Investing in Yourself: Exercise

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

The biggest cost in my grandmother’s life right now is health care. She spent most of her life not getting adequate exercise – most of her jobs involved clerical work and she was always more content to be standing in the kitchen making lasagna than getting out of the house and going for a brisk walk.

Whenever I see her gasping for oxygen, I’m reminded that I could easily be in the same spot. Right now, I have the advantage of youth, but that advantage is slowly slipping away. I don’t have any trouble doing almost any activity I want to do right now, but I do get out of breath when I’m unloading heavy boxes or moving furniture or other tasks that should be relatively easy. Even now, I can see some slippage – I could play basketball for an hour without scarcely pausing for a breath, but not anymore – a ten minute pickup game leaves me wheezing.

My health and vitality are things that I don’t want to slip away from me as I age, so over the last year I’ve been working hard to invest in myself by getting better exercise – and I’ve found that it’s one of the best investments of time and money that I could possibly make. I feel better each day. I have more energy to do the things that I want to do and need to do – like keep The Simple Dollar updated, for example. Even better, I know that I’m adding years to my life – and years of enjoyable life later on when I’m free from the shackles of the day-to-day work grind.

I’m not talking about peak performance or getting into killer shape. I’m talking about maintaining a basic level of physical fitness that can extend your life, reduce your health care costs, engage in more strenuous activities now, and enjoy reasonable health during your later years. Plus, it can help you to both look better and feel better every day, improving both your outward appearance and your inward sensibilities. Here are some basic steps to take.

Talk to your doctor
Before you begin any significant increase in your regular activity level, it’s useful to schedule a routine checkup with your doctor, just in case. If you’re suffering from an ailment that might hinder significant exercise, or you have some sort of condition that needs to be noted before you start, a doctor’s visit before you start upgrading your activity level can be a real help.

Be sure to lay out your plans and any concerns you have with your doctor. If the doctor is worth their salt, your concerns will be listened to and addressed. You’ll likely also get some advice on what you can realistically expect and what your safe limits should be – it’s always useful to get your heart racing just a little, but for many people (especially those out of shape), suddenly jumping into triathlon-style training wouldn’t be good at all.

I’ll admit to being partial – my physician is a wonderful person who genuinely cares about the health of everyone who visits him. I’ve never been as pleased with a doctor in my life as I am with my current physician.

Learn how to stretch and do basic yoga
The most basic exercise that most people should do isn’t even something that people think of as exercise. Stretching is a major piece of the foundation of health for a number of reasons: it improves flexibility, it makes other exercises easier, it improves range of movement, it reduces muscle tension, it improves circulation (which directly relates to improved energy levels), and it improves muscular coordination. Better yet, all stretching costs is a bit of time – you don’t need any equipment (other than maybe a clock) to do it. Here’s how to get started.

Start off with some basic stretches. A few times a week, run through a small routine of simple stretches just to see how it works for you – you can do it in about fifteen minutes. Here’s an excellent battery of very basic stretches. What I’ve found with stretching in my own experiences is that the first time is sort of painful, the next few times after that leave you feeling incredible, and the times after that just feel good. I’ve also found that playing some quiet music while doing this helps – something in the background that’s soothing but not distracting.

Move on to some simple yoga poses. Once you’ve done several sessions of stretching, you’ll find that your flexibility has increased quite a bit and your energy level is higher, too. That’s the perfect time to move on to yoga, which is basically a mix of stretching, isometric exercises (ones where you effectively use your own body as a weight), and meditation. Try out some of the basic positions – I’ve never really done anything that isn’t listed on this page.

I often incorporate stretches and yoga into my meditation routines. I use the time I’m stretching to relax my mind as well and I usually finish not only feeling physically refreshed, but mentally refreshed, too. For many people, spending twenty minutes stretching and meditating seems like a poor use of time, but when it raises your energy level and mental level so much, it’s well worth it.

Walking is another simple exercise that can be used to build up basic health. Even better, you can get a lot of this exercise in your daily life and supplement it with dedicated time for walking each day. You can combine a short walking period (fifteen minutes) with little moves like parking on the far end of the parking lot in order to slowly improve your muscular and cardiovascular health without turning it into a major distraction. Here are some tips for getting started.

Get good running shoes and a pedometer. One major challenge when you begin to increase your levels of walking is sore feet – most shoes simply aren’t designed for a lot of walking. Try getting a pair of shoes intended for walking/running and using them when you’re going to be doing it for exercise. Even more important: get a pedometer so you can count your steps. I personally use the Omron HJ-720 because it stores my daily stepping totals and I can easily extract it to my PC for easy record keeping.

