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Prioritizing Exercise

Early morning runLast week, in discussing my new (academic) year’s resolutions, I mentioned that one of my goals for the year is to run three times a week. It’s relatively easy for me to promise myself something like that right now, as I’m on leave, and aside from some travel and some project meetings, my only real time commitments are to myself.

Personally, I’ve found that maintaining a regular exercise program is way more difficult than that during a regular semester. I always start out with all kinds of good intentions, and feel great as long as I’m still working out regularly. But school-oriented commitments inevitably start creeping in: that one meeting that has to be scheduled during my usual gym time; that article that I’m not finding enough time to work on; that class that isn’t quite as prepared as I’d like. And almost invariably, when I start feeling pressed for time, the first thing that falls by the wayside is my commitment to exercise.

It’s ironic, of course, as exercise is precisely what I need in order to burn off stress, and yet the stress convinces me that I’d be better off working than exercising. It’s that kind of choice that leaves me, a few weeks from the end of a semester, feeling like a brain on a stick and bracing for the inevitable cold that will strike as soon as I slow down a bit. The neglected body, after all, will find a way to strike back.

It’s clear that finding ways to prioritize exercise is a key not just to good health but to continued productivity. Amy has encouraged us to find a balance between work and the rest of our lives, Erin has reflected on the ways her dog helped her focus on things other than work, and Natalie has suggested that we add exercise to our conference schedules so that our good habits aren’t disrupted. These are all fantastic bits of advice, but at certain points all such tips wind up sounding to me like variants on “just do it,” in response to which I find myself thinking “but how?”

I have a few strategies that I’ve used in the past to keep exercise a priority. Each of them has worked for me, at least for a while:

  • Exercise first. I’m much more likely to get a reasonable workout in if it’s the first thing I do when I roll out of bed. Of course, this runs into direct conflict with my first half-hour of the morning writing plan, and so there’s a trade-off there. And it only works because I’m not responsible for getting anyone other than me out of bed and off to school.
  • Make an exercise date. I’m much less likely to blow off a workout if someone else is counting on me, so setting a time to meet a friend for exercise can be a big help. Of course, if your friend is just as stress-prone (and thus workout-blowing-off-prone) as you are, this may not work for long. But the guilt involved in letting someone else down generally lasts longer than the guilt you feel when you’ve only disappointed yourself.
  • Keep it short. I have a bad tendency to be all-or-nothing about exercise, so finding ways to convince myself that half an hour of exercise is sufficient are important. I can squeeze that thirty minutes in fairly easily; an hour and half is much harder to come by.

Even with these tips in mind, however, I have difficulty keeping exercise high enough on my list of priorities to sustain my fitness through a stressful semester. So I’m asking you: how do you prioritize your physical health and wellbeing? Please share your hints and suggestions in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Aaron.]

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