The life-changing magic of exercising daily

How I outwitted inertia and learned to (mostly) like working out.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t spring out of bed in the mornings eager to exercise. A perennial alarm snoozer, I like to ease into my days with as little movement (and as much coffee) as possible. Just about the last thing I want to do is work out.

And yet, for 29 of the past 30 days, I have done just that. 

Nearly all of these morning workouts have involved going for a run in my neighbourhood. This sounds like a pretty chill affair, and it would be, except that I live in a hilly area. Whichever route I take, I always have to contend with a pretty steep incline at some point in my run. So I do what any (only slightly masochistic) person would do: tackle the hill at the outset. It’s a thrilling experience... if you like guessing whether your lungs or your legs will give out first. I’m pretty much a hot and gasping mess when I get to the top.

Still, when I get up tomorrow morning, I will put on my workout clothes, drink some water, lace up my shoes, and go for a run. The reason for this newfound motivation is simple (and just a tiny bit infuriating): I have accountability.

Leaning into the discomfort of accountability

I won’t lie: accountability is a tough pill for me to swallow. I desperately want to believe the Nike slogan — that I can ‘just do it’, whatever I set my mind on, without the need for kind nudges or follow-up. 

Turns out (according to at least one personality test), I’m an obliger: someone who is a lot better at meeting external expectations than internal ones. It’s no coincidence, then, that my daily running routine kicked off on May 13, one day after I started a 5-week habits course, taught by UBC alum, Cole Nakatani (BCom’11). As part of the course, participants have to update a public habit tracker and meet each week with an assigned accountability buddy to share how things are going with our chosen habit.

I chose working out in the morning because I know that:

  1. It absolutely energizes me for the day, and
  2. I absolutely dislike doing it, and would not — unless it were an ‘assignment’.

“Part of the beauty of having an accountability buddy is that we have this built-in motivational drive.... It's like, ‘I told someone — and now I get all this drive to follow through on that.’” – Cole Nakatani

As the saying goes, knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom. I had signed up for the course because I know that, for better or worse, I hate disappointing people (yes, even someone I’ve just met), and that having structure and accountability would help me run with regularity. 

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways, too. In the immortal words of Descarte: I think (I will be more consistent), therefore I am (more consistent). 

Whatever the case, I'm eager to keep up this habit, and while I can’t yet say that I love running, I can honestly share that I start each day craving the energy boost that comes with it.

Taking on the next challenge: alumni UBC’s Virtual Race

If, like me, you’ve been wanting to start an exercise routine during the pandemic and finding it difficult, it’s worth asking yourself if incorporating some external accountability in your life might help. A fun and structured way you could do this is by signing up for alumni UBC’s Virtual Race, part of their Summer Series of events and activities to keep you engaged this season.

The race challenges you to run a virtual course between UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan, all from the comfort of your own neighbourhood. You’ll get access to a dashboard to help you track your progress (and, let’s be honest, to see how the other racers are doing so you can stay just one step ahead). If running’s not your thing, you can walk, swim, bike or even rollerblade — the point is to just get moving! 

Best of all, the race is open to everyone, so if you’ve got family or friends who are bemoaning their pandemic-induced inertia, grab a couple of them and spur each other on. According to Nakatani, having an accountability buddy or two is “the best way to create a habit or accomplish any goal.” And he would know. He’s taught hundreds of students over the past 7 years and hears the same refrain: how much they benefit from the accountability aspect of his course.

“Part of the beauty of having an accountability buddy,” Nakatani explains, “is that we have this built-in motivational drive that requires almost no effort other than just knowing that you've made a commitment to somebody. It's like, ‘I told someone — and now I get all this drive to follow through on that.’”

In that vein (and because I can use all the motivational drive I can get when it comes to exercise), I thought I’d share that I’ve committed to completing the Virtual Race, too. To make doubly sure that I follow through, I’m also tapping into some sibling rivalry accountability by enlisting my older sister Dorothy as a fellow racer/motivator.

We’ve even raised the stakes: whoever finishes second has to treat the other to a nice meal out. I’m definitely the underdog in this scenario: Dorothy has run half-marathons while I’ve only watched marathons. Regardless of who ‘wins’ though, I have no doubt that we’ll both feel happier and healthier as a result of taking on this challenge.

Embracing the magic of daily exercise

Unlike a lot of things in life, exercise really does deliver on its promises: more energy, better sleep, improved mood, an instant pep in your step. 

I’ve yet to finish a run and feel anything other than uplifted. I might tackle the hill with a grimace, but I’m pretty sure I run down it with a goofy grin. I’ve even started to notice how, after a full day at work, I have a lot more mental energy to tackle personal and creative projects than I used to. It’s a gracious paradox of the universe that by expending energy, we get energized.

It’s a gracious paradox of the universe that by expending energy, we get energized.

Moreover, I’ve used my morning workouts to, quite literally, work out ideas and solutions to things I’m stuck on. It’s the win-win kind of multitasking, because the more interesting the problem, the quicker the run is… such that at the end of a recent one, I actually involuntarily exclaimed, “What a great run!” — not because I’ve come to like hills or sweating, but because I had stumbled on some inspiration that made the workout extra satisfying that day.

Keeping up with this practice has also reminded me that I can, in fact, develop new habits, even when they involve fighting the gravitational pull of my bed in the mornings. There’s something to be said about the invigorating sensation you get when how you want to live your life actually aligns with your day-to-day activities.

While I might have tackled the running routine at first because I didn’t want to let the instructor or my accountability buddy down, I realized this week that I’ve been keeping it up because I don’t want to let myself down. As a long-time obliger, that feels like the most magical transformation of all.