How to Stop Being a Couch Potato

I consider myself to be not a physically active person. In fact, most of my life I absolutely hated any kind of exercise. Yet, for about a year now I managed to entertain a minimal routine for my physical fitness and it is one of the best things I ever did for myself, and right now I am probably in the best shape I have ever been - I have more energy and just feel overall much better.

Good for you, but how do I even get started?

The biggest question that a rehabilitating couch potato, like me, could ask is - how to motivate yourself? How to get started, and how to actually stick with it? I don’t know if there is any general answer, as everyone is different. Yet, I can say what lines of thought worked for me. It boils down to be brutally honest with yourself and look the most likely consequences of not doing anything for your body.

Pain and risk Avoidance - short and long Term

Do you have back pains? I certainly did, since my mid twenties. I also had my first RSI episode when I was 16, and multiple followed over the years. Do you want these things to get better, or slowly continue getting worse, until they persistently damage you? Do you believe that doctors can fix whatever you do to yourself?

Observe your older relatives (or friends)

How do your (grand-)parents, uncles, aunts and older friends feel? Do they have problems with their physical health? How much of those problems are caused by an unhealthy life-style? Are they overweight? Do they have a bad posture? Observe very closely, because this is your future – demonstrating either a good or a rather bad scenario you might be moving towards.

While I do feel sorry for certain family members, in a sense I can be thankful to have anti-role-models to learn about various consequences of bad lifestyle choices and essentially self-inflicted suffering. Probably you have these examples around you too.

Imagine Yourself Being Old

We like to forget and push away the fact that also our own body is slowly decaying. The unforgiving process of aging corrodes us from the inside, so slowly we usually do not notice until it is too late. Do you want to accelerate the decay, or stop it? What kind of retirement do you want? Being immobile in front of a TV or computer screen, possibly in a wheelchair? Or still able to travel around the world? Do you want to steal life years and quality from your future self, is your current lifestyle really worth it? Don’t you know that surgeries become more and more dangerous the older you get? Not only you could simply not survive the surgery itself, you could also get some antibiotic-resistent bacteria for free. Does this sound like fun you want to have in a few decades?

Fine, but what am I supposed to do?

Now ideally, you visualized all the horror of being old and in a bad shape, and now the next question is - what exactly should you do? I tend to become over-excited or over-motivated, set bars that are too high, grow frustrated and eventually give up. This is probably the biggest danger that must be avoided. So my answer to the question “how much?” is: do as much as you can imagine doing for the rest of your life.

Yes, the rest of your life. Because once you stop, all progress you possibly made will go away. You can save up money for retirement, but you can’t do that with your health. Unused muscle will be absorbed back by your body, because your body is efficient and wants to save energy. Even worse – damage to joints and bone can be permanent, and recovering all that is increasingly difficult or impossible as you age. So the best option is to achieve a good and sustainable level of physical health, and continuously maintain it.

Treat daily exercise like brushing your teeth

As a child, you quickly learned that dentist appointments are usually quite unpleasant. You probably also eventually learned that brushing and flossing your teeth every day can make the unavoidable dentist appointment much more bearable, while not doing it can turn the same appointment into a dreadful experience.

Now my insight was that physical fitness works exactly the same way! Only the time horizon on which all of that plays out is different, and most people are bad at managing long-term consequences. While you can neglect your body for 50 years and will only have to pay for it afterwards, you will probably lose all your teeth much quicker, if you do not take care of them. But in both cases, all that is required is just a few minutes each day!

My daily routine is 3-10 minutes, every day (except for the occasional “lazy day”). What I do in these few minutes consists of the following building blocks:

  • “plank” for 3 minutes (for the abs)
  • “superman” for 3 minutes (for the back)
  • 10 push-ups (for the arms)
  • stretching (shoulders, back, legs and hands)

I don’t do all of these items every time, and the time(s) I manage to hold/repeat an exercise varies. The most important thing is to actually do a little bit, every day. Note that the stretching is also quite important in order to avoid the build-up of painful tensions.

Find a kind of sports you do not hate

I have been dancing latin my whole youth, but I stopped during my time in university. Now I do it again for over a year, once or twice a week, for around 2 hours, and actually think that I got better than I ever was - because I actually started treating it as a kind of physical exercise. I can only recommend (competitive) dancing - it is cardio and a full-body workout at the same time. If you do not sweat or feel exhausted afterwards, you are doing it wrong.

I think there is no more fun way to get absolutely exhausted than beautifully moving your body to music. But everyone must find what works for them. Maybe you can get excited about running, or Capoeira. It might help to choose some activity where you depend on other people and they depend on you. It is easy to sign up for a gym and never go there, because there are no consequences. Having a partner or team can help to overcome the hurdle. Whatever you do, you should be doing it a few hours a week and it should be somewhat physically exhausting in order to be effective.

Work on your posture

Most people have a bad posture, often this comes from sitting in chairs front of screens for half of their day. It not only “looks bad”, it also results in under- and over-developed back and shoulder muscles, causing back pain, and possibly even headaches and migraines.

Luckily, it is not hard to improve your posture once you set it as a goal. It is all about being mindful of the way you sit, stand and walk. Do some research how the ideal posture looks like (I am not a fitness instructor and should not try to explain it), and regularly look in the mirror to calibrate.

In the beginning, the healthy and natural posture will feel uncomfortable and exhausting, as your body is “adapted” to the bad posture. What is actually neutral-looking will feel like “too much”, because certain muscles are too short or too weak.

Be prepared that this process takes months, and that you will feel tense and strange for a while, but over time it will start to become more and more natural and effortless to maintain the correct posture.

Last Remarks

The three interventions (daily exercise, weekly sports, good posture) are meant to be combined, no activity can replace the others. I have been dancing for a long time, but once I added my core-strength focused daily exercises, I noticed how my movement quality dramatically improved, due to the additional core strength. Conversely, I notice that without the weekly dancing (e.g. after being on vacation) my stamina is immediately reduced. The longer movement sessions also help to burn some calories and prevent gaining weight. Finally, fixing your posture might seem like the most optional suggestion, but only once I started doing that is when my regular back pains simply stopped.

It all sounds like a lot, but actually most of it are minor interventions - the daily exercise and posture correction don’t take much time, and luckily, improvements can be seen rather quickly once you seriously start. So good luck on your own path to more physical fitness and health!