When she lived in Los Angeles, Kat Carney was in the best shape of her life. By blending aerobic workouts, spinning, and weight training, she managed to shed 90 pounds over the course of a few years. “I was a pretty fit chick,” says Carney, who was working as a television host at the time.
Then, three years ago, Carney got her dream job—and her fitness nightmare began. Carney, now 35, moved to Atlanta to work as a medical reporter for CNN Headline News. There, she had to be at work by 3 a.m., immersing herself in her job. Most days, she felt too spent to work out and struggled to find the motivation to get to the gym. Soon, she had all but abandoned exercise and put on “a significant amount of weight,” she recalls.
Carney—who ultimately discovered a way to work herself back into shape—is far from alone. Whether it is a new job, a fresh marriage, a major home renovation, a nasty divorce, or the dramatic changes that come with a baby, life can sideline the most dedicated athlete.
Yet fitness experts argue that exercise doesn’t have to be the victim of a life change. The secret is crafting a strategy for keeping fit, no matter what life throws your way. Here are five tips to keep you on the fitness track.
Tip 1: Just do … something
Most life changes—either good or bad—devour your time. But fitness pros say clinging to a remnant of an exercise routine is better than nothing, even for those who are severely time-crunched. That something-is-better-than-nothing philosophy was recently reinforced by a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that found a single workout can improve heart health for at least a day (2004, vol. 36, no. 7). And working out at least one day a week can ward off the negative psychological ramifications of abandoning exercise entirely.
“When you let go of everything, that’s when it really hurts,” says Victoria Moran, a New York–based wellness expert who has authored ten books, including Fit from Within (McGraw Hill/Contemporary, 2003). “This is an all-or-nothing culture. We’re either working out every day or we’re sitting on the couch. But if you want to be fit over the long haul, you have to be flexible.” For Moran, that means cutting the length of her exercise routine in half during busy times or going to the gym only three days a week instead of six until life shifts back to a normal routine.
Tip 2: Match the workout to the change
One way to make exercise more palatable during a chaotic or stressful time is to use it as a tool for coping with the change. Debbie Mandel, New York fitness expert and author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul (Busy Bee Group, 2003) suggests tailoring workouts specific to the change you’re facing.
Women who are going through a divorce might try martial arts or tai chi to gain a sense of empowerment and clearer focus, suggests Mandel. For those adjusting to married life, partnered workouts can foster closeness, and “working out together raises libido and gives you more stamina in the bedroom,” she says.
Starting a new job? Mandel recommends strength training as a way to develop a strong sense of confidence going into the new position. “The mind and body are connected,” Mandel says. “Strength training can be particularly effective when you are going through a stressful change. If you feel stronger physically, that can definitely translate to feeling empowered to deal with other aspects of your life.”
Tip 3: Enlist others for motivation
The major changes kept coming for Diane Danielson of Brookline, Massachusetts. Over the course of one year, Danielson, 37, got pregnant, divorced, had the baby, switched jobs, and moved twice. During all the changes, traumas, and stress, she had one constant: her soccer team. Being part of a team was a commitment that motivated her to make game days no matter what—and to stay in decent shape on her own.
“I specifically remember waking up one Sunday morning and wanting to pull the sheets over my head and not ever get out of bed again,” says Danielson, executive director of the Downtown Women’s Club in various locations on the East Coast. “But I had a soccer game, and I knew if I didn’t show up, at least five of my teammates would have shown up at my door and dragged me out of bed.”
You don’t need a whole team to help you stay motivated. Often just having a workout partner is enough to get you out of bed early instead of hitting the snooze alarm. And if you can’t find someone to work out with, at least take the step to make “an appointment with yourself,” says Mare Petras, a personal trainer in Sarasota, Florida, and author of Fitness Simply (Micropress, 2004). That helps reinforce the need to fit exercise into your schedule.
Tip 4: Work out during day-to-day task
s If formal exercise simply won’t fit into your life during a time of change, turn some aspect of your day into exercise. By ratcheting up the tempo or altering some routine activities, you can reap the benefits of working out, says Petras. You’ll also maintain a level of fitness that will ease the transition when your life settles down enough to allow a return to the gym.
“If you can find the time to brush your teeth, you’ve just created space for a miniworkout,” says Petras. For example, after washing your face in the morning, Petras recommends holding a hand towel between both hands and using it to do a quick series of shoulder and back stretching exercises. Housework can be done at an accelerated pace, with vacuuming becoming a lunging workout. Park as far away as possible from work, the store, or school, and walk briskly to your destination. “Pump your arms, squeeze your buttocks, and roll through your whole foot all the way to the front door,” Petras says. “That counts as an increment of your daily total of aerobic exercise.”
Tip 5: Abandon your exercise prejudices
Former CNN reporter Carney’s return to fitness started by rethinking what she considered a decent workout. Carney admits that she had become a bit spoiled by Los Angeles’ state-of-the-art gyms and California’s fitness-minded culture.
One day, after glancing at a full-length mirror, she decided she had to do something. The solution was in her apartment. Because Carney hosted a weekly segment called “Fitness Friday with Kat Carney,” she had built up a nice collection of exercise videos. She popped one into the VCR, and before long she was hooked. Her workouts weren’t in a trendy gym, but at least she was moving again. Soon she was exercising twice daily, squeezing in 10- to 20-minute workouts doing everything from Pilates and Tae Bo to hip-hop dancing and, yes, Richard Simmons’ Tone Up on Broadway.
“Before, you couldn’t have paid me to work out to a video—I thought they were for couch potatoes too embarrassed to go to the gym,” Carney says. “Now, if my place were on fire, the first thing I’d grab would be the videos.”
The lasting lesson? Carney says that you have to adjust your exercise—and expectations—to fit your current lifestyle. Today, she’s lean, in great shape, and convinced that no matter what life offers her, she’ll sweat her way through it. “Unless I end up on a desert island with no electricity, I’ll stick with it,” Carney says. “To me, working out to my videos is like my playtime. I look forward to it every day.”
Scott Westcott is a freelance writer living in Erie, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two young children.