So yesterday, I walk into the Cleveland Street YMCA, and what do I see? About twice as many people as usual, trying to burn off some of the calories they took in over the holidays (brace yourselves, January is going to be rough). Yep, it’s that time of year again: Post Thanksgiving weight-loss week. Wonderful.

In almost exactly a month, the annual migration to the gym will begin: New Years’ resolutions and all. For some, it’s a great time of renewed conviction and motivation when it comes to fitness, training, and weight loss. For others, it just means longer lines for the exercise machines.

Fortunately, by February, most of the New Year’s resolutions have fallen by the wayside, and crowds at the gym are all but gone. Whew. It just takes patience on our part. As sad as it is (I would really like to see everyone stick to a fitness plan all year) gyms couldn’t handle the traffic if even 20% of the folks who quit after three weeks actually kept it up, so it’s kind of good for the infrastructure that most folks don’t.

Otherwise, we’d have gyms on every street corner.

If you’re fall into the category of people who tries to get back in shape in January only to find yourself right back where you started by March, guess what: This is year isn’t going to be any different. If all you want to do is lose some weight, if you only get motivated to work out after you’ve put on thirty pounds on top of the weight you already put on last year, you’re in for a rude awakening. This year isn’t going to be any different.

Why should it be? What’s going to make you mentally stronger this year? How are you going to succeed this year? How is your plan so radically different from before? It isn’t. You can lie to yourself if that floats your boat, but the reality of it is this: Even if you hit the gym every day in January, even if you start out with all the motivation and willpower in the world, you’ll be right back where you started by early spring. Again. Because you’re doing it all wrong.

I have been working and talking with overweight people for over a decade, and let me tell you something: After ten years of diets and trips to the gyms and personal trainers, they are still overweight. Why? Because they don’t set realistic goals. Because they think that working out and losing weight means that they have to deprive themselves of something. Food. Play time. Morning naps. Whatever. Well, they’re completely wrong. Working out can be a chore, but most of the time, it isn’t. Not by a longshot.

Here’s the skinny on me: I’ve always been athletic. I played soccer as a kid. I played tennis. I swam. I trained horses. During the week, I lived in the city, so I did a whole lot of walking wherever I went. The store. School. The subway station. Everywhere. In high school, I added track & field to the mix. In college,I played intramural sports and started mountain biking. In the military, I ran and swam a lot. (It was kind of encouraged.) But after I came back to the US, got married and started working in the private sector, the fitness stuff went away. Three years later, I was fifteen pounds overweight and couldn’t run up a flight of stairs, much less run a mile.

I remember looking down in the shower one morning and not being to see my toes. (No, get your mind out of the gutter – it was my gut that was in the way. Sheesh.) I had gone from a size 32 waist to a size 38. Not cool. Not cool at all. That was the day I decided I wasn’t going to allow myself to be overweight and unhealthy anymore.

I won’t bore you with the whole story about seeing the Ironman triathlon on TV and falling in love with the sport right there and then. That’ll have to be for another day. What matters is this: I decided that being 15 pounds overweight wasn’t acceptable anymore, and I did something about it.

I’d love to tell you that I got fit again fast, but I can’t. It took me seven months to completely lose the gut and look like an athlete again. Those seven months weren’t always fun. It took me two years to be competitive again. Getting fit takes patience and discipline, but mostly patience. I know that books and infomercials promise you results in ten days, but that’s mostly bullshizzle. Yeah, you’ll see results in ten days… but then it’ll take you two months to get to the next level of results. And then five more. During that time, you can’t obsess about weight loss or muscle growth or endurance gains. You just have to relax, stay the course, and keep it fun.

But we aren’t there yet. We aren’t even close.

For some people, that 15 pound mark is long gone. You may have alowed yourself to gain 20 or 50 or 100 pounds. All in all, it’s the same thing. Weight is weight. Fat is fat. Unhealthy is unhealthy. Every pound comes off the same way, regardless of whether you weigh 300 pounds or 15o. You have to burn off each pound of fat by itself. One at a time.

