Getting back in shape is a specific challenge that requires specific mindsets. Trust me, I’ve done it a bunch of times. Back in my twenties, I’d go hard for a year or two with something like boxing or jiu-jitsu, then be a bum for a year, then train for a half marathon or something. Lately, I’m in a much more steady, sustainable rhythm with my workouts. But back then I wanted to try a bunch of different stuff, and one thing that meant was getting back in shape—and getting in different kinds of shape—relatively often.
It’s been on my mind again recently because my older brother and I are planning to climb Mt. St. Helens this August. It’s not that tough of a climb, but it’s not that easy, either, and I’ve been in the process of helping my brother get back in shape so that the whole thing feels nice and easy. He’s a very physical guy. We both played football a couple of years apart in high school and he was an Ultimate Frisbee champ at University of Oregon. But he’s got four kids and manages a bar, so he hasn’t had much free time to stay in shape. The goal has been to aim for our climb about 9 months from now, knowing that we’ll have limited time and a couple of chaotic schedules to work around.
As we get started on our first short trail runs, I’ve been very aware that we’re in the most delicate part of getting back in shape: the beginning. This is where you can burn out by going too fast, fizzle out by going top slow, or stall out completely by just not going. It’s where you can overwhelm yourself with possibilities, discourage yourself with comparisons, or get shut down by other peoples’ negativity. It’s a minefield, strewn with the remains of countless false starts, negative self-images, excuses, broken promises, and unrealistic expectations. And this is why, if you want to traverse it without getting blown up, you need to treat it like the unique challenge it is and program your mindsets accordingly.
A lot of great fitness advice is about how to fly the plane once it’s up in the air. But first, you have to get the plane moving from a dead stop, accelerate down the tarmac without bumping into anyone, and make an ascent. That’s a different game. But if you take a little time to “download and install” the right mindsets into your mental software before getting started, it’ll be a lot easier, a lot more fun, and a lot more rewarding over a long period of time. You’ll have more confidence and the ability to embrace and achieve your fitness goals, whatever they may be. And ultimately, that will translate into more power and potency to fuel your achievement in all other areas of your life as well.
To make things a little more immediate for you, I’ve phrased the mindsets in the form of first-person statements. They’re what you’ll say to yourself. These aren’t just affirmations, though, and it’s not enough to simply repeat them to yourself. They have to take root, and you have to take action.
Mindset 1: What Type Of Person Are You?
“I’m the kind of person who can get back in shape.”
Note that I didn’t say, “I can get back in shape,” but, “I’m the kind of person who can get back in shape.” This nuance makes a big difference, and it taps into the foundation of everything: your self-image. All your specific, individual goals are anchored to and governed by your self-image—the fundamental set of ideas and emotions you have about yourself. If the goals don’t match the self-image, it won’t matter how hard you work or how much you focus. Your “master program” will be working against you, and will eventually sabotage your efforts.
Most people’s self-images are almost entirely unconscious and contaminated with all sorts of negative and unproductive elements—but they don’t have to be. You can consciously re-program and rearrange your self-image to support your goals, and that means eliminating any ideas you may have that go against them. For example, you may find yourself thinking something like, “I’m the kind of person who used to be in shape, and then got out of shape.” Once you identify in that way, it’s easy to focus on the “got out of shape” part, as though it somehow precludes getting back in shape now. But why not choose to focus on the “I used to be in shape” part? If you did it once, you can do it again.
That’s just one example, but the more you examine your old, crappy self-images, the more you’ll be able to examine and replace them. You can also boost your overall self-image by focusing on successes from other parts of your life, and apply them to your current goal of getting back in shape. Maybe you got out of shape because you were focusing on other, more important things (like my brother with his job and family), and maybe you have been successful with them. Hence, you’re the kind of person who succeeds; you just happen to not have made fitness a priority until now. See the difference?
No matter the state of your self-image, you have one, and it’s at the controls for most of your behavior. But if you consciously address it, and work on making it the most productive possible, then it’ll work for you rather than against you, both in your current goals, and all your other goals in life.
Mindset 2: How Do I See My Goals?
“I will be mindful of how I talk about my goals, both to myself and others.”
In these early stages, your intent for getting back in shape exists mostly in how you think and talk about it. So, naturally, how you choose to think and talk about it is deeply important. Your self-image and goals are new and vulnerable, like a newborn baby, and they can easily be infected with negativity. At this stage, every interaction you have with yourself and other people will help shape the intent and the likelihood that you’ll follow through.
The mindsets I’m giving you cover a lot of how you’ll talk to yourself about your goal of getting back in shape. But how you talk to others maybe even more important, since you have far less control over how they respond. Self-image is an intersubjective thing, meaning that it’s partially your creation, and partially the creation of the people around you. If other people, especially the people close to you, see you as the kind of person who cannot get back in shape, then you have a much more uphill battle. For them to see that you are that kind of person, they need to be shown.
