The longest relationship I have had in my life is with the weight room. You would think with this relationship, I would be in way better shape and all muscled up. I’m not. Spoiler — that is not me in the above picture.
But this relationship, this daily ritual, has become the goal. The goal is no longer to look like the picture.
Let me explain.
When I was in high school, I took a “Zero” hour weight lifting class before school. In college, I played college football and all year long was required to be in the weight room at 6:00 AM every day. For my last 24 years as a teacher and a coach, I have started almost every day in the gym at 5:30 AM.
I work out five or six days a week. By far, my relationship with the weight room is my longest, strongest relationship. It has become my key to sanity and happiness.
Again, I should be way more ripped than I am. But that isn’t the goal anymore — sustainability has become the goal.
Working out is about the Journey, not the Destination
I used to work out with a specific goal: getting ripped, getting huge, taking all the supplements, moving heavyweight: more, more, more was always the answer.
As I got older, my goals changed. I no longer work out for the end result. Now, it’s the workout I crave more than the end result.
I love getting up in the morning and having the time to focus and figure out what I need to do that day. It also provides me the physical and emotional outlet to get myself ready for whatever the day brings — or it lets me shed whatever crap the day brought yesterday. And there is research that backs this up, like this psychology article explaining the mental benefits of exercise.
That time has become sacred to me. I don’t talk to others. I don’t use it as a social fix. I use the time 100% selfishly for me. I do exactly what I want with it, including not saying hi to people.
If I miss a workout — which doesn’t happen very often — I feel terrible at work that day. I have low energy, I’m grouchy, and my brain is foggy.
I talk to students all day long, so my gym time has become like charging a cell phone — it gets me to 100% before getting to school. Because once I’m at school, that battery is only going down from 100%.
The keys to my sustainability
How have I consistently worked out for the last 30 years? Here are some keys to my success.
In my brain, the gym is part of my workday. I’m a teacher, so I have certain times where I don’t go to school. I do not work out in the morning on those days. However, the first day of back to school after summer, or after Christmas Break, or after a random Monday off: the workday starts in the gym at 5:30 AM. No debates. My brain has been wired by me to believe that this is the way. This article from Phoebe Avison gives some tangible ideas on how to make working out part of your routine.
I don’t spend hours in the gym. I work out between 30–40 minutes every day. I used to think I had to work out for two hours a day and be dripping sweat after every lift or I was cheating myself. Now I know that level of effort is not sustainable. Sara Lindberg’s article “How Often Should You Work Out” backs up what works in my life. For me, what is sustainable is 30–40 minutes every school day.
I still lift weights. I started lifting for football, with a football mindset: Move big weights to gain weight, get big, and get strong. I still enjoy this idea, even if I’m not 25 years old anymore. I do a lot more 3 sets of 10 than true periodization for max weight and max gains, but I still like touching weights and moving iron. I still bench every week, and I still use some old-school splits like Chest and Tris, Back and Bis, and Legs. I no longer look around to see what others are lifting, but since I still like lifting, it helps to keep my routine sustainable.
Now I do cardio. I have always hated cardio. But once I started going to doctors, hearing worlds like cholesterol, triglycerides, and pre-diabetes, I adapted quickly (side note: getting old sucks). I no longer run like a football player, sprinting reps on the track and football field. I have had two ACL surgeries, so running has been taken away from me. However, twice a week I run on the elliptical machine or ride a sit-down stationary bike. Both of these options are sustainable for me. I don’t have to outrun or outride the cardio queen next to me: I just have to get to the end of the 30 minutes because I still hate cardio. For others who hate cardio, here are “8 Cardio Workouts For the Guy Who Hates Cardio.”
I don’t compete in the gym. As a player and for the last two-plus decades as a football coach, competition is my driving force. It sustains me. However, I learned a valuable lesson — the gym became more sustainable when I stopped subconsciously competing with anyone in the gym. I don’t care what others squat. I don’t care how long others are on the bike. I don’t care what weight that guy grabbed for curls. My workout is for me and my internal peace. I have plenty of other ways to compete: I don’t do it in the gym.
Not competing in the gym is hard. As I write #5, it sounds all fine and dandy in my brain, but after writing it I realize how much growth this was for me. For most of my life, the weight room has been the place for competition. When I played football, and now that I coach, we keep track of everything in the weight room — who is the strongest, who has the best clean, who is the fastest defensive back, who is the strongest quarterback. And we encourage it: I want my second-fastest defensive back to know who the fastest is and compete and go get him. Most of my life is hard-wired into this competition. That competition is not sustainable for a 45-year old in a weight room.
I can’t work out in high school weight rooms. Because of this competition factor, I had to take myself out of the environment. I had to go get a gym membership at a 24 Hour gym where our players did not lift. The only way I could get past the competition was to physically change the place. And when I do try and lift at the high school, the competition gets the best of me and I overdo it. To be sustainable, I have to work out for myself, not others, in a place that doesn’t signal competition for me.
I don’t want a workout partner. A lot of the advice I see about how to work out is to find a partner that holds you accountable, like this article from Shape.com. I disagree. I am sure it works for some, but I have always believed that true sustainability of habits depends on internal motivation, not external. Maybe at the beginning of a workout program, I can see how having someone questioning why you are missing might help create the habit. However, at some point, it has to come from within. I know that part of my sustainable success is because working out is for me and involves no one else.
There is time to work out. I hear a lot of people complain that they don’t have time to work out. Look, everyone is busy. I am at school by 6:45 AM every day. I go to bed at 9:00 PM on most days. I have chosen to go to be earlier and get up earlier because when I try to work out after school, I get busy and tired and it does not work for me. My internal battery is too drained at the end of the day. There is research that shows that morning is the best time for a sustainable workout, like this article from Leanna Skarnulis, and for me it rings true. My school day starts at 5:30, not 6:45.
I like my Apple Watch. Even though I don’t feel the need to share my workouts with other people, I did like getting an Apple Watch. I like tracking what I do and it feeds a little internal competition with me. It’s so smart, it even picks up when I’m working out and asks me if I want to track that workout if I forget to start. Also, I love tracking my steps during football season and seeing between 15,000 and 17,000 steps every day. It totally justifies why I want to go to bed at 9:00 every night. 10/10, highly recommend. For more Apple Watch tips, check out “11 Tips for Working Out With the Apple Watch.”
To Wrap Up
I like working out. I don’t list it as one of my hobbies like an Instagram Influencer, but my time in the mornings before school is sacred. It is my time to focus, to flush, and to finalize my thoughts. It’s my time to plan my day. It’s my time to work through problems, either professional or personal.
The key question to any workout program, to me, is sustainability. Crossfit has its place. Football workouts have their place. Hot Yoga has its place. Each person needs to figure out what is sustainable for him or her.
It is New Year’s Resolution time and my gym is more crowded than normal. It bugs me. I don’t like it but I know that in a month, it will clear out again because what some people are doing isn’t sustainable for them. They won’t have a lifelong relationship with the gym like I do.
Go find what is sustainable for you. Do what is enjoyable and build it into part of your daily routine.
Good luck working out in 2022 and the next 30 years!