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Here’s What Happens When You Apply a 12-Step Attitude to Your Fitness Routine

In recovery from addiction, drinking and drugging are a hard “don’t do it” part of the plan. Our relationship to food and fitness, however, is a bit different. We have choices about how much we want to do, how often we want to do it, and really look at our motivation for engaging before we make a move.

Being too results-oriented can be a great way to talk yourself out of doing anything, so, while it’s great to have goals, it’s also important to keep your triumphs in the day and keep them right-sized.

As I started to think about “getting fit,” not just for Spring, but to literally be able to fit into my wedding dress, I realized that my approach to sobriety could be applied to my get-fit plan, too.

I’ve been using some of the same principles and tools, and I’d like to tell you how it works.

Show up for your workout one step at a time, literally.

You know how when we first enter into recovery, the thought of never drinking again seems insane and impossible, to the point where we think it’s not even worth a try? That same thinking will keep you firmly planted inside that butt-dent you’ve made in the couch.

Without projecting how your workout will go today or tomorrow, or trying to calculate the results you’ll see by next week:

  • Just get out the door to head to the gym
  • Pull up the workout video on YouTube
  • Sign up for the Pilates class and pay in advance
  • Sleep in your workout gear
  • Hang your yoga mat by its carrier on the doorknob

Whatever it takes, just get ready, and when the time comes, do not talk yourself out of it. Just go. If you’re just feeling a little lazy, try to go anyway. Worst-case scenario, you take the world’s shortest and slowest stationary bike ride, and that still counts for something.

Here’s an important exception: If you can barely find the energy to lace up your sneaker, got virtually no sleep last night, or are actually feeling sick, skip it.  Pushing through that is the opposite of self-care – plus, there’s nothing like a self-fulfilling prophecy to damage your chances of future gym visits.

Take that workout a minute at a time.

Congratulations! You’ve started your workout, you’re about two minutes in, and….well, you’re not exactly Richard-Simmons-level feeling it or Jillian-Michaels-level crushing it.

It’s not too late, you think, to just get off the machine and pretend this never happened. Except, don’t. Just keep doing it, one minute at a time, one second at a time.

Unlike the all-or-nothing world of recovery from substance abuse, only partially meeting your ultimate goal by doing 30 minutes instead of 45 on the elliptical is still something to be celebrated, even if you’re moving so slowly that you crack yourself up (hey, laughter burns calories, too).

It’s important to stay in the moment, because thinking about the next machine, the next set of reps, how much weight you’re actually losing or inches you’re actually nipping from your waistline can feel daunting and even discouraging. Be where you are, listening to that song, reading that magazine, watching that show, and keep moving, one excruciatingly long second at a time.

Be accountable to someone.

There’s this new app I’ve been using called Vida Health that pairs me with a fitness and nutrition coach named Monica who operates very much like a gentle sponsor. She offers me suggestions, we check in by phone once a week, she checks my food log, and we text almost every day. I am comfortable being totally honest with her about what is realistic within my lifestyle and my schedule, and I’m honest about what I eat and when and how often I exercise, too. She cheers me on when I crush it and points out my smart choices instead of scolding me for my few indulgences, and she makes suggestions around effective alternative food and exercise choices that I couldn’t have thought up on my own.

I’ve been going to the gym since I was 16, but it wasn’t until I adopted this new “program” that I felt partially self-motivated, partially accountability-driven, to follow through on my long term commitment to exercise and eat better. There’s also no way I would have trudged to the gym in the snow after a blizzard in the freezing cold yesterday morning had I not told Monica that I was going to.

If you don’t have a “Monica,” find one in the form of a friend or a workout buddy. Be accountable to someone you feel comfortable checking in with. It also never hurts to make plans to go with a friend. You’re more likely to show up to a 12-step meeting if you’re meeting someone there, and you’ll be less likely to flake on a friend if you promise to be the other half of a united front at the gym.

Embrace the idea of progress, not perfection.

We tend to be our own worst critics, and, just like in sobriety, doing it perfectly isn’t only impossible, but the lines aren’t even clear enough to be able to determine what “perfect” is.

Sometimes we need reminding that we’ve made a ton of amazing progress and have done some really wonderful work. I know that during my first few years, I was pretty hard on myself, focusing on what was wrong and what I didn’t do rather than all of the things that were going right and reflecting on how far I’d come.

Success at anything we do for our health comes from a willingness to keep moving forward even if we do that after taking two steps back.

Fortunately, unlike drugs and alcohol, giving yourself permission to indulge in pizza or cake or non-dark chocolate a couple of times a week is nothing to feel guilty about, and probably won’t hurt you (unless you’re allergic to dairy, nuts, or gluten). It’s not a “relapse.”

Set realistic goals that are right-sized.

All change starts with baby steps. Committing to a healthy eating plan that’s also practical for your lifestyle is no different. Ditto for exercise.

I knew I was not going to get up at 5am and start jogging around the city, but I could start fitting in 15 minutes of targeted exercise at home twice a week and hit the gym three times, with a day or two “off.” That was doable, and has made a much bigger difference than not doing anything at all on the days I don’t go.

My middle ground on food was this: cut out gluten and carbs whenever possible, same for cake and cookies, and find alternatives that are not super boring.

Result: these banana, chocolate chip, oat and honey energy balls that I learned how to make from Pinterest.  If you would’ve told me six months ago I’d be able to satisfy my hunger and my sweet tooth with one of those bite-sized snacks the size of a golf ball, I would have laughed in your face. But here I am.


Images Courtesy of iStock

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