Confession. I am not an athlete. I’m actually not much of an exerciser, period. I was a small kid. My family moved around a lot (six moves, 5 states by the time I was in 6th grade). I’m an only child and my early socialization was primarily with adults. My first experience with kick ball, in 1st grade, felt like being dropped into another country without a passport. I was weak, had no control over the ball, and wasn’t very fast. I NEVER made it to 1st base. It was humiliating.

And that pretty much sums up my experience with all group or school sanctioned sports right through high school. I always seemed to miss the part where they actually taught you how to play the sport, and everyone was new to it and kind of sucked. Yup, I was the stereotypical “last kid picked for the team” over and over.

People looked at me, with my skinny 105 lb body, and assumed I liked to exercise. (I once had a psychic tell me that exercise was really important to me, and when I told her no, she said, “well, it will be in the future”. Nice recovery.) In reality, I had no stamina, no speed, no muscle strength, and a resting heart rate of around 80 as a teen. I could not run a mile on the school track without feeling like I was going to throw up, let alone do it in under 12 minutes. I have never even been close to doing a pull up. I have very little hand-eye coordination. If I make contact with the ball when using a racket, it is cause for celebration, never mind where it goes. Badminton is about my speed.

Anyone remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Award test, that wonderful time of year when all participants in PE were tested in several categories to demonstrate for all to see just how much you sucked at all things physical? I did well once on two separate tests, each at a different time. I kicked ass on sit-ups in 4th grade, because I spent every recess on the monkey bars trying to perfect a “cherry drop” (swing on bar by knees, flip off, land on feet). I spent a lot of time pulling my legs over the bar using my abs. In 5th grade I did the bent arm hang past the timed goal because I had spent the entire summer in a swimming pool at the apartment complex where I was living. That was it. Otherwise, way below average, every year. By high school, I was actively searching for ways to get out of PE.

When I was a young adult, I was dating a guy who had grown up with three brothers. He loved sports, and eventually got me to go outside and throw a baseball around with him. The first few times I threw the ball, he watched me and said, “wait, what are you doing”? Turns out I had the wrong foot forward. You’d think that a PE teacher might have pointed that out sometime in the previous 12 years.To this day, I still resent all of my physical education teachers, and am too self conscious to participate in team sports.

With all of this baggage, it’s been a struggle for me to find an exercise routine that I can stick with. I love walking, hiking, back packing (taught myself from a book in my 20’s), biking, skiing (though I could never afford it during those formative years when you are fearless, so I’m a permanent blue square run kind of girl), roller skating (outside please, going in circles feels like, well, going in circles). I want to love running, because it is so low gear, a quick and effective way to burn calories, and can be done outside. But my body doesn’t love it. I’m an on again-off again runner as my hips and knees allow (even using the ChiRunning technique, which I recommend). I also like yoga and Pilates (aerobics, jazzercise, step, zumba… not as much. It’s a coordination thing. I can get there, but it takes me about twice as long as the average participant to learn the routine, setting off all of my internal “I suck at this” alarms).

Detect a theme here. Yup, when it comes to exercise, I love to be outside, and I like things that make me compete only with myself. If I had grown up in another time or location, I could have definitely gotten into gymnastics (great natural balance and flexibility) or rock climbing (small, flexible, outside). But it wasn’t meant to be.

But calories in > calories out = weight gain. So I try to keep moving. As an adult, I understand the importance of exercise for a whole myriad of reasons, from maintaining my weight and hormone balance to just feeling good. Not to mention just how empowering it is to feel strong. So I participate in different activities depending on my mood, the weather, my time limitations, and my boredom tolerance. I can honestly say I’ve never been in incredible shape. But I am definitely in better shape as an adult than I ever was in high school.

Here are a few things I have learned from reading and from personal experience. This is what works for me. It may not be what works for you.

NanoBeing a bit of a science and technology geek, I love my Timex heart rate monitor and my iPod nano for keeping track of my workouts. The heart rate monitor allows me to set an alarm when my heart rate is too high, creating my own personal “interval” training regime, and there is nothing like good music to help you go a little farther or boost your spirits.

