Starting out…..

I wonder how many people make a new year’s resolution to ‘get fit’, ‘go on a diet’ and/or ‘lose weight’ as a goal for their new year – equally i wonder how many of those people actually have a viable plan, go for it and stick with it. Personally i think that the new year is the hardest time to start out on a personal journey towards better health/lower weight and increased fitness ; in this short post i want to explain why and instead why it might be better to wait a few weeks and start in the early springin real terms that’s right now.

Lets say that like many people you’ve completely overdone it at , firstly Christmas, and then over the new year – with an excess of calorie dense food ‘treats’ that are also staggeringly high in sugar, then , almost as an afterthought you decide to make up for it and try to repair the damage by maybe joining a gym , starting out with a running programme and/or going on some kind of restrictive diet.

Ten years ago it just so happened that i had to join a ‘posh’ gym just before Christmas when i had a spontaneous gastroc muscle tear while out on a winter hike – the upmarket gym cum racquet club being the only place that had a pair of swimming pools and a gym that would be open right through the holiday period. The truth is that the best advice i could get was from the locum doctor who was standing in for my GP and him being the recently retired medical officer for the Royal Marines he did rather know what he was talking about…..gastroc tears being apparently common among young RM recruits in winter.

I usually went to the gym/swimming pool mid morning so it was often dead quiet – a couple of times i got changed and hobbled through to the pool on my crutches and there was nobody in the inside pool and both times one of the pool lifeguards offered to put me in the pool with their hoist which i thought was kind of them and it gave me the chance to explain what i needed to do , basically to walk around in as deep water as i could and also to ask if it was always this quiet. Well, the explanation that this time of year and that time of day made for a mostly empty pool and a deserted gym but that later in the day many members would stop by for a swim on their way home and then in the evening it would be the various indoor courts that would be in use….she said though that it would completely change in a couple of weeks time when many new members would join.

She was right – what i saw many times upstairs in the gym was new members getting a tour of the gym by one of the instructors ; my ‘place of work’ being the mats right by their office and having spoken with several of them and explained what i was trying to do they were also good with advice and rehab ideas. After a month of just rehab work i started to add in harder work on the static weights machines and ultimately took a course of instruction and coaching in free weights – i became an instant addict for training with weights because of the way my rehab programme workd and to be honest i enjoyed the physical and mental challenge of learning an entirely new training skillset in my 50’s. That first year of my new gym life i didn’t notice how much quieter it was in the gym after just a few weeks.

One year later and i was still in the gym – it’s ok…….i did go home between sessions and i was back at work……so i was back in the gym one morning in January doing a hard , for me, free weights session that combined my best exercise , deadlift, alternating with my worst….the bench press. Because it was quiet in the gym i had one Olympic bar loaded for deadlift and a second one loaded on the rack over the bench. Concentrating on my deadlift form i didn’t notice that a new member had slipped onto the bench and had unracked the loaded bar , got it onto his chest but couldn’t then press a rep or get it back onto the rack ; he didn’t have a ‘spotter’ either – just his bemused looking wife who started to look alarmed and then tried to help him get the bar off of his chest. I had to quickly drop my deadlift bar and step over to matey now stuck underneath the bench press bar unable to get the weight off his chest ; i grabbed the bar and racked it, the next moment matey and his wife hightailed it out of the gym in their smart new gym clothes……i don’t know if they ever went back but i never saw them again.

At the end of my session i spoke with one of the gym instructors to let her know what had happened in case there was any comeback and got into conversation with her about new members , i remember being shocked when she said that many January beginners don’t last more than 6 weeks which i found surprising when many of them will have signed up for a year’s membership and gone out and bought often more than a hundred pounds worth of new kit.

That incident and then several others that the instructors told me about made me wonder if starting a fitness kick in the new year on the back of a new year’s resolution was such a good idea and especially so when the new members really don’t have a clue about what to do in the gym – even how to be basically ‘safe’ in a gym and not injure themselves. Now for sure that kind of thing could be true for a newbie starting in the gym at any time of year although the instructors i spoke to said that incidents like the one i’d seen were a lot more common with new year’s starters – one feature they mentioned was how few of them took were prepared to take advice and instruction.

But anyway….back to the start and why i think the middle of winter is a hard time to start a fitness or diet kick.

Firstly then, if your intended route to fitness is via the gym , which seems to be the normal or conventional approach, and lets say that you’re a beginner then you’re going to enter a busy environment and i would suggest that you are less likely to get the attention that you really need ; one quick round of introduction to be shown how maybe a dozen or more stations work and then you’re on your own.

Secondly that i honestly believe that many people suffer some kind of physical and mental slump that hits it’s depth some time from mid January through mid February – in my case i know i’m prone to ‘SAD’ (seasonal affective disorder) and the last place that i want to be is in a big commercial gym with what passes for music blasting over a PA system. I for one quite like the peace and quiet of winter woodland but outdoors exercise can be a real problem in winter for those that chose that route ; short , wet and cold days followed by long nights aren’t the best or easiest time, or the safest either to be out pounding the lanes and roads on a run. For many people that work and who have maybe had a dispiriting and exhausting day at work it’s then super hard to change into training kit and get out there, in the dark and maybe rain to do their run. For me last winter seemed particularly hard simply because it was so wet for so long – all of my walking clothes and particularly my boots seemed to be wet all the time ; i forced myself out there most days but many of those days just felt like a tedious grind and to be honest i hated it.

Thirdly there is what i would now describe as an attention problem coupled with a cost/benefit problem : what i mean by that is that training, particularly anything involving free weights, needs close focus and attention and that alone is something that we seem to be losing more and more of – even the noisy gym environment can work against us. The cost/benefit side is that real meaningful training is bloody hard work if done properly and yet the benefits just don’t start to appear straight away – for many all there is after a few sessions in the gym is muscle soreness and no sense of progress. In a way hard training is a kind of sacrifice of personal time that doesn’t give an instant reward unlike say the almost continuous Dopamine hits that many seek via their incessant use of social media.

Lastly……that i think that the new year’s enthusiasm isn’t enough – it might get you to the gym and/or onto a diet but the job needs something other than a brief burst of hopeful enthusiasm that gets so easily buried by the winter slump and the comforts of home. In a way i think that starting out in fitness is more like starting a job that you don’t know how to do but that you do have to at least turn up and do several times a week even when you don’t feel like it ; to me that needs something else, discipline perhaps and a solid , viable SMART plan and maybe also we need to give ourselves a slightly easier time of it – personally i think that leaving it a few weeks, maybe having a period of rest in the winter is a good thing in itself , maybe a good time to think it all out and then hit the gym , or the road , as the days get longer in the spring.

1 Comment

  1. Wise words. Enjoyed that photo of your garden Steve and it reminded me of this:

    Tonight the wind gnaws
    With teeth of glass,
    The jackdaw shivers
    In caged branches of iron,
    The stars have talons.

    From “Christmas Landscape” by Laurie Lee

    Roll on the Spring!


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