A few years ago, at the start of 2019, I set a huge goal: to get into the best shape of my life by the end of the year.
I had in mind a total fitness overhaul: strength, endurance, mobility, and the best diet I could eat.
How cool would it be to have it all at once?
I spent a long time thinking about how to quantify “best shape of my life.” And I made a lot of plans on how I was going to do it.
And by the time 2019 was in the books…
I hadn’t done a damn thing.
The pandemic in 2020 only made matters worse for my fitness (hello, fresh pasta), and by the end of the year, just before my 40th birthday, I was in something closer to the WORST shape of my adult life.
If you’ve ever let yourself get out of shape, you know how overwhelming it can seem to have to come back.
And if you’re there now — or even if you’re doing alright, but you’re just not where you want to be — then I want to help.
Because this past year, I made the comeback. A week before I turned 40, I bought a 35-pound kettlebell and a book, and started doing a short, daily practice at home.
At first I wasn’t strong (at all), and I got winded easily.
But the routine stuck.
Soon, as I began to see the strength changes and the smallest of physique changes, my kettlebell practice led to slightly better diet choices.
Then a focus on improving my sleep. Then even an occasional hill workout, and eventually, to signing up for races.
And here I am now, stronger than I’ve ever been, and having completed a trail half marathon just yesterday (a tough one that took me 2 hours and 45 minutes!).
In other words, that “best shape of my life” picture is slowly coming into focus… in a totally different way than I had planned that it would.
This week, instead of our annual Black Friday bundle sale, I’ve decided to share a 7-part series about the steps I took to get myself back in shape — from the way I set the intention, to the habit change techniques I used, to the specific aspects of my training that have made it work so well.
So that you can take some of what has worked so well for me, and apply it to your situation, if you’re so inclined.
And no, you don’t need to get into kettlebell training to benefit from this series. (That’s just the tool I happened to use; you can apply these principles to whatever you want.)
Part 1: The Better Way to Set Fitness Goals
I told you about my epic failure of a New Year’s resolution to get into the best shape of my life a few years back.
But there’s even more failure to that story.
At the end of that year — a year of doing very little in the way of physical activity — I turned 39.
I went out to celebrate with my friends at a bar, and when I woke up the next morning (feeling not quite 100 percent), I distinctly remember saying to myself:
“It would be really nice to be in better shape next year when I turn 40.”
But although I did a little better than the year before, I didn’t get far. Covid hit, and that made it really easy to be lazy again.
For the second year in a row, I had failed to do much of anything to get in shape.
And we all know that if you’re not getting in better shape, you’re probably going the other way. Which, like a lot of people in 2020, I undoubtedly was.
But at the end of that year, just before I turned 40, I had a thought — only slightly different than the one I’d had a year before — that changed everything.
“What if I could be in really great shape 10 years from now when I turn 50?”
Since then, I haven’t looked back.
And I can tell you for certain that this year, I won’t be thinking about “getting in shape,” and instead I’ll be celebrating all that I’ve managed to accomplish so far.
So why did this little change make such a huge difference?
For one, it removed the pressure.
A one-year path to the best shape in your life feels… well, intense.
Better get started, because the clock’s ticking.
Sign up for that same old gym, since it’s what you know sort of works.
Redo that diet that worked really well (once).
Miss a day — or worse, get injured and miss a week — and you might as well give up.
It sounds silly, but this isn’t that far from how we really think.
But when I started picturing the fittest version of myself a decade from now, all of that disappeared.
Suddenly I was free to think much bigger than before.
Sure, I pictured the usual stuff of fitness fantasies: lots of muscle, six-pack abs, incredible endurance.
But I also thought about flexibility and mobility, something that’s been on my list to get ahead of before it’s too late.
And then I thought about lifestyle. If I were to be in truly incredible shape at age 50, then what would fitness have to look like for me?
Well, it wouldn’t be an intense grind doing the same old stuff I’ve always done.
It would be new sports all the time, some hobbies that keep me in shape but don’t even look like exercise, and a passion for healthy food and cooking like I had when I was brand new to a plant-based diet.
Suddenly it didn’t seem at all wasteful for me to spend two months learning a new skill (my kettlebell practice) before I started to notice fitness gains.
Because when you’ve got 10 years, there’s plenty of time for new things.
With 10 years to work with, you can even imagine all the crazy accomplishments you used to dream about: the ultramarathons, the Ironmans, the running across the country… whatever it might be for you.
The point isn’t that you’re going to do these things right now. In fact, it’s that you’re NOT going to do them right now.
But they can serve as the motivation for the steps you ARE going to take in the coming days and weeks.
Oh, and the flip side works in your favor too: when you picture the outcome of NOT paying attention to your health and fitness for 10 years, it’s a lot uglier than just kicking the can down the road for another year.
