Since I started to bike to work, I’ve run across some characters. The grinning professional cyclist. The intense young woman jogging with her dog. The puffing overweight guy on his bike who moved with incredible speed. The crew-cut older man who looks like a marine recruiting poster. In two months, I’ve seen these people on my six am return home. Sometimes once, but usually two or three times…and never again. Six in the morning is a brutal time to get up an exercise. That’s not why I never see them again, though. They are all repeating a pattern that I’ve seen again and again, and done myself.

When we decide to get in shape, it’s with full confidence that this time is the time. No excuses, no mistakes! No cheating, no holding back. We know the only difference between us and the people we envy is commitment. We’re gonna do it this time! Discipline is the key. Gonna get up early, and go for a jog. Or hit the gym. And we do. And it feels great. We feel good about what we did. So we do it again. And maybe one more time. And then something happens. We get sick. We work late and need some rest, just one day. Shoelace broke. It’s only one day, we’ll pick it up again the next day…and then six weeks later you are too embarrassed to start again, too ashamed of yourself and your failure, so instead you angrily eat more ice cream and tell yourself tomorrow you’ll start fresh, this time will be different.

Why do we stop? Lots of reasons, but the biggest one I see? We try to do to much at once. When I get new students in a martial arts class, I always tell them to take it easy the first few classes. I tell them not to try and keep up with other students. No one ever listens. They push as hard as they can…and nearly drop dead twenty minutes later, unable to finish the class. They don’t come back. It happens in the gym too. You tell someone to take it easy on the weights, and they try to go to the limit. They push for failure on the first day, and the pain just kills them the next morning. They need to skip a workout or two to recover…and never come back.

We always feel like we need to punish ourselves with a workout in order to get a benefit. Without serious discomfort, we don’t feel like we are being virtuous. It has to hurt or we aren’t trying hard enough! No pain no gain! Let’s work out for real this time!

There is absolutely no reason working out has to be any kind of punishment. It shouldn’t be, ever. Especially if you are trying to get fit. If you haven’t worked out for a long time, any kind of movement is a benefit. Build up a habit of easy activity first, preferably fun activity. Even easy activity boosts your capacity. Take it easy on yourself and have fun. Progressive overload is a sound principle in exercise, but that doesn’t mean kill yourself everytime you workout.

If the last 10 years has seen you mostly sitting at a desk, behind a wheel, and then on the couch, progressive overload is a leisure walk. Or maybe some light weights. A little running back and forth. Give it a few weeks, and then pick the tempo up. Build a capacity for intensity slowly, and it will last longer and give you more benefits in the long run. I like to tell my clients that the end of a workout should leave you feeling like you could have done a little more. You should always have that desire to do a little more, and be eager to come back and do more. The eagerness is what transforms brutal, challenging workouts from punishment to reward. You have to earn that eagerness with a little patience at the beginning.