Minimalist Health Challenge

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge for diet and exercise

I’ve gone soft. Not soft emotionally, but soft in my arms. Specifically the jiggly part under my triceps. I’m sure you know which part I’m speaking of.

This softness is a disappointing development for me. Just over a year ago that part of my arm was firm and toned, along with my shoulders and the muscles in my back. Just over a year ago I could do SEVEN pull-ups in a row (which is not bad for a scrawny girl). And not cheater pull-ups, either. These were the real deal.

Alas, right now I could maybe do two pull-ups. Maybe.

The decline downward in health and fitness can be caused by a lot of reasons. Having a baby. Grief. Burnout. For me it was a change in priorities, which lead to a change in schedule. Specifically I replaced my early morning workout sessions with writing sessions. I don’t regret this decision, but one year later the lack of consistent physical activity is apparent.

In other words, I miss my biceps.

Because of this, and because spring break is just over six weeks away and my plans are to be in a sunny, warm location, I have some work to do. I want to tone up, eat better, and generally get this stiff body moving more. And I want to do it in the simplest, most minimal way possible without radically changing my routine, and without committing to an intense program.

So I’ve created a Minimalist Health Challenge for myself. Part experiment, part resolution, the rules of of this challenge are that there are no rules.

Instead, I’m asking the following questions:

Can I increase my overall health and fitness (aka be bikini-ready) in six weeks without a diet or a formal workout routine?

Can I organically fit physical activity into my day in a way that adds up to results but doesn’t require me to set aside a thirty-minute workout time? Is writing down what I eat enough to encourage me to choose healthy food?

My bet is Yes to all. Yes, I’ll tone up without actually “working out.” Yes, I’ll eat healthier. And Yes, I’ll be bikini-ready. To help, I’m doing the following two things:

  1. Keeping a food diary: Diet experts claim that there’s a lot of power in keeping a log of what we eat. I want to put that claim to the test. Without counting calories or tracking portion sizes or restricting certain foods, I’m simply going to write down everything I eat and drink and see what happens to my eating habits.
  2. Keeping a fit diary: Similar to food, I’m going to write down my physical activity for the day, plus notes about when they happen (ex. “twenty lunges while waiting for toaster in break room at work”). My theory is that we’re over-complicating fitness by compartmentalizing it into “workout sessions.” We’ll see what happens when I break down the compartments.

Like every good health challenge, I’m sharing a photo of my “before” at the start. We’ll see what kind of “after” a minimalist approach to health produces.

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge before picture

You’re invited to follow along with me on this challenge, and join in yourself. I’ll be posting regular updates, including what I’m eating and how I’m moving, on Instagram at @minimalisthealthchallenge.

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This preposterous idea for workouts might make all the difference

“I have a preposterous scene for you to imagine. Pretend that you’re walking down a corridor and come upon a row of windows peeking into a small gym. Inside you can see people working out. They all look so earnest and focused, running on their machines and hauling around weights. And then you see something that can’t be right. It’s a girl wearing a dress and she’s doing pull-ups.

“My mind must be playing tricks on me,” you think, and so you look again.

No—you saw correctly. She’s working out in a dress. Who does that? you think.

Well, I do.

Let me explain this bizarre behavior, because it has to do with why I think people aren’t sticking with their fitness goals. Generally I think that we’re overcomplicating fitness, and one way we do this is by believing we have to wear special clothing to workout. I think this belief is the #1 reason we decide NOT to workout. Changing clothes is too much hassle.

Here’s my proposal: Don’t change your clothes to workout.

I can hear your “buts” in my mind as if you were sitting right next to me.
“But I sweat too much.”
“But what I’m wearing is too confining and uncomfortable.”
“But…the chaffing.

These buts are all valid. Workout clothes are designed to function for sweat, movement, and wicking. Obviously they’re the best choice for activity. But you CAN workout in regular clothes, and even regular shoes.

> I’ve seen people walk to work in business clothes and sneakers.

> I’ve seen people do yoga in jeans and a t-shirt.

