Staying in Shape While Living Tiny
What if I told you there was a pill you could take that would make you healthier, improve your mood, and make you live longer? It makes your clothes fit better, makes you physically and mentally stronger, and more physically attractive. Improves your posture, fixes your back pain, lowers your blood pressure. It makes you more confident and gives you a more positive outlook on your life. It's a little painful at first, but after a while it starts feeling good, and you only need to take it three times a week.
Here's the catch: It costs a tenth of your income.
Would you pay that much for my miracle pill?
A good exercise program doesn't need to cost a tenth of your money, but if you're working a 40 hour week, a tenth of your working time is about right. It's well worth the investment. Four hours a week, spaced over two or three days, is all you need to make a huge difference in your life. Regular exercise won't just make you physically stronger and healthier, but it'll boost your confidence and improve your mood.
Forming an Exercise Habit
I know, it's hard to get into an exercise routine. I struggle with forming new habits or breaking old ones. I'll do fine for a few days, but then I slip up, and since I'm off the wagon, I'll just continue staying off the wagon. "Well, I didn't go to the gym today," I'd say, "I might as well stop going forever." "Sound logical to me," my brain would tell me, and off to the couch I'd go, wondering why my mood was so lousy.
The trick with making or breaking a routine is to find a way to structure your life around it, and then forgive yourself when you slip up so you can dive right back in to your new routine.
Exercise became easy once I fit the gym into my routine. I had an office job in Northern Virginia, in the middle of some of the worst traffic in the USA. The commute home was awful. I found a gym on the way home, about 5 minutes away from my office. I'd go there and work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after work. By the time I was finished, the traffic cleared enough that my 2 hour rush hour commute became a 1 hour drive. I spent an hour and a half in the gym, but really only lost a half hour from my life. And if I ever decided not to go, I'd regret it the entire long ride home.
Once we started the nomadic phase of our life, it got harder to maintain a routine. But not impossible. My regular work requires a little less than full time, so I work long days Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I go to the gym Tuesday and Thursday late morning before work, and Saturday if I feel up to it. Going to the gym before work helps psychologically because I know I need to work in the afternoon, so I have to go to the gym first so that I can start work.
Everyone's routine is different, so the specific solutions I used won't necessarily work for you. You'll need to examine your own routine and find where exercise fits best. If you find yourself skipping the gym frequently, ask yourself why it isn't fitting into your routine. Could you try a different location or a different time of day?
You only need to go two or three times a week to make a huge difference in your mood and your overall health. You deserve to take time for self-care. If you need some inspiration, I highly recommend checking out the zenhabits.net archives.
A Gym for Nomads
Finding a gym can be a challenge if you're always on the move, but there are a few national chains that allow you to go to any gym in the country. When I had an office job, my Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance gave me access a fitness program that gives you access to all sorts of gyms all across the country for $29/month with no annual contracts. Check your health insurance, because if they have a fitness program like BCBS, it's the best program out there.
There were tons of different gyms available with our BCBS program, but we almost always ended up going to an Anytime Fitness. There are Anytime Fitness facilities in most major cities, and in a lot of places that are neither major nor cities. While farm-sitting in the middle of nowhere Kentucky, there were two Anytime Fitness gyms within a 15 minute drive. The facilities are mostly small, reasonably equipped, clean, and have all the items I care about: squat racks, free weights, and ellipticals. They're not always staffed, but your key fob will open the door to all of them, nationwide. When the fitness program finally caught on that we didn't have BCBS health insurance anymore (about a year after I left my job), we went ahead and signed up for Anytime Fitness directly.
A gym is not the only way to get exercise done, but I find that it's helpful to go somewhere that the only thing to do is exercise. And gyms have other perks like free wifi to download a few days' worth of Netflix shows, and showers with unlimited hot water. A gym membership is cheap if you use it, expensive if you don't.
If you miss a day, don't feel guilty. Allow yourself to be human. Just go on your next scheduled gym day.
What to Do at the Gym
Once you get to the gym, you'll need to find what sort of routine works for you. Any physical activity will elevate your mood and give you a feeling of accomplishment. Most people head for the aerobic equipment. Some people try the resistance training machines. Those are all fine choices if they work for you (except for the seated leg extension, which is not fine, and ought to be illegal) but I encourage you to give the squat rack a try. Read Starting Strength and try Stronglifts 5x5 for a month. There is no substitute for giving your muscles opportunities to lift heavy things. You'll see visible changes in your body and feel a big improvement in your mood within weeks.
You are going to be sore the next day. You're going to wonder why anyone does this if it hurts so much. I'll tell you a secret: it's temporary. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) happens whenever you make your muscles do something they're not used to. Expect to be sore the day after exercise for the first two weeks, then it'll stop happening. I promise, you only have to deal with serious DOMS five or six times, and then you're done. If you add something new to your routine, or if you miss a week's worth of gym days, you might get some mild soreness, but as long as you keep exercising, it'll never be that bad again.
