When you realize you’re in a vulnerable spot.

I was talking with a family member Thanksgiving weekend and she mentioned that she’d fallen into some bad habits recently. Or more specifically, that she’d fallen out of her good habits. For a while, she’d been in a great exercise routine: first thing in the morning, every day. Then she stopped, due to some change of routine that threw her off her rhythm. She can’t even remember what it was, but it’s why she’s not exercising anymore.

When she said this, I immediately did a quick inventory of my fitness habits. I hadn’t been running for a few days, even though I’d been in the habit of running nearly every morning for months now. (I doubt this is best for me fitness-wise, but I’ve found it’s much easier for me to run two miles every day than four miles three times a week, so I go with it.)

I took a break because I was sick: that’s a terrific reason not to work out. I’m still not running because I’m not feeling all the way better yet. That’s smart.

But my family member’s comment made me realize I’m in a vulnerable spot right now. There have been so many times in the past where I’ve had terrific, well-established habits in place: for exercising or eating, writing or reading, waking up early or going to bed at a decent hour. And I’ve lost them not because of anything cataclysmic, but because of a simple change in routine. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s clear in hindsight.

A minor illness, a weekend away, a flurry of unusual appointments—these are all enough to tip me off the wagon.

None of these things are a huge deal: it’s not like my leg’s in a cast, or I’m lying in the hospital. But they still get the best of me because I don’t pay attention. It never occurs to me that I—or rather, my good habits—might be vulnerable, so it never occurs to me to protect them. And without even realizing I’m doing it, I form a new routine—post-illness, post-vacation, post-whenever—that doesn’t include the habit I worked so hard to cultivate. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

In this instance, it’s just exercise. But that simple habit is important to me, especially this time of year. (The comment section on this week’s post about winter coping strategies was like a broken record: daylight and exercise, daylight and exercise. I’m not alone in needing them, badly.) This is a bad time to break my good habit.

I’m not running today. I don’t even feel ready to go for a walk yet. But I’m resolving to pay attention to this habit, to protect it.

I set myself a calendar reminder. I laid a fresh stack of workout clothes on my dresser.

Most importantly, I’m simply paying attention—so this stupid illness doesn’t get the best of me, again.

Do small things cause you to backtrack, or have they in the past? I’d love to hear examples—for exercise or anything else—in comments. Please share your tips for keeping your focus and getting through those vulnerable spots.


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  1. Robin says:

    Yes! This happened to me after a week’s worth of vacation away from home. I fell off the exercise wagon, and couldn’t get back on. It took me realizing that I was really bored with the exercise type (working out with my Wii), so I couldn’t get back on. It took finding a new thing (Fitness Blender, with lots of variety) to get me excited to start up again.

    The takeaway: it’s easier to lose a habit (for me) if its become stale without me realizing it, so I have to include variety. It’s easier to jump back on if there’s something to look forward to in it, like a new exercise routine, or maybe for a runner, new shoes, new route, etc.

  2. Susan in TX says:

    Another thing that helps me when my exercise routine gets interrupted for too long – if I don’t even feel like walking, take the time to stretch. It’s amazing the difference it can make to your flexibility. And don’t just focus on the legs. For women, as we age, the shoulders tend to be a vulnerable spot (know anybody who’s had rotator cuff issues?), and then there’s the neck. Stretch your head and neck to prevent all that additional tension that comes from sitting too long, driving too long, etc.
    Thanks for the reminder! Hope you are feeling better soon.

    • Marie says:

      Re rotator cuff injuries: I’d raise my hand if my shoulder didn’t ache so much. 🙂 You are so right about this being an age-related vulnerability. Wish I’d known that in my younger days.

    • Jamie says:

      Yes to neck tension. Have you tried one of those foam rollers? They are legit. Lay on it like a pillow and turn your head slowly side to side. You’ll know when you’ve hit the right spot – it’s brutal. But feels so much better after.

  3. Marci says:

    In a vulnerable spot. What s perfect way to phrase that!

    I am very familiar with this phenomenon. A few years back we spent a good amount of money for a small, trainer-led gym. I faithfully went at 5am for months. Then my husband took off a week for christmas break. This small change completely slayed me and I literally NEVER went again. It was crazy!

    I’m currently in a vulnerable spot now and glad for the reminder. I’ve been running before my husband leaves for work because of the heat. Now that it’s cold and dark in the morning, I need to put a stake in the ground about when i will run. Will I keep up early mornings even when it’s cold, or go right after my kids tuesday/thursday school drop. I also do better with long distance runs when I have a goal like a race or half marathon in the future.

    Thanks for the good reminder to protect the habit!

  4. Sarah says:

    This is so true! Last weeks mini vacation and holiday coupled with my husbands business travel and I am off of my good habit of eating and exercise. Good reminder to keep it in check!

