FF Life: Building a habit with slow fitness

Sticking to any workout regime is invariably tough. I recently discovered a simple way to build a regular daily habit without running the risk of lapsing out. Here’s how it works

Sveta Basraon

[From Unsplash]

For all of last year, a recurring theme of my weekly chat with a close friend from college was our struggles with maintaining a fitness routine.

Covid notwithstanding, we’d tried long brisk walks, running, light weight training at home… nothing stuck.

Then two months ago, I started noticing a shift in her tone. She was now talking about feeling energised, health metrics like high cholesterol, high sugar (prediabetes), and weight improving, and feeling more fit.

What had changed?

She told me she had slowed down. She’d joined a yoga and martial arts-based fitness programme where the teacher focuses on building the basics, improving balance and form, and going up to your limit rather than a muscle-burning all-out push.

Indeed, when I met her for lunch a few weeks later, I could see the change for myself—the most obvious was her energy.

Slow doesn’t mean less

As we spoke more, some things began to click in my head.

Four years ago, I was walking 8 km on most days and climbing 10 floors in my building—and bragging about it. I was mixing it up with some light weight training. It worked then, but why couldn’t I get back to it now?

But over the last two years, something had been working for me nevertheless—though I’d been discounting it. Ironically, a new habit had formed, triggered by a pinched nerve in the neck, inability to turn my neck and pain radiating down my right arm to my hand.

This was a sequence of 11 physiotherapy exercises done three to four times a day, that take just about 7 minutes to do. Over two years, this routine had pulled me out of pain and I had added two-three more 5-7 minute “exercise/activity snacks” to my day, including this 7-minute standing workout and borrowing from Dr Rajat Chauhan’s suggestions.

But I’d been discounting the gains from this unglamorous routine. In my mind a fitness routine meant a gruelling workout.

Yes, I wanted to switch it up, but maybe I was going about it the wrong way. I decided to try the class she’d been attending. It’s by Abhishek Sharma, a yoga and holistic fitness coach, and author of Fitness on the Go.

It’s been two weeks, and this is the first time in a long time that I’ve stuck to a fitness routine. I make time because I want to make time.

What’s making this habit stick?

1. Mind-body connection and better body awareness

Going to the gym gives me bragging rights—I know how much weight I pumped, how many km I covered on the treadmill at what speed, even approximately the calories I burnt. And next day, when my muscles are sore, I feel I did something.

Yet, I’ve always found the time commitment of going to a gym onerous.

This too is a one-hour class, four days a week. But this doesn’t feel onerous. I look forward to it, even if I can’t attend in real time and do it with a recording.

And the difference is, that in the absence of external metrics (how do you even measure 3 reps of a certain move?) the gaze turns inwards. I am focusing on my breath, my form, getting the coordination right, keeping a good posture, being mindful of the muscles that are engaging with each move. And that attention carries forward through the day. Even in these two weeks, I’ve started to become aware and correct my posture, stretch my body when I begin to slouch in my chair, or when my neck starts tensing as I work on my laptop.

The workout feels as if it is continuing beyond the class. Indeed, as my teacher emphasises, be active through the day, so I’m continuing with those activity snacks too—and learning to value them. Research also shows that sitting all day sabotages your workout.  

2. Small, surprise gains

I’d say, my twin goals are to be pain free—and correct my posture, the root cause of that pain—and to be more energetic.

Just about a week into this programme, I noticed that a tiny tenderness in my right ankle—something that I wasn’t really bothered about—was gone.

I’ve mentioned improvements in my posture. That comes from “easy” joint loosening/muscle stretching exercise—easy in the sense that you go only up to your limit; the limit will improve with steady practice. Abhishek emphasises compound movements (rather than isolation movements like you do with gym machines) that work a system of muscles and joints. He mixes yoga with martial arts, freehand and functional exercises like squats, push ups and brisk walking/jogging. The focus is equally on flexibility, strength, balance and centering the mind.   

With this awareness, I’ve started to notice small delightful improvements that are a strong motivation even though fitness is still a long way away. The ease with which I climb up the three floors to my office, a little more grace and agility with which I stand up from sitting on the floor, better sleep and waking up refreshed. As for the neck pain, it was 80% better after two years of regular physiotherapy exercises; and now it is nearly all better. The neck and shoulders feel relaxed almost all the time. 

3. Learning to love the process; the outcomes will follow

Be patient, I now tell myself. It took me 20-odd years of hunching over my laptop and a decade of tilting my head down to read off a screen, to mess up my neck and posture. The remedy will also take time. Injury from repetitive stress got me here. Now small, repeated joint mobilisation and muscle stretches/strengthening will counter that.

Abhishek calls it sukshma abhyaas, which I interpret as micro practice—or atomic habits as James Clear called it. It’s the compound effect of making small changes incrementally, which reap small rewards that compound over time.

For me, that journey began two years ago and this programme feels like a natural progression.

Here I’d like to clarify that slow doesn’t mean less or without effort. It does demand one hour of my time; it is a workout where I can feel my heart rate going up; it does test my strength, flexibility and stamina. The difference is that there’s no pressure to meet an artificial goal every session. There’s no pressure to push my limits. The intensity and the complexity of the moves build up over the days. I just have to focus on doing it right, without injury, and ramping up only once I’m comfortable with a move.

I’ve ditched the so-called benchmarks. I've stopped tracking my sleep, my weight or the number of steps I take in a day. Strengthen the base, and do it for the whole system. I don't feel the need to measure. I delight in the fact that I wake up more refreshed. And that I feel lighter on my feet and am standing taller. 

4. Sharing with a community

The fourth aspect of what’s making this habit stick is the community. Two of my friends are already participating in this programme. Abhishek himself is available and encourages us to ask our doubts and any difficulties either at the end of the class or later on WhatsApp. And every Sunday we all meet up virtually to explore a little more beyond the workout and discover other aspects of a fit life—tips on centering the mind, tackling insomnia, de-stressing, and other small lifestyle changes that will make for a fitter life.   

(Sveta Basraon is Head of Operations at Founding Fuel.)

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About the author

Sveta Basraon
Sveta Basraon

Editor and Head of Operations

Founding Fuel

Sveta Basraon is Editor and Head of Operations at Founding Fuel. She is responsible for ensuring content meets global quality standards. She also liaisons with Founding Fuel’s contributor network and is responsible for overseeing and ensuring that internal processes work smoothly.

A technology and business journalist, Sveta has worked at some of the best newsrooms in the country. She was part of the founding teams at CHIP and Forbes India. Her last assignment was as News Editor at Mint, India’s most influential business newspaper. Before that, she put in a stint at The Times of India as well.

She graduated in History with Honours from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University and remains a history buff. Other interests include environment, culture, photography and science.

Sveta is currently based in Noida. She has lived and worked for many years in Mumbai as well. In her spare time, you can find her poring over a book, exploring Delhi, and shooting a multitude of bad pictures (not at the same time).

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