Project Louise: On Exercise, Sex, Free Stuff And The Secret Of Life

Dear Louise,

Let me be blunt: I'm afraid you've been having sex without orgasms.

When it comes to exercise, that is.

To extend this ham-handed metaphor a bit farther: I know some people say there's no such thing as bad sex unless it hurts you. And of course there's no such thing as bad exercise unless it hurts you. Any bit of activity, any rise from the couch, any flight of stairs, is good.

But I worry that halfway through your Project Louise year, while you've made truly laudable progress on healthier eating and emotional self-care, you clearly have yet to catch the exercise bug. Oh, you've tried, heroically, from bike rides to hot yoga to personal training. But it somehow hasn't stuck.

So that's the purpose of this letter: To try to jump-start your fitness, to remind you that in your original goals you listed "Create and follow a regular, sustainable exercise plan"; and most importantly, to try to persuade you that exercise — daily exercise, moderate to vigorous — is the magical secret of life.

(Readers, won't you help? As in, let's all pile on Louise! I end this letter with a few of my own quirky personal tips for making exercise a daily habit. Please add a few of your own in the comments section, or whatever arguments you think might most help Louise get going.

And we can also all help with accountability. Louise has agreed that beginning tomorrow, she'll get some form of activity or exercise every day by 7 p.m. and report in on it by 11 p.m. in the comments section below.)

True, we're aiming for sustainable change and reporting to an online audience every day does not seem like a lifelong practice. But this is just for the month, just to try to establish the habit.

Some say it takes just 21 days to establish a new habit; it's surely more complex than that -- some research suggests the average is more like two months — but here's how you know you're there: It's harder not to do it than to do it.

Louise, I do believe that's the key. You've said that you don't make time for exercise the way you do for reading because it's not as pleasurable. I'd so love you to reach the point I've reached: I do enjoy the exercise in and of itself, but what most motivates me is the desire not to feel like crap on a given day. It's harder to face the torpor and irritability of not doing it than the brief sweaty effort of doing it.

I know this is no small challenge. Behavioral change is a whole science. And this exercise thing is clearly a tough nut to crack: Our Project Louise coach, Allison Rimm, says that when her workshop participants look at their goals and priorities, exercise is most often the number-one thing that has fallen off their lists. The CDC says 80 percent of Americans don't get the recommended dose of exercise: Two and a half hours a week of moderate exercise, or an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous workouts.

Allison suggests that you combine exercise with something pleasurable, like listening to books on tape.

That's the carrot approach. But for me, it all began with a big stick.

That is, four years ago, when CommonHealth in its current incarnation began, we launched a series of posts headlined "Why To Exercise Today." Week after week, we highlighted studies that found that exercise could help with everything from preventing cancer and dementia to preserving eyesight and hearing to improving mood and brainpower.

That's all very nice. But what first sucked me into an everyday exercise habit was fear of the opposite. In middle age, we're entering the killing fields of cancer and heart disease and aging. It gets tough out there. We need to exercise for the same reason my 87-year-old dad begins every single day with a workout: We don't dare not to.

But let's not get too grim. Now I'm getting to the orgasm part.

One of the hottest things in fitness these days is "High-Intensity Interval Training," which in the old days we used to call "sprints." An ever-more-persuasive body of research suggests that you should include at least some sprints in some of your workouts, to maximize your health benefits.

Rick, your trainer, can help you figure out what your fitness level will allow, but I'm here to tell you that breathing hard and sweating heavily and entering a brief, dervish-like state of workout frenzy can become one of life's great pleasures. Maybe it's the endorphins, maybe it's the forgetting of the rest of the world for a few moments, maybe it's just the joy of movement, I don't know but it's something I wish for you. And personally, if I never reached that little Nirvana, I'd be much less likely to want to work out every day.

My other quirky little personal tips:

1. Music, music, music: Without it, I would never even get once around the block. Take a few minutes and load your phone so you'll always have it.

2. Peppermint lifesavers: Please don't choke and then sue me, but I find that sucking on a peppermint lifesaver during my morning workouts gives me energy and keeps my mouth from drying out as I huff and puff. I like to work out on an empty stomach and think I would bonk quickly without that little candy aid.

3. Morning glory: People's body clocks and schedules vary, but for me, it has to be morning, otherwise it's just an intention that nags me all day and is never realized. Not to get into the weeds of your logistics, but I do believe you park at work beneath a veritable palace of fitness. If you could ever work it so that you regularly enter the palace before you enter the workplace, I think you might have it made.

4. Splurge on workout clothes: Unless you're outside, you'll be looking in the mirror.

5. Nothing you hate: Perhaps most important of all. We spend our fitness lives recovering from the traumas of school gym, from the shame and coercion. Now, you, and only you, are in charge of your workout. Well, true, we in the Project Louise peanut gallery do weigh in a bit. But when you're in the gym or on the bike or the treadmill, you're in charge. You never have to do anything you hate. (For me, that means no planks. Ever.)

You do need to get your heart rate up and work your major muscle groups, but how you do that is up to you. We're grown-ups now, thank goodness. No one can ever make us try to climb those awful ropes again. But being grown-ups also means that our bodies are on a downhill slide, and if we don't push back then down we go. In extreme cases, it could be a question of survival. But most of all, it's quality of life — it's feeling better and functioning better and making every (post-exercise) day brighter. It's the closest thing to a magic pill we have. Except that it's not a pill. it's a daily effort — that also holds the potential of daily joy.

Readers, help! What are your most powerful arguments and favorite little workout tips? 

Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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