  5. Katia says:

    Anne, first of all, I want to say, ‘Get well soon!’ Secondly, you’re definitely not alone in falling off the usual routine during and after a vacation or an illness. I know of only two people, both Type-A, who are able to maintain their fitness routine and healthy diet even while on vacation. I tried it during last summer’s week-long cottage getaway and I must say, I did quite well with the exercise bit but did fall off my healthy eating routine. I also learned that although I hold myself to very high standards, there are times when I need to be kinder to myself, to remind myself to soften and relax into the experience. I stayed up late for the past two nights because I simply could not get myself to put down the book I’m reading (The Lake House by Kate Morton). I ended up ‘paying for it’ this morning when I could not bring myself get up at my usual 5 a.m. for a workout before the work and school day. I’m not feeling 100% right now because of that, but I have accepted it as a fact. This experience serves as a reminder that I need to be more strict with myself about my bedtime, but it also felt good to sleep in a bit this morning instead of sacrificing rest for another day of feeling tired and falling asleep at my desk at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I’m giving myself permission to soften the edges a bit, accepting that I’m human and allowing myself to make decisions from an intuitive place. I’ll go to bed early tonight.

  6. Asha says:

    Earlier this fall my little boys and I took turns getting sick over a 3 week period, so going to the gym where I leave them in childcare became irregular. I went when we could, even when I was feeling gross/not able to run yet because of a cough that lingered in my chest for weeks and triggered my asthma. I knew it was important to guard my running habit, so I made it a priority to just go even if all I did was a walk and some stretching. Although I maintained the habit of going, I lost the habit of running and pushing myself. And I’m having such a hard time getting back to where I was before! Why is it so hard to start somethings over again after we been thrown from the bandwagon?!

  7. Cassie says:

    My routines ebb and flow too. I think it’s natural, and generally a sign that I need to change things up. If I’ve fallen off the health bandwagon completely – healthy eating or exercising – I normally start to yearn for it again when I’m ready. I also have a much easier time doing something every day than a few times a week. I just respond much better to daily routines.

  8. Tim says:

    I don’t see it as much backtracking as getting off course. Even the slightest veer from an intended direction results in widely missing the mark if not corrected soon enough. So something small can really interfere with what I had planed to do.

  9. Danae says:

    This is a timely reminder for the holiday season. Gretchen Rubin talks about how starting requires so much emotional effort, and restarting a habit after a lapse is even harder. I’m preaching to myself here, but the effort to plan ahead for maintaining or adapting good habits in vulnerable times seems small compared to the effort required to start all over again.

    • Angel says:

      ❤ Gretchen Rubin! Just discovered her and her podcast a few months ago and just got her latest book from the library.

      I am totally an obliger, so I decided to start a 21 day fix challenge with a mom I know through my daughter. She’s done great and we aren’t close enough that she will let me get away with not doing it. I have struggled with eating and exercise my whole life and hearing Gretchen say that Obligers need outside accountability was the light bulb that told me “Yes, I will probably always need this!”

  10. Lori says:

    Yes! I’ve most certainly fallen off before. But now, even if I’ve had a break, I want to get going again. How and why? I reward myself while I’m working out.

    Netflix, Amazon Prime, books on tape, etc. I can only watch a particular series, movie or listen to a book on tape when I’m working out. If I fail to work out I don’t get to finish. Works like a charm. I now look forward to carving out 40+ minutes every day.

  11. Jamie says:

    Vulnerable spot over here, too. Only getting paid to workout one time a week these days. So, alas, must also grow up in this area. Something that helps me is to tell myself, “20 minutes. 5 songs.” over and over. Usually about 10 minutes in that thing kicks in where your oxygen needs have caught up to what you’re asking your body to do and I get in a groove. I usually end up doing more than “just 20 minutes, 5 songs.” But that gets me on the treadmill/eliptical/track. Going to classes helps too. I hope you feel better and back on track soon!

  12. I have definitely done this. Whenever we travel, especially during the week, I get a bit off track because I have a hard time finding a place to work out (or motivation to) when we’re away.
    One thing that really helps me, and that I need to do again soon with exercising and writing, is to have a very specific goal or routine. Something like running a mile or writing for 30 minutes is easier for me to accomplish than just telling myself to exercise everyday. I’m still in the process of figuring out some of my best habits though, Gretchen’s book Better than Before has been great for that!
    Thanks for sharing, and keep up the good work!

  13. Ana says:

    Yes, I noticed that this happened to me with exercise and illness specifically. I’d take a few days off legitimately feeling sick but then I sort of excused myself for “still being tired” and weeks would go by and I’d lose the habit. Now I take a day off only when legitimately sick (I exercise T/Th/Saturday so its not that intense!) and even when I’m not 100% better, I just get out there anyways for a lazier session/shorter run…more important to keep the habit than to give 110% each time. I also enlist my husband or a friend to help me get back on track during the vulnerable spots (“don’t let me slack off again!”). That little push from someone else can help, too!

  14. Suzanne says:

    Do it anyway. That mantra helps me so much. I can talk myself out of getting up and working out but the satisfaction of missing the workout is so fleeting. The joy of having DONE the workout is exponentially greater.

    Sometimes I’ll talk myself through skipping the workout and mentally role play the conversations I will have in my head if I give in. This works with food too especially when I’m debating about indulgence. Usually the self recrimination is not worth the little extra energy I need to boost myself out the door or push myself away from the table.

