Can I just say, I absolutely love Mexico? The November before last, following two long years of the pandemic, I saved hard to take an all-inclusive trip to Riviera Maya – and ate nachos with every single meal. Including breakfast (especially with breakfast, actually). My usual biweekly workout became a distant memory and I focussed on nothing but having fun. But when it came to sharing photos on Instagram, my thumb hovered over the ‘post’ button for hours.
It's embarrassing to admit, but I sent friends ‘candid’ bikini photos and asked them to ‘be honest, and tell me… do I look awful? Should I be putting this on the internet?’ and by the end of the ten days, I felt semi-unable to revel in the joy I had just experienced. Instead, I was consumed by guilt at my overindulgence, and the sluggish, bloated feeling it had left me with. Next, came plenty more of the same over the festive period (where beige food reigns supreme and spin classes get binned off in favour of the snooze button) and by January, I just felt... blergh. All round.
So, when the moment to make New Year's resolutions arose, not only was I itching for change, but I wanted to do so in a dramatic fashion (which tbh is very on brand: I once quit drinking for a year and found it did me the world of good, so figured why not try to re-write some fitness habits too?). I decided to reboot my body and brain, and relationship to exercise, by working out every single day for a month. As well as doing my usual gym and yoga sessions, I thought outside the box and experimented with new classes (boxing, trying different spin studios, dancing), took long walks until I hit 10,000 steps, and even invested in a mini trampoline to bounce on in front of the TV.
Here's what I learned when I worked out (near enough) every single day for a month...
I learned how to freestyle my workouts
Exercising every day for a month forced me to get creative and build on my base level knowledge of both yoga and strength training. I’m incredibly lucky that I’m currently able to afford a personal trainer, something I decided was a worthwhile investment at the age of 29, after years of walking into the gym, panicking and resigning myself to a 45-minute treadmill run (literally every time). I wouldn’t dare pick up a weight. It was that, or one of my beloved HIIT, spin or yoga classes... never a solo gym sesh, where I decided what routine I'd be doing.
Having worked with a PT, I’m now confident enough to create my own little circuits when I go to the gym – and the satisfaction that comes with designing and executing your own workout is unparalleled. Money aside, after watching a tonne of free ‘Yoga with Adriene’ (if you know, you know) YouTube videos - and attending in-person classes when funds permit - I’m now also able to make up my own little vinyasa routines too. It’s so nice to be able to do that when winding down for bed, without having to stare at a screen for instruction. It’s well worth making the time to learn the basics, either via YouTube or social media vids, or IRL, even if just for a couple of weeks.
I thought more about *why* I exercise
Exercise should never be viewed solely as a calorie destroying operation – something I’ve been guilty of in the past. I’m low-key obsessed with my Fitbit and love intense bootcamp-style classes, especially those where you can see how you compare to the others on a leadership board. But, over the month of my challenge, I began to think more about why I work out. There was no way I would be able to complete in a hardcore HIIT session every day, so I was pushed into going a bit slower (more on this later).
I also began to realise that while working out with military-adrenaline bursts is super fun, choose when you do so wisely – as those classes can risk taking the focus away from what feels right for you and see you fall into the trap of comparing yourself to your peers. Not ideal if your self-esteem is already on the rocks. “The nature of this style of class can have a downside,” Nicole Chapman, a personal trainer, confirms. “Some say the dangers are overtraining or that you could be taking shortcuts in your form (in pursuit of your max heart rate or calories burned). That could effectively sabotage your workout. Exercise should be about improving both physical and mental wellbeing.”
I re-defined 'exercise' to simply mean 'movement'
There were a few days that I berated myself for not having done ‘enough’… even when I’d gone on a 10,000 step walk around a local beach. Likewise, opting to do gentle yoga before bed left me feeling like I’d cheated the challenge, or been ‘lazy’. But, in reality, the yoga helped me to sleep a lot better, and walking is a brilliant, just gentler, way of getting a cardio boost in - plus, it can be combined with catching up with a mate over coffee. I also discovered the utter joy of bouncing away on a mini trampoline whilst watching your favourite music videos (which really makes the time fly by). Tick, tick, tick on the serotonin levels front.
Looking back, I think this realisation was my biggest take-home from the challenge – exercise doesn't always have to mean sweating so much it stings your eyes. It can also be gentle. It doesn't have to be calorie-focussed to be beneficial. Even just having a quick dance for ten minutes in the morning counts and will get your endorphins flowing.
I now love a 15-minute workout
As I moved away from the idea of what a workout should look like and began to concentrate more on what my body was actually craving, I also realised I could use little pockets of time as and when I felt like it. A workout needn’t require schlepping to the gym for an hour (two hours, actually, if you count travel and shower time). There are so many brilliant ‘quick blast’ workouts out there to try for free, thanks to YouTube and studios (like FlyLDN or FRAME) posting ‘taster’ routines on their social channels or websites.
I spent time getting in tune with my body
It’s said a lot, the old ‘listen to your body’ adage. But, how exactly do you do that? After all, sometimes it’s good to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and work our way through any feeling of general unease. And if I listened to my body every time it told me I wanted a nap… I’d basically become unemployed. I struggled with this during the challenge, how could I know the difference between my body sending me a warning signal, and my natural desire to avoid the workout (that I know I’d enjoy once I actually got there?).
Nicole says an example of something to definitely listen to would be: “in high intensity training, or cardiovascular training, do you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or sick?” she says. “Post-workout warning signs are just as important too; muscle soreness is normal up to 48 hours post training. However if this soreness exceeds that window, you could have an overuse injury and I would recommend rest initially and if it persists, being properly assessed by a physiotherapist. And never work through joint pain – the term “no pain, no gain” does not extend to your joints!”
I realised rest days aren't a sign of failure
Whilst I gave it a darn good go, I must confess: I didn’t end up completing a full 31 days of fitness – I took three ‘rest’ days in total, either because I was exhausted from work, wanted to curl up in a ball due to period pains, or my social plans ran over (let’s be real, I’m not going to ditch a family dinner early to go for a run). “Doing high intensity workouts every day leaves the body with higher levels of cortisol due to the physical stress on the body,” Nicola says. “This can lead to negative symptoms effecting your everyday life such as fatigue, lack of motivation, poorer sleep, mental and physical burnout including changes in mood and increased anxiety,” she explains, adding that recovery days aren’t just about your muscles.
“Your central nervous system (the hub of your body) may not have fully recovered, which could also impact your immune system.” This became clear within my challenge as I quickly realised the idea of exercising every single day is a sure-fire way to make your body feel worse, not better. A day off is not a failure. Health is holistic; it all matters.
I set both big and little targets
Long-term ones might include training for a marathon or reaching a certain belt in karate in six months time – and while these are important to have, we also need to be feeling that sense of achievement more regularly. Enter: short-term goals, such as perfecting a certain pose in yoga, or finally knuckling down and spending twenty minutes figuring out how to do a plank perfectly, without your bum rising too far in the air.
After committing to mastering the ‘crow’ pose in a fortnight, I felt such a sense of achievement after having gained a new skill – which is the best form of motivation going. But make sure you also set targets around moving your body in a way that brings you joy mentally, as well as physically, like walking round an unexplored part of your city, or dancing to your favourite playlist.
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