> And I sometimes lift weights in a dress and (gasp!) heels.

These motions—walking, lifting weights, yoga–are all exercises you can do wearing what you have on right now (exception: heels/dress shoes and walking don’t mix well for long distances), as is rowing, biking, and using an elliptical machine.

If you’re worried about sweat…

If you’re worried about sweat, I have an idea: Break your activity into multiple short sessions that don’t get you too overheated. In Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, Joshua Fields-Millburn talks about how he does pull-ups every time he passes through his hallway. He can now do over a 100 of them! He claims he’s never been stronger or in better shape.

Lastly, if you’re worried about what people will think if they spot you working out in normal clothes, my advice is to play it off totally cool. If you don’t act awkward, you won’t feel awkward. I like to make eye contact, smile and say “Hey,” and then proceed to lift weights like normal. I’m sure people think it’s quirky to see me in regular clothes, but who cares? I concentrate on my routine, and enjoy the feeling of checking off my workout for the day.

Do I wear regular clothes as my normal routine? No. Most of the time I workout before I get to work (in shorts and a t-shirt) and change when I’m done. But on days like today, for instance, when I’m missing my morning session, I’ll hit the gym (and the walking trail) in my dress.

What do you think? If you’re having a hard time staying consistent, could you remove the obstacle of changing clothes? Would that help you follow through?

I think we’re overcomplicating fitness

The small gym is quiet except for the fan. I can smell a lingering mix of sweat and men’s deodorant, no doubt left by one of my friends in the pre-7AM workout crew.

This gym, which is a perk of my workplace, has floor-to-ceiling mirrors along one long wall, several treadmills that I rarely see anyone use, one elliptical, and a couple stationary bikes. Plus an absurd number of inflated ab balls in varying sizes, a stack of yoga mats, a punching bag, and a mini trampoline. We’re now down to one very sad jump rope because I’ve single-handedly destroyed all the others. (They snap when I’m jumping, sending small plastic tubes through the air like bullets. It’s quite a hazard. I’m developing a reputation for being dangerous.)

And then there’s what I’m here for: The weights. Racks of dumbbells, mainly, and a nice collection of kettle balls. Plus a pull-up bar that I use when I need to blow off steam after a frustrating meeting or email.

I have a lean, uncomplicated approach to fitness, which is why I’m talking about it here

My fitness philosophy is, in a word, simple. I like two things best: weight lifting (which is super low tech), and being outdoors (my favorite is hiking, but trail running is fun, too). And yoga is nice but I’m quite terrible at it.

I share this because have you noticed how complicated fitness has gotten? There’s so much gear and fancy clothing and gadgetry. Not to mention the fads (remember the days of TaeBo and Denise Austin? RIP because they’ve been replaced by Tabata, Hiit and Crossfit.)

We spend a lot of money on memberships, programs, supplements, and equipment. As someone who’s been generally fit my entire adulthood, the secret to my success has nothing to do with programs or gadgets and everything to do with this: Discipline. And guess what makes discipline easier? Simplicity. You could call it a “minimalist” approach to fitness, and it works.

For example, here’s the routine I did last Thursday:

3 sets each of pull-ups, bicep curls, tricep extensions, dips, and shoulder lateral raises, followed by a quick 15-minute run outside because I was craving a wake-up from the cool morning air. The whole workout took 30 minutes. Then later in the evening I enjoyed a nice hour-long walk with my friend and neighbor. Easy peasy.

Reader, I don’t know you—not yet, anyway–but I can say that if you’re struggling with fitness (can’t stay consistent, constantly feel guilty for missing workouts, despise sweating and breathing heavy from the bottom of your heart), perhaps you’re overcomplicating it. I get it—there’s a lot of pressure to make fitness complex and overwhelming. Let’s stop doing that. Let’s work together to make things simpler for discipline, and thus doable.

Here’s a step we can take right now: Get outside for a walk. I don’t care how long of a walk it is–wear flip flops if you want. Just walk.

Would you like to see regular simple workout ideas here?

Share your vote in the comment section or tag me on Instagram (@stephaniehillberry).