I’m sure you surround yourself with the most wonderful people. But the fact is, some people will react negatively to your goals and try to discourage or sabotage your efforts, either directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Now’s not the time to go into the psychology of why that might be, but it’s a reality you’ll probably have to anticipate dealing with. You may say to a friend, or coworker, or significant other, “Hey, I’m thinking of getting back in shape,” and then they may say something snarky, or off-handed, or dismissive, and that can be enough to make the whole thing a much bigger challenge in your own mind. Or worse, they may give you unsolicited advice that starts to pile up and make the whole thing seem more complicated and overwhelming. You already have enough to work against within yourself. You don’t need to pile on other people’s resistances.
There’s a lot going on here, and people are complicated. They’re probably not trying to be negative, and their reaction probably doesn’t have anything to do with you. Still, you’re going to have to deal with it. Everyone’s situation is different, and the real key here is to just be mindful.
Don’t go blabbing to everyone you know, or put it all out there on social media. Keep a sealed container early on, and make it your own thing. After all, you’re doing this for you, right? There’s something extremely powerful and satisfying about having a private goal and simply doing it. Other people will see it when you’re doing it, and they’ll be much more impressed (and much less likely to discourage) when they realize you’re just doing it instead of just talking about it.
Mindset 3: A Self-Check On Accountability
“I will give myself the right kind of accountability to reinforce my goals from the outside.”
Being mindful about who you share your goals with also means being sure to actively share them with the right people and in the right way. You want to give yourself every possible advantage and set up your environment so that it supports your efforts, and that includes other people. You just have to choose carefully.
One way to do this is to find an accountability buddy—someone with the same or similar goals. Ideally, this will be someone you can actually go workout with. Having a set time with another person is an incredibly powerful type of accountability. For some reason, humans seem to be better at showing up for other people than we are at showing up for ourselves. You can leverage that tendency here: you’re not just helping yourself get back in shape; you’re helping someone else do it, too. And they’re helping you. You’ll also have the added dimension of encouragement, camaraderie, and fun (as long as you make sure this is someone you actually like). Sure, you may have to move the time or cancel every once in a while, and you don’t want to become too rigid or harsh with the whole thing. But this way you’ve made it into something solid and interpersonal, and it’ll feel much more real.
Another mode of accountability is making a specific goal, like a 5k, or a half marathon, or whatever it is you feel drawn to. The key here is to have something specific, at a specific time—even better, something you have to sign up and pay for. There’s something about that process that demonstrates a powerful intent and helps you show yourself that you mean business. I remember signing up for a half marathon when I first got into distance running. I made sure that I signed up for one that was far enough in the future that I’d have time to train properly and thoroughly. From there, I was able to work backward from the goal and keep myself on track, far more easily than if I had said to myself vaguely, “I want to start running more.”
My brother and I are combining these two types of accountability with our St. Helens climb: we’re working towards it together, and we have a specific window of time when we’ll be doing it. You can figure out what makes the most sense for you in terms of your specific goals. But the key is to solidify your intent by connecting your goals to the world—another person, a specific goal, or both.
Mindset 4: Acknowledge Your Wins
“I will just get started, and consider every step forward a win.”
Now that you’re pointed in the right direction with your intent, get a quick win. Don’t wait until the exact right moment to get the exact right first workout. Just break the seal. Do a few push-ups. Run around the block. Don’t be too precious about it, because the first goal is to go from holding totally still, to being in some sort of motion. Once you’re in motion, you can adjust. But the first step is to just charge through that membrane of resistance and get started. Then you will have officially moved from wanting to get back in shape to having started to get back in shape. It doesn’t have to be a huge start. It just needs to be a start.
From there, make sure to register every step forward as a win, no matter how small. Did you get outside and run at all? That’s a win. Did you eat or drink a little less the night before, anticipating the next day’s workout? That’s a win. A win is a win. Size does not matter. Especially because later, as you gain momentum, what seems like a big workout from your current perspective will feel easier than getting these early wins. Really absorbing each and every step forward will help shift the momentum of your self-image, too. You’re moving now, you started. You are the kind of person who can make a goal and stick to it. Now it’s just a matter of turning that dial-up.
Think about a plane on the tarmac, and how much energy it takes to get it from moving totally still to moving an inch. Gradually it’ll build momentum, and before long it’ll be soaring through the air. But goal number one—the pre-condition for the entire flight—is that first inch. Get it however you can. Don’t feel self-conscious about congratulating yourself on what might feel like a small workout. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, or even yourself back when you were in better shape. The better you let yourself feel about your last step forward, the more incentive you’ll have for getting the next one.
