Why (and how) I'm still leaving my house for the gym

I am not the kind of person who loves to work out, even at the best of times. I’ve never been athletic, and in the annual throes of SAD, I'm typically even less likely to feel enthused about exercise. This winter, though, I've made the gym a regular part of my life, and it's been worth every reluctant step.

You’ve probably heard lots of good reasons to go to the gym: better physical health, better mood, better focus. To me, though, all these reasons seemed external—nagging words in the back of my mind, telling me one more thing I needed to do to be more grown-up, more disciplined, more on top of life, when I was already struggling just to get out of bed on each cold, dark winter morning. It wasn't until I understood how those external reasons fit into my personal goals and desires that I found my perspective changed, and I really wanted to take that first step on the treadmill. I discovered my own reasons to work out, and a few tricks to keep myself going when my enthusiasm wears thin.

Reasons for the Winter Workout

01. Exercise is a chance to invest in yourself.

My body is the one thing I will have for my entire life. I love homemaking, but my home won't be mine forever. Unlike any possession, my body is going to be mine—to be me—as long as I live. If and when I have children, my body will be their first home. Why don’t I take care of myself with at least as much attention as I give my house?

During my sophomore year of college, having gained more than the Freshman Fifteen, I bought into the supposedly-inspirational phrase "Nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels." That's wrong, both because food is actually glorious, and because being skinny doesn't feel good at all if you get there in an unhealthy way. By my junior year of college, I weighed less than I had as a slender senior in high school—because I was depressed, over-committed, sleep-deprived, deficient in Vitamin D, and eating poorly, not to mention getting no exercise. And it felt awful. Weight wasn't my problem; my problem was that I didn't love my body enough to perform basic maintenance.

Looking back on the weight fluctuations that followed—from underweight to overweight and back again, from one state of frustration with my body to another—I can see that, for me, the only way forward was the pursuit of a goal that had nothing to do with weight. Once my focus shifted to better stewardship of my time and energy and creating the life I wanted to live, I saw for myself that exercise was worth the investment.

02. Exercise is good for mental health.

In the last few years, I often heard this advice at the wrong time: when I was already sinking into depression. This winter, I resolved to start one step ahead of the seasonal blues by leveraging my good days to build habits that would last through the bad days.

My morning mile has become like making my bed: if I do it and the rest of the day is terrible, it's still a comfort that I did it. Symbolically, it means I'm at least a tiny bit closer to being who I want to be. Concretely, it means I've accomplished something real. I track my run times in my bullet journal, and writing down each day's accomplishment reminds me that I have a little more traction in life than I did before—a little firmer grasp on reality. Besides, seeing the new log entry encourages me to do still more with the day.

There are still bad days. And there are still days when I skip the gym because I don't feel up to it. But the bad days are less bad than they were last winter, and the decision to skip is now a conscious one. It affirms to me that I have the power to make the best decisions for my day, rather than making me feel helpless because I couldn't bring myself to leave the house. If I choose one day not to go to the gym, I’m aware of making the decision intentionally in order to have time for another healthy activity, like a trip to the library or a get-together with friends.

03. You can either take time to be healthy, or take time to be sick.

As much as I like to pretend that I'm Wonder Woman, if I don’t work out I spend more time than I have to on recovery from physical challenges like the common cold. I would much rather be taking time for vacation or to spend time with family than taking time just to wait for my body to stop feeling miserable.

The habit of powering through the discomfort of exercise also reminds me that I can do more than I feel like doing. I can get up and make a nutritious meal or cup of hot tea to speed up my recovery when I’m sick. I can endure the cold as I scrape the ice off my car in the morning. I can run yet another load of laundry and wash yet another sinkful of dishes. I can help my friends with a move. As I surprise myself with each new personal best, I start to wonder how else I can surprise myself.

04. Taking care of yourself means you can be there for others when they need help.

This morning I glanced at the news and saw this story about a man who had been trapped underneath his overturned SUV in an accident. Actually, the story was less about the trapped man than about his rescuer: a powerlifter who moved the vehicle singlehandedly off of the crash victim’s body—a task that four other men had been trying to accomplish. In that moment, an 800-pound deadlift turned out to be quite a handy skill.

While it’s unlikely that I might be called on to perform feats of physical strength worthy of Jean Valjean, keeping my body and mind in good working order with exercise allows me to give more of myself when I can help someone. When I have the energy to make dinner, my husband can focus on his grad school homework instead of cooking. On the other hand, I can’t offer to babysit for a tired new mama who needs a nap or a shower if I don’t even have the stamina to wash my own hair. When I’m alert and healthy, I can lend a hand where it’s needed—and then enjoy the bonus of good company, another great remedy for the winter blues.

Those are the main reasons that keep me scheduling gym time for myself. Scheduling isn’t the same thing as following through, though, and sometimes all the reasons in the world need a little practical help. Here are the tricks I use to get myself out the door on cold winter mornings:

Tricks for the Winter Workout

01. Keep your shampoo in the locker room.

I am very attached to my morning shower, so if my toiletries are at the gym, that’s where my day starts. At first I had trouble with this, because I was so used to getting dressed and put together before leaving the house. Eventually, though, I embraced the comfort of rolling out of bed and putting on soft, stretchy gym clothes.

02. Try out group classes.

Many gyms offer group classes that are included in the price of membership. I find these classes less intimidating—both to me and my budget—than the idea of a personal trainer. There’s still the accountability of a set meeting time and the guidance of a fitness professional, but it feels more social, and I know I’m not alone in feeling challenged.

03. Don’t just watch the clock.

Just as a watched pot never boils, I never seem to reach my target distance when I’m thinking about how long it takes. I’m a big fan of podcasts and TED Talks, and listening to audiobooks can be a great way to keep up with your book club while you work out. If you’re on a stationary bike, you might try reading from a book or tablet. This may sound a little strange, but I find it immensely helpful to recite poetry while I’m on the treadmill. Music doesn’t work the best for me—I get distracted and start taking cues from the tempo or length of the song rather than from my body. But if I let my footfalls set the pace, silently thinking through a poem (or the words of a hymn) allows me to focus on my own rhythm while passing the time.

04. Focus on how your body feels.

I’ve already mentioned that I keep a record of my run times in my Bullet Journal, and seeing improvement on paper is helpful—but even more powerfully motivating is the act of listening to my body, feeling that improvement directly. When my muscles feel tight, stretching makes them happy again. Tuning into my body’s cues has helped me feel more confident and strong in my day-to-day life, and it keeps me going back to the gym for more. Even when I feel sore, I know it’s because my body is busy with the work of getting stronger, and I look forward to doing more than I could before once my recovery is complete. In general, the human body does a great job of telling you what it wants—and it likes exercise!

I hope my reasons will encourage you to give your local gym a try, especially if the fitness world is new to you. It was to me a few short months ago! Exercise has improved winter for me more than I can calculate—and I don’t plan to stop when spring arrives.