Holly Van Hare
I’d seen many of these articles floating around the Internet — people who worked out for a certain amount of time, who followed a certain regimen, or reached a certain goal with some rule. “I Tried the 40-Day Ab Challenge, and This Is What Happened.” “I Became a Morning Person With This Daily Ritual.” Et cetera.
I’m a fitness instructor, and I often hear my class participants talking about similar programs or ideas. Maybe, they think, they’ll get the feeling and results they want from their workouts if they follow a plan. I got curious — what would something like that actually feel like? I wanted the experience so that I could give them honest advice.
I’d never tried a program or anything similar. I’d never done a 10-day challenge, or tried some “one thing every night for killer abs.” I do work out, and I work out often. So it wasn’t like working out every morning before work for a month was going to be too big of a leap (I thought). I was almost there already. So here’s what happens when someone who works out all the time tries to work out every weekday morning for a month.
Working out in the morning takes some real fuel — but I didn’t ever feel ready to eat a whole snack or meal at 6 a.m. I felt energized and OK working out before breakfast, so long as I ate a full dinner the night before. But after the sweat session? I felt very ready to eat.
And let me tell you — breakfast quickly became my favorite meal of the day. Thanks to my early alarm, I had more than enough time in the mornings to make a full and delicious breakfast before work. Waffles, oatmeal bowls, and eggs were all on my morning menu. When I was waking up right before it was time to leave for the office, I barely had time to grab some fruit and a protein bar on my way out the door.
When I finally made it into the office, I had already been awake for over three hours. The difference in my energy level and my productivity was staggering. I wasn’t sluggish, I didn’t waste an hour clicking through the news (I’d already listened to a news podcast on my walk home from the gym), and I didn’t rely on coffee to keep me awake.
Okay, so I still relied on coffee. Just not as much. I waited like, a whole extra hour before brewing myself a cup. Impressive, I know.
Waking up early meant getting to bed at a reasonably time — sober. Happy hour and drinks at dinner just did not vibe with that. There were two nights that I decided to go out, anyway. And when my alarm started blaring at that early, cruel hour, my wine-clogged brain was not having it.
I did make it to the gym — I just wished I didn’t have to. That was really one of the only times I regretted agreeing to this month-long challenge. I don’t like giving up my social life for the sake of healthy habits — I’ve learned through experience that that’s not really a healthy way to live at all.
Even though I was getting home before 9 and waking up at 6, I just could not manage to get my 8 hours. Going to sleep at 10 p.m. was proving to be so much more challenging than I thought it would be — and it didn’t help that my roommate liked to chat until around 11. I really like my evenings at home, and just never managed to cut them short. So what got cut short instead? My sleep.
I tried to catch up on the weekends, but that never worked out as planned, either… So I went the month running on fewer hours than I should have. Not ideal.
I’ve been sore before. And, like I said, I exercise a lot regularly and I know what it feels like. The difference here was that when I was sore, I still got up to go to the gym. I powered through the aches, ran through the pain, and it didn’t pay off. My soreness soon turned into a dull ache and my legs would get crampy throughout the workday. This is a classic symptom of overdoing it, and on any other month I’d have just taken a few crucial days to rest. I took my rest days on the weekend, but not being able to take them when you feel you need to just wasn’t the same.
I felt invigorated, lively, and energized in the morning. I used to hate mornings, feeling groggy and tired and just plain bitter, to be honest. It took coffee, complaints, and a whole lot of time to get me back into the spirit of getting things done and socializing. But on mornings when I worked out, I was a morning person. I listened to music on my way to work, sat down, and felt content and alert.
The time I spent showering and making breakfast after the gym started to feel great, too. It was an hour I got to spend with myself every day before I had to face the world — it quickly became sacred.
My sacred hour was the best thing that ever happened to my mornings. But every now and then, it became dull.
Alright, I’d think, another day, another workout. Another shower. Another this, another that…
I was getting bored. Having the same morning over and over again was tiring me out a little. But the fix was really easy — I just switched things up. I tried different workouts. I changed my routine. The boredom eased and I became friends with my mornings once again.
Not every workout was fun. Some workouts, though, I found myself looking forward to. I’d wake up excited, ready, and feeling fantastic. The post-workout high was very real.
Other times, though (usually on days that, on a normal month, I would have skipped the gym), I didn’t feel great after my workout. I felt tired. I got worn out. And that feeling sucked.
I’d already done it. No longer were the days when I left the office and felt like it was time to go workout. No longer did I have to give up my relaxing evenings to sweat it out with a bunch of other tired adults at the gym. I could go home, read, go to dinner, do whatever I wanted. And that was a beautiful feeling.
I discovered that there was a whole group of people who go to my gym that go to classes in the mornings. Each day, I saw the same familiar faces; after some time, we started saying hey. Now, we’re friends. We share life updates, have a few laughs, and talk about the class. Seeing those people every morning made getting to the gym less of a chore.
A little before 6, I found my eyes fluttering open and my brain becoming alert. My alarm hadn’t even gone off and I was already up. Crazy how our bodies adjust — I think I was just so dead-set on getting up for my gym session that my brain accommodated. Even on the weekends it was harder to sleep in.
I won’t lie to you — there were days I felt too worn out to get a good workout in. Exhausted, I’d drag myself to the gym anyway and take a morning class, getting by with the bare minimum effort until the 45 minutes were over.
Other times, I felt okay during the workout, but later, I’d crash. Once 3 p.m. rolled around I felt fatigue, brain fog, and lethargy. That feeling wasn’t great, and I’ve learned through this experience that a relentless everyday routine isn’t for me.
Like I said — sometimes I was way too tired to go all out. I’m not a person who enjoys yoga (though I’ve tried it many times) so the classes I went to or the workouts I did myself were either HIIT, strength training, or running outside. Some runs were really slow. Some classes were really weak.
But on other days, my workouts felt great. There were incredible, invigorating runs and strong, accomplished sets with dumbbells. I got stronger, lifted heavier, and felt better some days, too. But not every day is a good day — and on the days where the workout wasn’t great, my body likely just needed a rest I wasn’t giving it.
Being in touch with my body and what workouts felt best for me was a lot harder once I put a rule on my workouts. Instead of waking up and saying “I’m tired today, I’ll sleep in,” or getting home after a long day and saying, “I feel so ready to go for a run,” I found myself blocked off from my intuition around exercise. If I got home and wanted to run, I couldn’t because I was getting up early to do it the next morning. If I felt sore and didn’t sleep enough the night before, I still dragged myself to the gym, even though I knew it wasn’t best for me.
Intuition with exercise takes practice, and it isn’t always easy to know what’s really best for you at any given moment. But I didn’t love feeling that intuition taken away from me, and I likely won’t take on a challenge like this again. I got a lot stronger and felt a lot better when I allowed myself to just work out on my own terms.
What I love most about exercise is the rewarding, enjoyable feeling I get from it — not the achievement of having worked out with a certain intensity or to look a certain way. I’ve been there before, and it never made me feel positive, energized, or fulfilled. For me, the best exercise is exercise I actually want to do; and I trust myself that I’ll do it.