The One Fitness Challenge You HAVE To Try

I normally think of a “fitness challenge” as something I’m going to fail at. It’s an old habit. I remember once seeing a sign-up for a 100-day yoga challenge on the wall of my local studio and thinking, Oh wow, that would be amazing. I would be so flexible and centered and wise by the end. But I’d never dare to put my name on that sheet. Because I’m a lazy loser, I’d think. Not once did it occur to me that I didn’t actually have the money, the time, or the work schedule to go to yoga class every day for one hundred goddamn days in a row. No, it was because I didn’t have the work ethic.

This is not that kind of challenge.

Rational fitness is all about the individual. It recognizes that exercise is meant to support your life (not the other way around), and that everyone’s lifestyle and body are different. Most fitness challenges (like the mainstream fitness industry in general) try to put us all in the same box: Everyone should do this workout, look like this body, and aim for these goals. And we’re so used to it that we often don’t realize we’re still walking around inside that box. That’s why another part of rational fitness is about poking holes in it, that metaphorical box, and questioning your beliefs about what your body can and can’t do.

“When you've been stuck in a certain mode of fitness — whether it's the actual exercising you're doing or your attitude about it — it can be really hard to get unstuck,” says Anna Maltby, our own deputy editor of health and wellness (and resident certified personal trainer, to boot). “Setting up a few very specific goals for yourself can help knock you out of that rut and discover a new way of doing things. And the goals that work best here are less about your workout itself and more about your thoughts and feelings about the workout.” That’s the real benefit of fitness challenges: It’s not just the physical moves, but the mental shift. “Hopefully, they'll help you figure out a way to have more fun with your fitness routine, and even make it healthier and more sustainable in the long run.”

This week, I invite you to join me in a new kind of fitness challenge: Seven goals that will challenge your body and brain to reframe fitness in a new way. Furthermore, I’m going to put my money where my big mouth is and take this challenge with you. Until now, I’ve shied away from every fitness challenge I’ve ever seen, assuming I would fail — and I’m no fail-er. This week, I’m showing up to prove it to myself. That’s one goal I think we all can and deserve to meet.

I’ll be documenting my own Rational Fitness Challenge Week on Instagram, using the hashtag #RationalFitnessChallenge. Join in if you are so inclined! I’d love to see the way you’re making this challenge your own.

But remember, this is not about having a perfect week, a perfect body, or any kind of perfection. It’s about setting a challenge only for yourself, and then stepping up to meet it — for no one else but you.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
1. Look at your week and make a reasonable schedule (not an unrealistic one).
“I’m going to work out every day this week.” — Everyone In The World On Sunday Night.

Honestly, when has that ever worked? These grand pre-Monday declarations only set us up to feel like failures when Wednesday rolls around, and that meeting/date night/work deadline throws a wrench into our gym schedule. So instead of fantasizing about your amazing workout week, sit down and look at your calendar like a grown-up. What does your schedule look like? How and when can you reasonably find time to exercise? Are there any pending plans or projects that might get in your way? Factor that in. If you’re going to need wiggle room, allow for it.

Factor in your physical needs, as well. Maybe you love cycling every day of the week, or maybe your body needs to mix it up a little so as not to burn out.

The point is to prioritize your fitness — not to create unreasonable expectations around it. If this is something you want to do, make it something you can do.

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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
2. At least once a week, try an exercise, machine, or class you've never tried before.
I used to think of the StairMaster as something off-limits. In fact, I didn’t really see it at all. I looked right past it to the machines I was familiar with. It wasn’t until a trainer told me to try it that I actually stepped onto the thing — and I loved it.

You probably won’t fall in love with every machine, class, or form of exercise you try. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s so easy to fall into a groove of doing only what’s familiar and comfortable. And while it’s important to do stuff you enjoy, it’s also important to try something different every once in a while. (It’s also important to get some guidance when you do. Don’t dive in blind. If it’s a class, tell the instructor you’re a newbie. If it’s a machine or a particular workout move, get someone to show you how to do it properly.)

Whether or not you wind up enjoying it, trying something new takes you out of autopilot and makes you more engaged with what your body is doing. In highly unscientific terms, it’s a little pick-me-up for your body and your brain. And who knows? You may meet your StairMaster soulmate, like I did.

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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
3. Do a mirror-facing exercise.
Here’s another highly unscientific yet nonetheless very important term: Gymtimidation.

This is that particular form of shame that so often keeps us out of exercise environments. We compare ourselves to the seemingly perfect bodies around us — and the idea, purely in our minds, of our bodies' imperfectness. In reality, we know that everyone is prone to these insecurities and there's no such thing as perfect. But when you’re in the grip of gymtimidation, reality is hard to grasp on to. So, here’s one reality check: Look in the mirror.

