you want to become healthy and fit for life, you have to start slow. Introduce enough tiny changes over time, and you’ll experience massive, long-term results.
So—what’s the secret to staying fit? Commit to the journey. Challenge yourself. Take it one step at a time. And don’t give up.