5 Lessons I Learned from My Month as a Couch Potato

5 Lessons I Learned from My Month as a Couch Potato

Trainers can never truly understand the barriers their clients may be facing when trying to adhere to an exercise program. We trainers tend to eat well and exercise a lot, so these habits are ingrained in us. That’s the main reason we do what we do for work… we love to exercise and eat well. But not everyone else does, and many of our clients are among this group when they first come to us for help.

Of course, the only way a trainer can fully understand the challenges that non-exercisers have is if the trainer happens to have experienced it as well.  Lucky me! I recently had a month of couch potato-ism and wanted to share my learnings and lessons with you…..

Exercise has been a part of my life since 1975. That’s when I began exercising to stay in shape for high school sports. Back then, being “in shape” for sports just meant running. There was no
strength work, no mobility work, no warm-ups..…just running yourself into the ground. When I entered college, I continued to run for lacrosse and field hockey, and it was not until about 1981 that I started strength training and doing group fitness classes. Thank God for some exercise diversity!

Fast forward 42 years… YES, 42 years…. And I am still cranking along, albeit slower, but still consistently exercising.  While I don’t neurotically exercise 7 days a week like I used to, I am used to a relatively high level of exercise.  That’s why November 2017 was a real eye opener for me.

Starting in the first week of November, I got pretty sick. I was exhausted. I went to bed at 9pm, woke at 7am, and still had to take a nap to get through the day. I had intermittent extreme exhaustion, headaches, body aches and nausea. I had no energy for exercise, although I attempted to do something a few days a week. (I tried to follow the advice I give to my clients…something is always better than nothing). I was not always successful.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in bed and on the couch and OH MY!! was that an eye opening experience for me.  Unlike other times when I had surgeries or was directly pre or post-partum, this time I felt like I should’ve been exercising, as opposed to couldn’t exercise. Shoulds and coulds are very different things.  I felt guilty, but exhausted. I struggled mentally to find energy, tried to shame myself into exercising, but physically, just couldn’t do it.

Often, our most troubling times are a lesson to be learned. And boy did I learn a few things about myself, and maybe my clients too!  Here are my top 5 “ lessons learned” from spending a lot of time on the couch for the first time in many years…..

A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion.  Yes, this is physics, as well as a TV ad for arthritis medicine.  But, it applies directly to how I felt over this month of exhaustion, which definitely meant lots of couch and bed time. The inertia of static postures and decreasing metabolism was challenging to overcome. With each successive day of “nada”, I felt less and less motivated to exercise. WOW!  I can imagine now that people who sit all day for work, or whose hobbies are watching TV or doing puzzles may experience this feeling very frequently.

While rest is key for healing, at some point, we must overcome inertia and move. We must!

If you are coming off a virus or flu or other illness, just start with a walk. Get outside, get some sunshine and fresh air and just move. Don’t think about how you should be running, or walking for an hour, just get out and move. If you are coming off an injury or surgery, consider that the muscles involved in that injury have weakened, as has your entire core. Muscles shut off when not used, especially injured muscles. A slow start back to weight training is SO necessary. Use common sense and start with floor exercises, or bodyweight exercises and feel things out. One reason people get injured when getting back to strength training after a period of inactivity is because they do too much too quickly.  Lastly, there is no reason NOT to work around an injured body part. Knee injury? Work your abs and upper body. Wrist surgery? You can do core or lower body work that does not involve the wrist.  Something is always better than nothing.

injured man - get back to fitness

Guilt and self-shaming never motivate anyone for long. This is at the heart of compassionate self-care. If you find yourself in a situation that is beyond your control, why shame yourself? You didn’t ask to fall down the stairs or get the flu, so guilt tripping yourself about being a couch potato is not useful.  If you are having trouble getting your passion for exercise re-ignited once you’ve healed, remember that both your body and mind are struggling with inertia. Be kind.

You can certainly be emphatic with yourself and evaluate the honesty of your excuses, but self-shaming never makes you feel better or more motivated to restart. Think of this situation as a lesson in self compassion and resilience, and try and learn something about yourself.  Most importantly, when getting back to exercise or daily activities, set goals that are achievable without disappointment. Whenever I need extra help getting started on something, I write myself notes like ” Time to start again” or “Exercise session tomorrow at 5pm”. I create reminders with visual cues like leaving my sneakers out, or bringing my foam roller upstairs where I see it frequently. Create self support systems not to nag yourself, but as gentle reminders.

If you can’t exercise, eat as well as you can. Many of us split our health efforts between exercising consistently and eating well. So, if you can’t exercise during your period of “couch potato-ism”, think of it as an opportunity to concentrate on eating well.  No wasted head games about scheduling an exercise session, so you now have extra space for exploring your healthiest eating. Spend your efforts on healthy eating to get better as quickly as you can! Research is clear that those who eat well- plenty of protein, healthy fats and colorful vegetables- heal quicker and maintain muscle mass better than those who eat poorly.

Fatigue makes you crave carbs. This is what makes my point above such a challenge. I could not believe how much I craved carbs, and I am not talking about apples, quinoa and peppers. Bread, bread and more bread is what I craved.  I always knew that there was a direct connection between fatigue and carb craving, but the cravings were pretty compelling. Initially I found that I felt better eating starchy carbs. However, once I started to get back to my regular self, even though I wanted to get back to healthier eating, I was stuck. I had set up a bad habit that required extra effort to undo.  I am a slow changer, so it took me a couple weeks to cut out the bread and crackers.

Don’t let the pity party envelop you and drag you down further.  It’s really easy to let your mind wander to a catastrophic future prediction like “I’ll never be able to run again” or “I’m going to gain so much weight, I’ll never get it off” ,  or“I’ve lost all my strength!”. During my month of convalescence, I had myself convinced I had some life threatening chronic disease. I did. Seriously. This kind of negative mindset keeps us tired and frustrated, and much less likely to take the first step back to better health. Some of our future predictions are about fear- especially if we are coming off of an injury.  If you find you are having a big ole’ pity party, reach out to your support system- your trainer, your gym buddies, your friends-  and give them a head’s up that you are back to exercise and need their support. Get very clear when you are well enough to exercise, and then Just do it.