Get a baseline before you do anything else. When you get a pedometer, don’t immediately start in on the exercising. Just keep it in your pocket for a week and do things normally so that you can get a baseline of how many steps you take in an average day. This will help guide you as you define what your goals for walking will be and also make sure that you don’t set an unrealistic goal right off the bat.

Use that baseline as your first daily goal. Take all of those daily counts and use them to define a daily goal. For me, I found success in using the first “even thousand” number above my highest normal day’s walking count to start with. So, if my highest normal day involved 3,800 steps, then I defined a daily goal of 4,000 steps as a minimum. This usually meant that I would have to walk 1,000 steps extra to make sure I broke that goal every single day. Once that became routine (a week or two), I kept upping my goal, with the long-term goal of eventually reaching 10,000 or more steps in a day.

Make a one month commitment
Most people who begin exercise get frustrated when they don’t see any benefits after a week of consistent work and they abandon their plans (or at least begin slacking off). A week is far too short of a time to see any noticeable changes, and even after a month your biggest changes will be in how you feel, not in your appearance. When you start, make a minimum of a one month commitment to exercising or else you’re just wasting time.

Start at the beginning of the month. This will help you keep your timeframe in mind throughout the month – you can clearly see the beginning date and the ending date. It’s a nice, constrained time for you to get started on things.

Define an exercise schedule. Literally list the activities you’ll do each day – and follow it. Mix it up, too, so that it doesn’t get boring. I usually stretch and do yoga every day, but I try doing a variety of things throughout a given week so that it doesn’t get too repetitious.

Take measurements only at the start and the end of the month. If you’re trying to lose weight via exercise or you’re gauging things by how out of breath you are after running around the block, do this measurement once at the start of the month, then don’t do it again until the end of the month. This gives you time to build up some real progress so that you can clearly see that things are working well.

Set clear and concrete goals based on the exercise
When I first attempted to shed some pounds, I set a target weight as a goal – and I was continually frustrated as I repeatedly failed to reach the goal. It took me a while to realize that I was setting the wrong goals. I was setting goals that were only partially controlled by exercising and expecting that exercising would do the trick. A much better approach is to realize that exercise will eventually lead you towards the level of fitness or the target weight you want to reach as long as you’re consistent with it. Here are some tips.

Use specific exercise numbers as goals. Instead of saying, “I want to lose 40 pounds,” instead say, “I want to walk 10,000 steps a day for the next three months.” That way, it’s just a matter of putting forth the effort to exercise, not a question of whether your body chemistry will help you along the way.

Always look upward. Be sure to set goals that aren’t easy for you to reach. If your current exercise seems very easy, try changing your goals around to increase the challenge level. If you can easily walk 10,000 steps in a day, add to that step total or make some of the steps into running or jogging steps.

Celebrate your successes with others. When you achieve a challenging goal, don’t be afraid to be very happy about it. Tell others about your successes and you’ll find that they’ll quickly become a great support for you as you challenge yourself to get into better shape.

Try other exercises
Although walking and stretching are two easy ways to start getting in better shape, there are lots of things you can do without ponying up the expense of a gym membership or expensive equipment – just a time investment. I personally use the exercise ladder as a way to keep motivated. It gives clear directions on what kinds of exercises to do, how many of them to do, and how to tell when you’re ready to keep increasing your exercise level, plus it directly integrates goals into the program. Here are some general tips for expanding your exercise regimen.

Start off below what you think you can handle. That way, you don’t over-exert yourself or accidentally strain something by doing too much at first. Once you’ve got the hang of it, slowly ease upwards until you find a level that’s challenging for you – and then work at that level.

A lot of repetitions with light weights or exercises are better than a few repetitions with heavy weights or exercises. The point is to exercise your muscles, and repetition is the real key to victory. If you’re a beginner, you’ll get more overall benefit out of five sets of ten reps with a ten pound weight than one set of ten reps with a fifty pound weight – it might not maximize your muscle growth, but it will help with overall aerobic health and have a vastly lower chance of muscle damage.

Is a gym membership necessary? For some people, the camaraderie of others exercising or the availability of coaching can really make the difference, but don’t jump in and sign up for a long-term plan. Pay for the shortest plan you can get (even if it’s pricier) and see whether it’s of real use to you. If it is, keep going and sign up for a longer stint – if it’s not, you’ve minimized your expenses.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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