The help desk: How do I maintain my New Year's resolution to be more active?


Q. Every year at New Year, I swear I will exercise more, and every year I manage to stick to my resolution for only about a month. I'm 38 and starting to be aware that sitting at a desk all day is terrible for my health. I've never smoked and I hardly drink – but nor did my mother and she died of breast cancer at 59.

I usually quite enjoy the gym once I get there, though all the other women's toned bodies in the changing-rooms do put me off a bit. But how on earth do other people fit it in? Five or six years ago, I managed to keep it up for several months. I was eating well, too, and I lost quite a bit of weight. I felt great, but I stopped and I've never really got the rhythm back. Almost everyone I know takes more exercise than I do. I feel as though there's some secret they're all in on except me.

A. On the contrary, I think sporadic exercisers like you are in the majority, and those dedicated gym bunnies are the outliers, many of them anyway engaged in a kind of masochistic battle with their body-dysmorphia demons. They're rather annoying. Will they live longer than the rest of us? One can only hope not.

In fact, regular exercise, while undoubtedly good for us, is no guarantee against an unjustly early death. And lest you think I'm stating the obvious, I know of one woman who was astonished when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, because, as a clean-living non-smoker who had breastfed her children for ages, she genuinely thought she had pretty much eliminated her risk. So if you're beating yourself up about this because you think going to the gym would prevent you from dropping dead, then give yourself a break.

You also mention weight loss. But studies continually show that exercise on its own is not a particularly efficient way of getting leaner. No one is sure exactly why, but it seems to be because we compensate for a couple of hundred calories burned with comestible "rewards" of several hundred calories more.

Having said all that, of course exercise is a good thing. Are you sure the gym is the best way to get it? There's an awful lot of faffing involved in getting yourself there, changing into your kit, posing in the juice bar afterwards etc. As you're short of time, can you learn to love a form of exercise that doubles up as transport? Running, walking and cycling can all be incorporated into your daily commute and become a routine.

It is this rhythm, as you've discovered before, that is the key to perseverance. One passionate cyclist I know says he has to ride everywhere, as he fears that if he didn't, he would never cycle at all. I cycle, too, because I love it and because I'd go slightly mad if I didn't – but also because that's now what I do. So pick a time, eliminate the get-out clauses (if it's not raining; if I'm not too busy), and get into the groove. It's sort of like brainwashing. Soon it will feel all wrong not to do it.

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