Best advice ever (in Tracy’s world): start small

Image description: cork board with a crumpled blue post-it note in the lower left corner and a green note on top of a yellow note with a red pushpin in it. In block letters and underlined on the top note: START SMALL.
Image description: cork board with a crumpled blue post-it note in the lower left corner and a green note on top of a yellow note with a red pushpin in it. In block letters and underlined on the top note: START SMALL.

With all the book promo we’ve been doing, one of the most popular questions people ask Sam and me in interviews is “what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out on their fitness journey?” This is a great question because, as we hope is the case, a lot of people who haven’t got a routine going or perhaps who have never considered it until a milestone decade birthday (like 50!) started to loom on horizon, might feel the nudge and not know where to begin.

We have a couple of go-to pieces of advice that we have been giving. For reasons she has explained, Sam is not keen on saying “it’s never too late” anymore and she’s also given up on “if you don’t love it, don’t do it” as a piece of general advice (because: physio!).

I’m still keen on both of those. I fully agree that it might sometimes be too late for some things, but it’s rarely too late for all things. Yes, a day may come, but when that day comes for a person, it’s unlikely that they’ll be reaching for our book or any book remotely like it. And I agree with Sam that there may be some exercises that we need to do even if they’re not fun, and that not all aspects of all activity are always fun (like, intervals are great and all, but fun? I’m not so sure that’s the best description). But I still hold to the view that if you don’t love running, for example, try something else that you might like better.

Nevertheless, though I’ve said these things on TV and in our book and on the radio and on podcasts in and print media and on the blog, they’re not actually my favourite suggestions.

By far my favourite advice for anyone who wants to get started is: start small. We humans tend to like the BIG PLAN. One reason I used to hate running is that when I first tried it in my twenties, I started with five miles. That’s far for someone who has never run before.

When I resumed running over 25 years later, in my late forties, I started smaller than that. I ran to the corner, then walked. Then I ran another block. Then walked some more. Over time, I changed the ratio of running to walking, running for longer, walking for shorter. I may not be the fastest, but on the run-walk plan, I can go pretty far (like marathon far, or even more but I’ve never tested the more).  Lately, I’m trying something new, which is to run continuously with no walk breaks, for 10K.

But I didn’t start with that. And neither should you if you’ve never run. And if I fall off of my training, I go back to small efforts: 20 minutes. 3K. No time goals. That sort of thing. Because it doesn’t need to be a big overwhelming deal. The bigger goals (and bigger workouts) can come later.

That’s just one example. If you’re learning to downhill ski, start on the bunny hill. Eventually, if you keep at it, you will be able to manage the double black diamond hills if that’s a goal. If you’re learning to skate, you’re not going to do a triple lutz the first time you hit the ice. If you’ve never been to the gym before, an hour might seem daunting but ten minutes might seem totally do-able.

I’ve always been a big advocate of starting small and doing less than we think we should. Way back at the beginning of the blog, I posted about doing less and it’s been a theme I return to a lot. That original post is still one of my favourites because it’s gentle and humane, and we could all use a bit of that in our lives.

Later today I’m going to be on the Canadian TV show The Social (it’s on CTV at 1 p.m. and my segment is at 1:40 p.m. Eastern Time and I’m a little bit nervous because Sam isn’t going to be there with me).  And guess what, they’re probably going to ask me some variation on “what’s one piece of advice…?” And you know what I’m going to say (if I don’t get all flustered!)? Yep.

What is your favourite advice for friends who ask where to start?

14 thoughts on “Best advice ever (in Tracy’s world): start small

  1. I think start small is the best advice. I worry though that you’re misunderstanding my worry about “if you don’t love it, don’t do it.” Lots of people have bodies that are unreliable sources of pleasure, for whom movement is painful, not fun. It’s not just physio. Yet there are still excellent reasons to exercise that have to do with functionality. I’m motivated now by reasons having to do with avoiding surgery, not adding pleasure to my day. It feels very different. It’s a big shift.

    1. Fair enough. I wasn’t meaning to suggest physio is the only thing that might fall into that category. No denying that there non-pleasure health-related reasons.

    2. I hear this and agree — I agree with the macro overall thing of if you HATE going to the gym — like, hate it, despise it — don’t go to the gym! Go for a bunch of walks, or try yoga, or get a bike, or what have you. But there is a lot about exercise that is neutral on the pleasant-fun/unpleasant-painful scale that is still very very important to do, to keep our mitochondria healthy and maintain mobility and what not.

  2. Yes, start small and allow yourself to be a beginner. Adults so often seem embarrassed to be doing beginner level and want to jump straight into the advanced stuff without thinking about the fact that their bodies need time to learn and adapt to the new activities. I see a lot of first time aerialists get discouraged seeing advanced students dancing up in the air while their arms and feet ache from struggling to get off the ground. It takes time, but the ones that keep coming back get stronger every time until they are up in the air too.

    1. I was listening to a parenting podcast (I don’t know why, lol) the other day that talked about how important it is for adults to show kids what it’s like to be a beginner, to help kids get through the frustration of not being good at something right away. I thought that was an interesting variation on what you said here — re-igniting those pathways of learning is really a good thing.

    2. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with remaining a beginner. There’s no need to progress in every single thing we do. Sometimes the basics are the right amount.

  3. I really like start small. In every aspect of life. Small and consistent changes add up.
    Big, unsustainable ones don’t.

    I also say just go. Put things in your schedule and go. Don’t question it every day.It isn’t always going to be awesome. And if life gets in the way, continue on with tomorrow.

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