Finally, the decade-long timeline did one more thing for me: it allowed me to feel like I could turn back the clock.
We all have to deal with getting older. I don’t have many regrets, so I don’t feel too anxious around these birthdays with a zero at the end.
But still, 40 and 50… these numbers feel different than 20 and 30.
So to imagine that when I turn 50, I could be in better shape than when I turned 40?
That felt like I was beating the system somehow. And for me, that was pretty exciting. 🙂
So as we approach the holidays and another new year, if you’re stuck in the same cycle of hope and inaction that I was, I hope you’ll consider changing your timeline to something longer.
No need to wait until a milestone birthday, or even until December 31st.
Give yourself permission to think a decade ahead, and see how that works for you.
Part 2: The Hardest Part about Getting Back in Shape
In all those years failing in my attempts to get back in shape, there was one big mistake I kept making again and again.
The problem was my very narrow definition of fitness: when I imagined myself being fit again, I only did so in terms of what I had done before.
For example: “run a 3:10 marathon and bench press 235 pounds, at a weight of 155 pounds.”
I had done these things at different points, but never at the same time. So I thought being in shape enough to do all of them would be really cool.
Here was the trouble with that:
- Baggage: It came with lots of comparison to my former self. Even months into a running and strength program, I’d still be very far from what I used to be able to do.
- Boredom: Neither running nor going to the gym held any excitement for me. I had done them for so many years that I was bored with them.
- Conflict: I knew that building the amount of muscle I associated with “fitness” required me to eat an amount of food that wasn’t healthy. So even if I achieved it, I knew it wouldn’t be sustainable or compatible with real health.
I was semi-conscious of all these issues. And yet, I stubbornly still wanted “fitness” as I had defined it, and wondered why I could never seem to get started.
I wasn’t able to get in shape again until I let go of all of that. And once I did, honestly, it was easy.
The first action I took as a result of my new mindset was to buy a kettlebell and a book (Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, by Pavel Tsatsouline). I was clicking around on Amazon searching for something else, and must have seen it as a related suggestion or something like that.
But it spoke to me, and the best thing I did was to listen.
It was a whole new type of training. New lifts with a new apparatus, but more importantly, a new philosophy: no more training to failure, just two exercises every day, and a focus on building strength instead of mass (which I didn’t even realize was possible before; I thought they were one and the same).
Plus, a certain “badass” factor that made it feel like a lot of fun.
For me, these ingredients made all the difference. This didn’t feel like drudgery; it was actually exciting!
I didn’t have any personal kettlebell benchmarks to measure progress against, only two strength standards (one simple, one sinister) laid out in the book.
And it all fit with my newly formed picture of fitness for the next decade: functional strength and endurance, rather than building muscle for the sake of looking good.
My point here isn’t to convince you to get into kettlebells or buy into Pavel’s philosophy.
Instead, it’s to convince you of this:
If your definition of fitness has left you out of shape, then you need to change that definition.
If you used to be strong, fast, and fit, and you’re not anymore, then I bet “fitness” in your mind now comes with some kind of baggage, boredom, or conflict that makes it incompatible with true wellness, just like it did for me.
And if that’s the case, you need to change your definition, or you’ll never be able to make your attempts to get fit again last.
Just like I couldn’t until I changed mine.
(And by the way, I’m not saying you can’t ever do those things you used to love. Once I got back in shape, I found myself interested in running races again. It’s just that that I don’t think they’re your best path back to fitness.)
So how do you change your definition?
Actually, I don’t think you should try to engineer it. Instead, forget all those old rules and what you’ve accomplished in the past, and once you have, notice what speaks to you instead.
And then trust your gut enough to start something new.
If it doesn’t last and it’s just not for you, that’s okay: you’ll gain some fitness and some knowledge in the process.
(I actually had a false start myself: I bought a TRX suspension system about a month before I started with kettlebells, and only used it a few times. Even though it didn’t last for me, it got me moving again and thinking outside of my typical fitness box, and that was a huge step.)
Part 3: How to Make Your Fitness Habit Automatic
A lot of people like to imagine that the way we make changes is just like how we turn lights on or off.
That there’s a switch inside our heads, and if we can summon enough motivation or inspiration to flip that switch, then our habits will be forever changed — and it’ll be easy after that.
This is, unfortunately, a Hollywood myth.
For the vast majority of people who try this “overnight” approach to change — whether the goal is to go plant-based, to become a runner, or to give up chocolate — everything seems great for a few days, only to blow up all at once shortly thereafter.
What happens is that their willpower, on which they rely too heavily (almost exclusively), runs out.
And when the illusion of perfection evaporates, they give up completely.
But even though the switch-flipping approach is flawed, good habits don’t have to be hard.
By applying just a few principles of habit change, we can dramatically increase our chances of successfully making changes.
For me, successful habit change boils down to two main keys:
- Make only one change at a time.
