Gentle ways to approach fitness this year

These trainers suggest forgetting willpower and just enjoying moving your body.

These trainers suggest forgetting willpower and just enjoying moving your body

Woman sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat, watching a video on her laptop.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Even if you're skeptical of the intentions behind Canada's $4.7-billion fitness industry, the science showing the benefits of moving our bodies can't be ignored: improved mood, better sleep and more energy are just a few. So why is it still so hard to fit movement into our days? 

If new-year energy has you thinking about starting or recommitting to regular activity, here are some expert tips on how to approach your journey with curiosity and set yourself up to make your new habit stick. 

What to focus on

It can be tough to separate the health benefits of regular movement from the idea of looking "better" or losing weight. "We sort of overemphasize that, or we conflate physical benefits with looking a certain way," said Leigh Potvin, director and assistant professor at the School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

"I like taking the weight loss out of it for beginners," said Chloe Alleyne, a Toronto-based fitness and wellness coach and creator of the Sweat Movement. She says she frequently sees it become an unnecessarily discouraging measure for people, especially in the first few months of their fitness journey. 

It can be helpful to keep your focus on the benefits that have nothing to do with getting rock-hard abs. Regular activity can reduce the risk of disease in the long term, says Alleyne, but it can also improve your ability to do everyday activities like getting up from a chair or lifting heavy bags. "Move your body so that you can move more easily in your body," she suggested.

It's also important, says Alleyne, to get clear about your "why" — what's your motivation for wanting to stay active? Maybe you want to improve your back pain or be able to keep up with your grandkids. Alleyne enjoys the boost she gets: "At the end of the movement that I choose to do," she said, "I always feel better than when I started."

How to get started

Alleyne suggests finding an activity that you enjoy doing and says that doesn't have to happen anywhere near a gym. "Movement can be meeting up with your girlfriend and going for a walk a few times a week. It could be doing a workout in your living room. It could be playing with your kids at the playground."

"If there's like a little idea bubbling in your head," Potvin said, "like, 'Oh, I've always wanted to try this, but that seems silly' — no, try it!" Sign up for that indoor roller skating club or adult ballet class you've been curious about. 

It's also important to make an honest assessment of who you are, says Potvin. Do you like to work out at home or away from home? In the mornings, evenings or on your lunch break? "Really think about how this is going to fit into your life in a realistic way, and not in a, like, 'new year, new you,' you're gonna get up every morning at 5 a.m. [kind of way]." 

Potvin also discourages the common tactic of trying to guilt yourself into working out by paying for expensive equipment or a gym membership. "I don't think anyone is motivated that way," she said. "Then you just feel shame that you spent $5,000 on something you're not using." 

Setting up a dedicated space for staying active at home can be very inexpensive, says Alleyne. "There's so much you can do on … the actual area space of a yoga mat." Pick up a few dumbbells or resistance bands, and you're ready to go, she adds. 

You might also want to start small, says Alleyne: "If you're new to it, don't feel like you have to conquer this one-hour quote-unquote workout. Start off with 10 minutes and see how that feels." It takes about that long for the feel-good endorphins to kick in, she explains, so after those first 10 minutes, you might want to keep going.

Alleyne also suggests considering group fitness classes, like the type you might find at a YMCA or public recreation facility. "Group fitness is amazing for beginners because there are so many different people at different levels in the class. And that socialization aspect of group fitness is just, I think it's unmatched." 

For some of us, says Potvin, a barrier to being active can be personal trauma; difficult feelings can come up when we move our bodies. And sometimes, movement itself can be the source of that trauma: "You talk to people, and they're like, 'I hated high school phys. ed.,' right?" she said. In that case, she suggests working with a therapist and finding a trauma-informed personal trainer if funds allow. 

Forget willpower

Neither Alleyne or Potvin are fans of the concept of willpower. "Willpower just kind of tells us we have to constantly be pushing and pushing … [and] ignoring our bodies to achieve something," said Potvin. "But you can be working towards a goal and … still afford yourself kindness and rest." 

Alleyne said she used to be that "no pain, no gain" person, but she's since shifted her mindset. "Talking to yourself like that does more damage than good. So be kind to yourself, be compassionate. You know, talk to yourself as you would a friend."

How to keep it up

Before regular movement becomes a habit you enjoy, you might want to make use of a trick called temptation bundling, says Alleyne, and pair it with something you already take pleasure in, like a good podcast, music or TV show. 

She also suggests making things a little easier by reducing the number of choices you have to make around your movement. Lay out your workout clothes the night before, or even sleep in them. Make a high-energy playlist. Schedule your activity in your calendar. 

It can also be helpful to find a friend, whether you're working out together or just texting each other for support, says Alleyne. For Potvin, movement is a chance to socialize. "I'm officially the middle-aged woman who gets up at 6 a.m. to work out with her friends, but that's the time I get with my friends."

An online community can be helpful, too, and there's something out there for everyone. "If you're 60-plus," Alleyne said, "there's a content creator out there creating workouts for 60-plus." However, she cautions that you want to be sure the accounts you're following are promoting sustainable wellness goals and not gimmicky quick fixes.

On the days when you truly don't feel up to working out, Potvin says it's important to honour where you're at. "I really see movement as the ultimate celebration of the body," she said. "So how are you going to feel ready to celebrate if … you're being mean to yourself?" she asked. "That doesn't make me want to party —  that makes me want to go take a nap."


Jen Lauriault is a Collingwood, Ont.-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, Today’s Parent and Chatelaine.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

From life's little projects to its big questions; the latest in food, style, relationships, work and money, home, wellness, pets and travel delivered directly to your inbox each week.


The next issue of CBC Life Newsletter will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.