fitness · motivation

On starting small

Image description: Black and white image of the inside of a walking tunnel on Tracy’s running route, with a small opening of light at the end, trees visible in the daylight beyond.

For people new to fitness routines or for people looking to kickstart a routine that’s stalled (for whatever reason), starting (or starting over) can be so overwhelming as to be a deal-breaker. My favourite advice, and I have sung its praises many times over and in lots of different ways right here on this blog, is “start small.”

What I like about this advice is that it applies to so many areas of my life, from writing books and articles to cleaning my condo to reading things I have to but don’t really feel like reading. If I start small, making a five-minute instead of one-hour commitment to a thing, then I can do it. And I bet you can too!

But this idea of the small start is not always what we have in mind. We’ve got those internal voices that are more reprimanding than encouraging, telling us that it’s not good enough. My non-expert opinion based on a lifetime of experience is that these voices are actually just part of an internalized shaming mechanism that, when it comes to “exercise,” tells us we “have to” because we are “lazy” and “out of shape” and exercise is hard and awful and we’re not good at it and we don’t do enough and if we start small we’ll never make any progress…It’s like a downward spiral that can land us in a “what’s the point?” headspace, which is a really difficult place from which to feel any sense of motivation.

Might as well grab some more chocolate (nothing wrong with chocolate, of course!) watch another episode of Bridgerton (nothing wrong with Bridgerton…well, maybe that’s not quite true but we all have our guilty pleasures). The thing is, by starting small we can have it all: some activity, chocolate, and Bridgerton!

Let me backtrack for a moment to say this: you don’t have to want to do anything. Physical activity is a choice, not an imperative. I’m only recommending starting small to those who want to start but don’t know how. No judgment here if chocolate and Bridgerton are exactly what you’d rather do. But if you’d rather do that AND have a fitness routine but don’t know how…that’s where starting with something small and manageable comes into the picture. No judgment here about doing 5 minutes, or 10 minutes of whatever you choose to do, at a leisurely pace or with light weights or in mostly resting postures. It’s cultural messaging that tells us that’s not good enough, not anything that has its basis in truth.

When I first started to run, my first goal was to make it for 20 minutes in a row. That was a huge achievement for me back in 2012. Eventually I was running further and further from that humble beginning. When I battled a running injury after the 2019 Around the Bay 30K, I thought I would never run again. I had to ease back into it with very short runs of 2-3K, with walk breaks. It took me over a year to get back to just a fraction of the distances I was doing to train for the 30K. And that was fine.

If I’ve managed to sell you on the idea that a small start constitutes mighty beginnings, I encourage you to pick a thing and commit to that small start. Here’s a quick summary of past posts on this theme and the related “do less” that form the basis of my quest to stay motivated:

Starting is kind of exciting, if you really think about it. That’s what so energizing (to me) about January. I realize it’s an arbitrary marker, but a new year is a like a fresh blank page with all sorts of potential. One of my “small start” things for 2021 is that I’ve started a commitment to get out for a walk or a run every day, even if it’s just short (like yesterday when I was out for a 15 minute walk, which I think I will do again right now). I still sometimes have to fend off that voice that says it’s not enough, but I’m get better at challenging it because I know deep down that it is enough.

I love hearing other people’s stories of small starts that blossomed into big adventures or solid routines. If you’ve got such a story, please share it in the comments.

3 thoughts on “On starting small

  1. When I started back to swimming after many years away, I managed fewer than lengths of a 25 yard pool in an hour, and I needed a long nap afterwards. Even though I rarely swam more than once a week, I kept at it and built up my speed and endurance. Before COVID made regular year-round pool training impossible, I was doing occasional 8 km swims at the lake.

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