- For the first month or so (until the habit has time to take hold), make your new habit as easy and as pleasant as possible, ramping up the intensity only gradually.
Later in this series, I’ll talk about how my kettlebell practice eventually led to a diet change, a return to running, and lots more.
But for now, the important thing to know is that those all came later, and they came naturally. I didn’t force them.
If I had tried to change all those things at once, it would have been too much, and I would have given up.
So at first, I only focused on one change (the kettlebell practice). That’s key number one.
But the second key is much more interesting.
For the first month of my kettlebell practice, I followed the author’s wise instructions not to begin the actual program.
Instead, for several weeks, my only goal each day was to spend 10 or 20 minutes with the kettlebell, working on my form and paying attention to the smallest of details. (And often I didn’t even use a kettlebell — I safely trained the Turkish get-up form by balancing a shoe on my fist.)
The important thing is that during those initial weeks, I didn’t let myself get winded or sore or anything like that. While those things certainly can lead to fitness gains, the goal at first shouldn’t be to improve your fitness — it’s to build the habit.
I found myself looking forward to my 20-minute kettlebell sessions each day — it was my chance to focus on just one thing, almost like a meditation.
But just as importantly, I was building a skill and enjoying a sense of progress.
There was an element of the practice that was interesting, that left me energized by the end of a session and excited to come back the next day and improve even more.
Plus, without really trying to do so, I memorized the warmup and parts of the workout itself, as I gradually incorporated small parts into my daily routine.
The result was that I never felt the difficulty of that first day in the gym that we’ve all experienced — that stressful day where you’re trying to learn the structure of the workout and the form of several exercises all at once, not to mention dealing with the severe fatigue and resulting soreness.
And all the while I was building some strength, so that when I actually did start the program, it was no great shock to my body — and required very little willpower to keep it going.
Of course, this “learning” phase, where you’re building your mental muscles more than your physical ones, can’t last forever.
If it did, that would still be a lot better than doing nothing. It’s just not the fastest way to progress, once the habit is formed.
So what do you do after you’ve built the habit?
Step 4: Make your fitness routine addictive
What to do after the habit is formed — after the first month or so — is less certain, and it depends a lot on your personality.
The trick is to engineer your fitness habit so that it’s addictive. You want it to fulfill you on multiple levels, so that it becomes an activity you never want to miss.
This is the difference between fitness being a chore, and it becoming something you do for years.
I’ve coached people who had major breakthroughs when they finally took the time to really think hard about what fulfills them, and then built it into their fitness routine.
A few examples:
- Some people love the community and competitive nature of Crossfit, and it becomes something much bigger in their lives than just exercise.
- Others love data, so they use wearables and apps that make their progress more visible and satisfying (and shareable).
- My kettlebell routine has lasted for almost a year, which is a pretty long time for me. Why? I think it’s because it’s build around specific milestones, or standards, which I can expect to hit every six months to a year, and a steady progression towards those goals. (Not unlike training for running races, which provides progress towards milestones at about the same frequency.)
- My wife (who is running her first 50K this instant, as I write this from the car) always calls her mom during her long runs. On others, she and a friend who lives far away “run together” by talking on the phone while they both do their separate runs.
- I go through periods where I’m not at all excited about running. But I’m almost always excited about language learning. And so I’ve started using audio-based language programs that require you to speak as you do them. Easy runs are the perfect time to do these programs, since (a) I’m by myself, which doesn’t happen much, and (b) the speaking requires me to run at a conversational pace… something that’s otherwise excruciatingly boring for me.
- During a lot of my kettlebell workouts (the ones with generous rest periods, not the more intense sessions), I put on reruns of The Office in the background. I rarely watch TV otherwise, so when work gets stressful I actually crave a workout and the chance to relax and listen to something funny while I’m recovering between sets.
You can see how, depending on your personality, any of these could give you another reason to want to do your workout.
If your workout represents your chance to hang out with certain friends, or to make progress on a language-learning app, then even when you don’t feel like training on a certain day, you’ll do it because you don’t want to miss what comes with it.
On the flip side, make sure that the difficulty level of your workouts also matches what you find enjoyable.
Some people love the exhaustion (and sometimes, the pain) of HIIT training, and how it makes them feel afterward.
And if you’re really goal-oriented, sometimes really hard workouts are part of the deal.
But pain isn’t necessary for a workout to be effective. The “no pain, no gain” misconception has kept a lot of people from working out, simply because they believe that what they find enjoyable must not be doing them any good since it doesn’t hurt.
(For a good counterexample, look at the Blue Zones, the pockets of the world where people live the longest, and you’ll see that rarely does their exercise cause them pain. It’s enjoyable and built into their daily lives, like walking on hilly terrain or gardening.)