  15. I have been exercising since April and from past experiences I knew that if I wanted to maintain this habit I needed to learn to be flexible. I began just walking a mile. Now I am running 6.5 km in 65 minutes. I knew I would have a hard time keeping the habit up in the winter. I mostly run outside during the day and when it’s really cold and gray outside I don’t want to run. So I began preparing myself. About a month ago, I began using my treadmill. I HATE to run on the treadmill, but I knew if I didn’t I was going to lose my conditioning. So I set small challenges to keep me going. Things like run 5 extra minutes, run with a 2 incline, don’t stop until the movie is over, etc. I also tell myself “I’m just going to walk for 15 minutes.” Then I get started, the desire to run hits me and I’m off. 🙂 Also when I can’t run for whatever reason, I do something physically: push ups, 50 squats, leg raises, stretches, dance for 5 minutes. When the sun shines for just a little while and it’s too cold to stay outside for too long, I jump on the trampoline with my kids. My mantra is “I got to move my body everyday.” This way I don’t feel like I dropped my fitness habit completely. Yesterday I incorporated another option to my running routine. My son began basketball practice. So while there, I ran 40 minutes around the court while he practiced. I got my run in and was able to watch him train at the same time. Yay!! I’m truly hoping to keep this going. 🙂

  16. Grace says:

    This is so true, and it can feel so sneaky. Something I continually struggle with is maintaining my mental health – using affirmations, listing things I’m grateful for each day, meditating, etc. Then suddenly (though it’s not actually sudden, it seems that way) I feel like crap again, and realize I haven’t been doing the things I know I need to do to keep my sanity. And of course when I’m already feeling like crap, it’s much harder to get motivated to start implementing them and building the habit back again.

  17. Dana says:

    Guilty, here. I worked out 6 days / week ( aerobics) until last fall when I tore my meniscus and had to have surgery. I kept going 3 mornings a week even when I was on crutches and sat in a chair just to keep the habit of going because I knew if I did not go at all it would be hard to start back. I gradually stated walking during class and I am now able to fully participate again BUT I am still only going 3 days / week which is not enough to keep off the pounds. I cannot seem to get back into a routine of going the other days. It seems that other things have filled that time. I need to push myself to add days back in. So tomorrow I am adding back in a day and will try keep adding back in as the weeks go by.

  18. kristen says:

    This totally reminds me of the book I’m starting today- Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before. Can’t remember if you’ve read/blogged about it but ever since hearing her on the Lively Show podcast talking about how we can best work on our habits, I’ve wanted to get the book. Finally got it from our library waitlist, just in time to *hopefully* create some New Years habits! Hope you’re feeling better soon!

  19. melissa says:

    Thanks for sharing! Yes, it is silly how ” very small” the thing can be that throws me off and puts me in a vulnerable spot. Yesterday my planned schedule was interrupted by a wonderful friend coming over and though it was so fun to spend time with her, it left me worn out (i am introvert!) opting for pizza for dinner instead of cooking a healthy meal, which made me not feel like running in the evening. Also, thanks for the tip about the therapy light. I hope I can get one for the winter and try it out.

  20. Anna says:

    I tend to get off off track when I’ve been ill or traveling. Things that help me with getting back on track with exercise are missing the benefits from it. I don’t love exercise, but I’ve found that it’s a good stress release, and my body feels better with regular exercise. Once I’m getting over an illness, the exercise itself might feel unpleasant, but I feel better at the end. Over the holidays, I tend to get stressed, and that helps me keep my exercise going.

  21. Jamie says:

    Have you read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg? It deals with exactly what you’re talking about – how habits are formed, what knocks them off course, and how to establish and keep the ones we want. I’m almost done with it and I’m really liking it.

  22. Christine says:

    This was a much needed blog post for me! I think I thought I was truly the only person this happened to – having a small change of routine nudge me off-track – like I am really wek-willed or something. Thank you to you and your readers for talking about how this happens to you and how you deal with it. Must. Get. Back. On. Exercise. Wagon!

  23. Bekki says:

    Ohhhh,yesss! Every time a cold or flu makes its way through our family, it throws me off my game. I usually have to pull out checklists to get myself back on routine.

  24. renee @ FIMBY says:

    this definitely happens to me. But I also know that most people, or just me?, cannot maintain the same routine, same schedule forever (sometimes forever is 4 weeks) and then there are times when a little change in routine sets me off course but it’s that the course needs to change to adapt to new circumstances, not simply that I need to get back on the wagon so to speak.

  25. Katherine says:

    I committed to an intense athletic conditioning class at my gym this summer. I went, faithfully, every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:00 am. My husband was traveling for work for a couple of weeks in the early fall and it put me in that vulnerable spot, and then I was not remotely motivated to get back to the classes. I am happy about forced interruption though, because it pushed me to consider why I was so resistant to getting back into the class. Instead of bailing altogether, I just switched to a yoga class. Much less intense, cardio-wise, but still great for my muscles and great for my mental health.

    The interruption let me examine how the classes were working (or not working) for me, and sort of tune back into what I needed at a different stage. I count it as a win.

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