The first time I did this, I cringed the whole way through. It was horrifying to look at my big, red monster face (let alone my monster thighs) sweating through a workout. But a few weeks later, that monstrous image had become just my body again. It wasn’t a 180-degree turnaround; I didn’t learn to wholly adore every inch of myself. But I’d gotten comfortable enough not to turn and hide from my own image. That experience taught me a lot about my insecurity and the ways I’d let it boss me around.

Your own response may be very different. That voice in your head might speak up with confidence you didn’t know you had, or it could hurl insults you don’t deserve. But no matter what you see in the mirror, just let yourself look, and listen.

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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
4. Try a buddy workout or a group workout.
Exercise can be a great form of “me time.” But it can also be needlessly isolating (especially if you’re particularly prone to the aforementioned scourge of gymtimidation). This week, switch up your workout style: If you’re typically a group-class person, do a one-on-one workout with a friend. If you steer clear of social workouts in general, get yourself into a class.

Again, you might find that working out like this is just not your jam. But — and I say this as an out-and-proud introvert — exercising in a social setting offers challenges and perks that a solo workout just can’t. Being part of a group helps you confront that compare-and-despair habit in your brain. Working out alongside a friend adds an element of enjoyment (because presumably, you enjoy spending time with this person).

Above all, working out with others offers you proof that everyone is different: We all have different strengths, abilities, and goofy faces we make when we’re doing squats. You might understand that theoretically on your own, but seeing it in front of you makes it real.

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Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
5. Try that thing you hate.
I don’t like running. It’s not my thing. I know all about the runner’s high and that mythical, magical meditative state that running is supposed to offer, but I just don’t like it. I have my reasons.

That’s exactly why I do challenge myself to jog every now and then. Rational fitness is about enjoying exercise, but that doesn’t mean clinging to your comfort zone. The comfort zone can easily become the things-I’m-not-afraid-of zone, and fear has no place at this party. When you don’t like doing something, it’s very easy to believe that you can’t do it. I jog to prove that wrong.

What exercise do you hate? What do you find too boring or too hard or too trendy? Does kickboxing sound like a nightmare? Sign up. Do burpees remind you of middle-school gym class? Me too! Let’s both do them!

But let’s not do them forever. Exercise is all too often conflated with punishment and pain. So, don’t get into the mindset where workouts don’t “count” unless you hate them. Just make some time to deliberately face the thing you can’t stand, if only to prove (to yourself, not your middle-school gym teacher) that you can. Then step away, and remember that you don’t have to.

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6. Do at least two active things that don't look like a workout.
What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “workout?” Odds are, it’s not ping pong. But, believe it or not, ping pong is a legit form of exercise and even athleticism (just ask THE OLYMPICS).

Really, there isn’t a strict set of guidelines defining what is and isn’t “legit” when it comes to working out. There are plenty of activities that we don’t consider an Official Workout but which give us the benefits of exercise. Sometimes these are things that we’re already doing, and sometimes they’re things that we can simply do with more frequency or intensity.

I love going to the gym, and I also love the way I feel when I get some physical exertion into my day. And some days, those are two separate things. If I can’t make it to the gym, I might walk to a destination instead of taking the subway. And I might deliberately step up my pace just to up my heart rate. Is the exact same workout I’d get on the StairMaster? No. Does it still “count” as exercise? Absolutely.

We understand that exercise is good for us, but we have such a narrow vision of what is and isn’t exercise — and that sets us up to feel we’ve failed. And when you feel like a failure, you’re a lot less likely to get up and try again.

The world is full of ways to move and exert yourself. This week, go do two of them, whether it’s walking down the street or playing ping pong. You can’t fail at that (unless you’re at the Olympics).
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein. Shot on location at New York Health and Racquet Club.
7. Do a restorative exercise.
Just as we believe that all exercise should look a certain way, we seem to believe that it should all feel a certain way, too. Specifically, we think it should always be strenuous and kind of awful. Listen, I firmly believe in getting comfortable with discomfort and in pushing one’s own boundaries. But I know I can’t do those things very well unless I’m also doing something that makes my body feel good.

When I talk about restorative exercise, I mean the things that leave you feeling loose or balanced — not necessarily sweaty and wrung-out. Those are all good things, but we should treat them with equal value. Restorative exercises can be tough, too (Pilates, for example). But sometimes, they can feel more like rest than exertion.

This week, try a restorative yoga session or a Pilates mat class and notice the difference when you leave. These are practices designed to keep your body in good working order, but the best part (I think) is that they re-establish a connection between your body and mind. On the elliptical, you can easily zone out — and there’s nothing wrong with that mental break. But it’s also important to pay attention to your body and how it feels. And trust me, it’ll feel better when you balance the hardcore with the TLC.

Bottom line: This body is the vehicle that carries you through your life. Exercise is part of how you care for it. That means testing its limits and respecting its needs. That balancing act is the real challenge.

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