Dieting is not the way to do it.

Neither is going to the gym and not working very hard.

Neither is setting a target weight or target date when you will reach it.

Doing any of these three things will always, always, always lead you to fail.

There are ways to lose weight and get fit that work. The thing is, it isn’t easy at first. You have bad habits to break. Eating habits. Scheduling habits. Activity-related habits. You probably don’t want to hear this, but – while staying fit doesn’t take a lot of work – getting fit takes a lot of work.

The bad news is this: If you aren’t fit now, getting fit is going to be difficult, especially at first.

The good news is that you’re going to have fun getting there.

And we’re going to help you. 😉

First things first: You need to set SMALL goals. That’s right. SMALL goals. Not big ones.

The smaller, the better.

You aren’t going to worry about weight right now. You aren’t even going to worry about food or calories. The first thing we’re going to worry about is getting you off the couch or away from your desk. We’re going to start with making you active again. You need to get out there and have fun. Walk. Run. Swim. Go for a ride. We need to get your body used to moving again. We’ll worry about the rest later. Now’s not the time to start swearing off doughnuts and pizza.

This is going to be an unstructured acclimation period. We have to teach your body to enjoy sweating again. Enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll miss it in a few months when your training gets more serious. 😉

Talking about setting small goals, here’s one of the best ways to get you going: Sign up for a race. It doesn’t have to be a triathlon or a marathon. We’ll get to that later. Right now, just relax and sign up for a local 5K.

If you’ve never done one, don’t be scared. Lots of people walk 5K’s. Very few people actually race in 5K’s. Most participants are just there to exercise. To have fun. To give their training a secondary purpose and stay with it. You don’t have to race. You don’t even have to run… But you can if you want to. In six months, you will be racing against the clock in local 5K races, but right now, the object of the game is to sign up, show up, and participate. Get your finisher’s T-shirt. Get your toes wet again. Set a baseline for your fitness. Find yourself in the company of other athletes of all shapes and sizes. Get into that scene. It’s motivating. Trust me. Scheduling a race every month or two keeps you from falling off the wagon. It’s one of those things that makes the fitness and weight loss stick.

An easy place to start is at this weekend’s “Over the River and through the Woods” 5K, right here in downtown Greenville. The race is put on by the Cleveland Street YMCA and is geared to runners of every level. You can race it as hard as you want, or walk it with your kids. It doesn’t really matter. The course takes you through downtown’s beautiful parks, so it’ll be a great little way to spend 20-40 minutes on a fine Saturday morning.

The point is, you’re going to do it. There will be none of that “I’m not ready” crap. You don’t have to be ready. We’re still in 2006. It won’t count against your 2007 times. You’re going to sign up, you’re going to run, walk or crawl 3.1 miles with the hundreds of other Greenville folks who ate too much stuffing last week, and you’re going to have a great time.

No ifs, ands or buts.

The benefits:

  1. You’ll feel better about yourself.
  2. You’ll get a cool T-shirt to work out in.
  3. You’ll burn a ton of calories.
  4. You’ll get an early start. (Why wait for January 1st?)
  5. It’ll get you ready for the Paris Mountain 5K coming up in a few weeks.
  6. You’ll meet new friends.
  7. You’ll see what everyone is wearing, which will help you buy new fitness clothes for Christmas.
  8. You’ll finally accept that you need real running shoes – not sneakers you bought ten years ago at Foot Locker.
  9. You’ll have a great time.
  10. Did I mention the part about feeling great about yourself?

Small goals. Fun goals. Don’t worry about eating less or weighing less. Just sign up, show up, and have fun. Sign up today. The race is on Saturday Dec 2 at 8:00am.

For information on this race and other YMCA events, contact Beth Coe at the Cleveland Street YMCA (721 Cleveland Street, Greenville, SC 29601). 864-242-4651.