There’s another element to this, too, that I’ve seen in myself many times. When I’ve been out of shape for a while, my brain seems to actually forget all the workouts and mindsets I’ve learned in the past. It’s like when you’re healthy, you can’t remember what it feels like to have the flu, and when you have the flu, you can’t remember what it feels like to be healthy. But when I broke the seal and just got started with something, my brain and body would start to be flooded with memories. I’d remember all sorts of bodyweight exercises I used to do, sequences of exercises, techniques from boxing and jiu-jitsu, and even whole attitudes.
The point is until you get started, you’re not even playing with a full deck. Once you get moving, all your memories will kick in and help add juice to your overall plan for getting back in shape.
Mindset 5: Keep It Simple
“I’ll keep it simple and steady, and resist the urge to do too much.”
Once you’re in motion and feeling good about it, it’ll likely be tempting to start doing too much. You’re moving past the “false start” stage, but you still need to get past the “burnout” stage. The goal is to establish a steady rhythm over time that will give you a sustainable fitness regimen. There will come a time to up your dose, but the early stages are more about consistency. Right now you have that initial burst of motivation that comes from novelty and a fresh start. But you won’t have that in a few weeks from now. At that point, you’ll have to rely on momentum and the structures you’ve created for yourself with your rhythm and your mindsets.
The most basic thing here is to avoid overtraining. This may seem obvious, but the temptation to overtrain is often strong, even (or especially) among those who “know better.” If you end up hurting yourself or getting so sore you have to take time off early on, you’ll end up having to start all over again later. Worse, you’ll have to counteract any excitement and positive motivation you may have generated in order to get yourself to rest. Overtraining can take the form of simply doing too much, but it can also come from jumping to more advanced exercises before you’ve regained foundational strength and mobility. Whatever form of exercise you’re doing, make sure to retrain the fundamentals before going on to anything more advanced. This can be a little humbling if you used to be comfortable with more advanced exercises, but it’ll be absolutely critical to getting past this initial threshold as you guide yourself back into shape.
It’ll also be easy to get overwhelmed with all the possible directions you can take your workouts. There are countless avenues for getting back in shape. But at least at the beginning, the key is to stay simple. You don’t want to overwhelm your body with overtraining, but you also don’t want to overwhelm your brain with possibilities. Your life is probably already busy, and your workouts should be a sanctuary of simplicity. Don’t give yourself the chance of being overwhelmed, because part of you is probably looking for any kind of excuse to tell you, “This is too much, you don’t have time, put it off for some other day.” It’s a cliché that your brain is a cognitive miser, but it’s true, and you have to take that into account.
As you gain momentum, you can add novelty and mix it up so you don’t let your brain get bored. But right now your goal is to get that momentum in the first place, and the best way to do that is to keep it simple and make it easy for yourself to stay consistent without having to reinvent the wheel every time you plan a workout.
Mindset 6: Build Your Foundation
“I will dedicate time to training my mindset to build the foundations for my goals.”
This is the meta-mindset you need to make sure the other mindsets work. As I’m sure you know from experience, it’s a lot easier to know what to do than to do it. It’s not always easy to reprogram your mindset. Even if you look at these descriptions and say, “Yes, this makes sense,” that conceptual acceptance is not enough to translate into real reprogramming and real change. In all likelihood, you currently possess plenty of less-than-productive mindsets already taking up space in your mind that will try to override and reject the new ones. But without really retraining your mindset, the best you can hope for is a pleasant epiphany that will fizzle into nothing as soon as you stop reading.
I’ve bumped up against that barrier countless times in my youth, and you probably have, too. You may know exactly what to do, and exactly what mindset would be the most positive and productive, and yet you can’t seem to win the inner war against the mindsets you already have. They’re too deep down in there, too rooted in your unconscious mind to just wish away. But if you work at it, you absolutely can switch out your mental software and transform your mindset. Even more to the point, you can program different mindsets for different goals as you move through life and your objectives evolve. You just have to train your mindset like you train your body. That’s how you achieve the total self-mastery that’s a prerequisite for consistent success in whatever goal happens to be in front of you.
Just Get Started
These six mindsets for getting back in shape may seem basic on the surface, and in some ways they are. But the basics, the foundations, are what people usually ignore and skip past, and then wonder later on why they crashed and burned, or never really got enough momentum to get started. Like all mindsets, these ones will shape and direct your energies in a powerful and reliable way. But you still need to put energy into them, and you still need to anchor them deep in your mind to make sure they’re really doing their job. Once you learn to do that—to master your own mindset—you’ll gain the fluidity and inner resources to dominate your goal of getting back in shape, and any other goal you may have in the future.