I don't recommend going out and buying a bunch of stuff to start your new exercise routine. It's all too easy to go out and buy a bunch of new workout clothes, and ride that sense of accomplishment all the way to the couch. Start with what you have, and add new items as you need them.
A couple of items to pack to the gym are a water bottle, a small towel for sweat while you work out, shower shoes (flip flops), a bath towel, soap, and a change of clothes. Headphones are nice to help keep you motivated and focused, or just to catch up on your podcasts. Most gyms have free wifi, so you can usually safely stream music there without eating up your data.
There are lots of different athletic shoes you can buy, but you probably already have a decent pair. Running shoes are great for starters, especially for cardio, but shoes with a flat, thin sole like Chucks are better for most weightlifting. I wear my Altra trail running shoes to the gym and use them on the cardio machines, and I do all of my Olympic lifts in my socks. Any marginally athletic shoe is fine to start.
The one item I do recommend buying as soon as you start a new gym routine is a copy of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. Starting Strength is the ultimate beginner's weight lifting bible, and it will get you started down the right track. I also recommend using Stronglifts 5x5 as your starting program.
If your gym doesn't have them, fractional plates and bumper plates are a huge help for smaller starting lifters. Usually the smallest weight that fits on the Olympic bar is 2.5 lbs, which can be too big of a jump, especially when you're just starting. Fractional plates fit on the Olympic bar, but add as little as 1/4 pound, so you can make smaller steps up. Bumper plates allow you to deadlift or row less than 135 lbs without having to build a platform for the bar. Any well-equipped gym should have a set of fractional plates and bumper plates available, but many don't. See if you can get the gym to buy a set for everyone to use, but if not, it's worth picking up on your own.
Your gym will probably provide yoga mats, but you'll probably want to purchase your own at some point. I like this compact muscle roller set for self-massage in the gym and at home. As you progress, you'll probably also want to purchase a good lifting belt and some straps.
In-Home Fitness Programs
A gym membership is good for a nomadic lifestyle for lots of reasons, but it's not the only way to have an exercise program. Popular video programs like Beachbody's P90x and Insanity can be done in some small spaces. Beachbody's programs are expensive for DVDs, but cheap for exercise programs. Keep in mind that the people in those videos didn't get in the shape they are by doing that program. Using a video program that is too intense runs the risk of going too hard and burning out within a few weeks. Go ahead and try workout videos if you want, but if you burn out and quit, find something else that works better for you.
Another popular type of video guided exercise is yoga. Yoga practice can be much more than a physical fitness program, but the components of Yoga that represent popular Western Yoga practice can be a fantastic fitness program. Stretching, balance, and isometric exercise can do wonders for your physical and mental condition.
Running can also be a good option for an exercise program with low barriers to entry. Just remember to pace yourself when starting out, and stick with it. Couch to 5k is a good resource for beginning runners.
Diet is one of the most important factors in how much you get out of exercise. But most people have an odd relationship with their diet.
The first thing to understand about diet is that we are all on a diet. Some of us are on kale and tofu diets. Some of us are on cheeseburger and milkshake diets. Whatever you eat, that's your diet. Sticking to a diet is not about starving yourself—it's about having a realistic and healthy nutrition plan and following it most of the time.
When you start an exercise routine, it's critical that you are eating the right foods. If you want to build new muscle you should try to consume about 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Track your protein with MyFitnessPal. It's harder to get that much protein than you think.
One popular body building trick is to add a gallon of milk per day to your diet. That could be excessive for people who aren't trying to be bodybuilders, but the principal is helpful. I drink 1/2 gallon of milk after each of my workouts as a meal replacement—that's 64 grams of protein right there. If you're trying to drink a bunch of milk, remember to pace yourself. It's nutrition, not The Gallon Challenge.
You can also replace your breakfast with a shake. A sneaky way to add extra protein to a shake is to substitute some of the liquid for pasteurized egg whites. I know, it sounds gross, but pasteurized egg whites are technically cooked, and they tend to blend into the background of any shake, adding no detectable taste. And a cup of egg whites has 26 grams of protein. My super protein shake recipe is 8oz milk, 8oz egg whites, a serving of chocolate protein powder, and a tablespoon of peanut butter. 68 grams of protein.
If your diet leaves you hungry, you're doing something wrong. If you want to adjust your weight, you can do that without starving or stuffing yourself. You just need to learn about the foods you're eating, and swap out the problem foods for better choices. This is where a calorie tracking tool like MyFitnessPal is indispensable. For the first week, don't make any changes to your diet, just track everything you eat. After a week, you should start noticing patterns, which will help you make thoughtful changes.