Exercise will not necessarily lead to weight loss unless you also change your diet. I watched an amazing NOVA special a few years ago, about taking 13 novice runners and training them for a marathon. The big take homes were 1) some people are just naturally more fit than others (as measured by their VO2Max test – a test of the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently while exercising) and 2) exercise does not necessarily produce weight loss unless you also cut calories. Even though 12 of the 13 participants completed the race, and were training at 10 miles + per day, only one lost weight, because she also changed her eating patterns.

The estimated max heart rate formula of 220 minus your age is total crap. According to this formula my MAXIMUM heart rate would be 175. I hit 176 on my jog yesterday! I have a naturally high heart rate. Using a more precise formula based on actual testing (as suggested by my Timex heart rate monitor manual) my max heart rate is closer to 192. I once had a chance to ask a cardiologist about this, and he confirmed that everyone is different, and that you should listen to your own body to determine at what rate you are comfortable exercising.

Interval training (high intensity period followed by recovery period followed by high intensity period…) is effective at increasing cardio fitness. There is also some evidence that it may induce more fat loss than moderate intensity workouts of the same duration. This is due to the metabolism boosting effects of the high intensity intervals. I also find it psychologically gratifying. As someone who has never been particularly fit or strong, there is a huge relief in knowing that if things get too intense, I can slow down or stop for a while. It somehow makes the whole thing much more doable.

Strive for overall calorie burn, not fat burn. The idea, perpetuated by countless cardio machines at the gym, is that the body burns a higher percentage of calories from fat when you are exercising in the “fat burning zone” which is 60-70% of your estimated maximum heart rate. This is true. However, at higher intensities, you burn a greater number of overall calories, which is what matters if you are trying to lose weight. Sixty percent of my max heart rate is 115. I get to that just by going out to feed the chickens.

Flexibility is important and stretching is good. Stretching is actually more effective if you are already warmed up (studies have shown that stretching before exercise does not necessarily prevent injury). Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds to see increased flexibility over time. Breathe in, breathe out into the stretch, breathe in, breath out into the stretch.

This is not me. It came from an internet search. Just saying.

You can’t lose “belly fat” by doing crunches. You’ll just end up with strong abs under the fat! When you lose fat, you lose it all over. Your belly, your butt, your face, your big toe. Everyone has different genetic variation on where you store the most, but when it comes off, it comes off everywhere. If 50% of your body fat is stored around your middle, than 50% of your fat loss is going to come from there. But you can’t spot train it away.

Little things can add up. Ever heard the joke about the woman driving around and around the gym parking lot waiting for a spot near the door to open up so she can go work out? Park at the far end of the parking lot at the grocery store. Take the stairs up to the third floor. Walk the mile to the neighbor’s house to return the baking dish instead of getting in the car. Stand up when talking on the phone. Use the networked copy machine in the other room rather than the one at your desk so you have to get up to get your copies. If you think about how much we must have moved, all day long, up until about 50 years ago, it is clear that we have evolved for movement, not sitting. Move as much as you can throughout the day, even if it is only 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there.

Do physical stuff you love when you can, even if it isn’t traditionally “exercise”. Those two instances where I did well on the Presidential Fitness Test? It was because I had gotten strong without realizing it, while doing something I enjoyed. I lost 4-5 lbs last year by working in the garden. I didn’t need to go for a run because I was getting a good workout shoveling dirt.

RunningShoesDo something physical on a regular basis, even if you don’t love it. I have a friend, who is probably reading this blog, who has told me over and over again how she “hates the gym” and so refuses to work out there. I get it. I would much rather be outside too. But in the dead of winter, with 8 hours of daylight and slushy roads and 30 degree temperatures and no time or money to head for the slopes, the gym is better than no exercise for 4 months. I also do exercise videos at home. Remember, we limit ourselves by the stories we tell in our head (and no, I’m not going to go join a co-ed softball league, even though it would probably be really really good for me on a whole lot of levels).

Forgive yourself for eating that piece of cheesecake what will take an hour run to burn off, or for not exercising this week because you were too busy. Tomorrow is always another chance to get out there and move. But do it tomorrow. Don’t do it next week. And forgive yourself for not looking like a supermodel, or an athlete. Remind yourself that it is about feeling strong and healthy and energetic and being able to do the things you want to do, not about being “cut” and turning heads of twenty somethings. As one of my exercise video’s says, “being strong will change your life”.

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from being an elite athlete, or even knowing what that feels like, but we did jog almost 4 miles yesterday, with intervals.