I’ve found my “just right” difficulty with my kettlebell program. The program never has me training to failure, which helps me stay healthy and keeps me wanting to come back. But once I week I push hard and race the clock to complete all my sets within an allotted time, and from that I get the rush and satisfaction that comes from meeting a challenge head-on.
So what should you do to make your fitness routine addictive? I can’t tell you exactly what it will be for you; it’s up to you to figure that one out.
But if right now you associate working out with pain, boredom, or anything else negative, then spend some time thinking about what would make it the opposite for you.
Then do some research or brainstorming to come up with a plan that checks all the boxes, and go for it!
Part 5: How to support your fitness change with what you eat
In the 10+ years since I’ve been vegan, last year was the worst I’ve eaten.
And the first eleven months of this year have probably been the best.
I made the change with next to no effort.
It was easy. Instead of struggling to eat better, I first built a rock-solid fitness habit.
And once that became a big part of my life — and I made the obvious connection that my diet can either multiply or squash the results I get from training — I was motivated to change.
I’ll get into the specifics of the diet changes I’ve made, but if you stop reading now, make sure you get the most important point:
If you’re having trouble making a change — whether to diet or fitness or something else — ask yourself what you could change first that would make the harder change dramatically easier.
It could also work the other way around from how I did it:
If you find diet changes pretty easy to make, but have no motivation to exercise… could you start eating ultra-clean first (or intermittent fasting, perhaps) — and then let the changes you see in the mirror motivate you to multiply those results with exercise?
To step back even another level, when someone tells me they’re totally stuck with diet AND fitness, I tell them to start by carving out 30 minutes a day to do some other habit that would absolutely light them up.
Maybe it’s playing the guitar, or reading, or going for a walk; it doesn’t have to relate to food or fitness. But the freedom and positivity that come from that habit (not to mention the trust you rebuild in your ability to make commitments to yourself and keep them) makes the “harder” habits easier to change.
Anyway, back to diet. 🙂
The changes I’ve made this year are mostly specific to my own fitness situation, so won’t apply to everyone.
As I wrote about briefly earlier, I used to associate lifting weights with gaining muscle mass. To me, strength and size were the same thing.
And because I was a “hard-gainer,” as they say (not to mention that I eat a plant-based diet, which tends to be lower in calories), I found that I had to eat a tremendous amount of food to support muscle growth.
In other words, being strong was expensive.
Financially, sure. More importantly, when it comes to longevity.
One of the surest, scientifically supported ways to live longer and age more slowly is to eat fewer calories and ask less of your body’s metabolic system — so although it felt good to look big and feel strong, I knew that eating as much as I had to to support lots of muscle was, in some sense, killing me.
But now I understand that strength is different from muscle growth — or rather, that there are two kinds of muscle growth: look up “myofibrillar hypertrophy vs sarcoplasmic hypertrophy” if you’re interested.
The former builds smaller but harder and denser muscles that are actually better at contracting and generating tension. In other words, stronger.
The latter is the result of increased fluid in your muscle cells, which makes muscles look bigger but doesn’t make you much stronger.
And so with this understanding I was able to separate “getting strong” from “getting big.”
Suddenly, it was okay to train hard (with low reps and generous rest periods) and NOT have to eat like it was going out of style.
As a result, I’ve increased my Turkish get-up weight this year from 35 pounds to 80 pounds this year, without gaining much weight — just a few pounds that help me look stronger and more athletic than I did before, but not “big.”
And that’s just fine with me, since I no longer have to make peace with the conflict between strength and longevity.
So my eating this year has mostly been focused on eating less, not more.
I’ve spent many months experimenting with intermittent fasting, where I typically don’t eat until noon each day, and then only begin with vegetable juice (I bought a Breville Juice Fountain Cold Plus, and I’ve been very happy with it).
When you replace the natural panic we feel around hunger with the knowledge that your body is actually designed to be hungry sometimes, it gets a lot easier to enjoy the feeling of skipping a snack between meals, or working through lunch every now and then.
The second big dietary win of my year has been replacing refined flour (even whole-wheat flour) pastas and pizza crusts with the wonderful substitutes based on chickpeas and cauliflower that are now available (try Banza pasta if you haven’t yet).
I have a soft spot for traditional Italian dishes and handmade pasta, so I still make those things with semolina or whole wheat flour, but I generally reserve them for Sundays.
And that’s the same with eating big breakfasts and drinking alcohol — I try to save them for the weekends. Not in any kind of strict sense, but I’ve fallen into a rhythm that, on balance, adds up to a lot of healthy choices.
In the past, such a loose approach wouldn’t have worked for me. I thrived when it was all or nothing, with no wiggle room.
The difference now, oddly enough, is activity tracking and a focus on calories. Not obsessive tracking, just monitoring closely enough so that I stay connected with the consequences of my food and fitness choices. It has brought with it a whole host of benefits…
[To be continued soon… look for part 6 in your email on Monday!]