On July 1, 2006, at age 41, I started working out with the goal of figuring out how to keep working out for the rest of my life. For years I’d fallen on and off of workout plans, following a routine for a few months and then stopping again, depending on the time or travel demands or stress of school or job. Sometimes I was fit; other times I couldn’t do the things I wanted to be able to do, like ride a bike or go on a strenuous hike without getting out of breath. For years in the back of my mind, I’d had an idea that I wanted to be fit enough to do a triathlon casually whenever I wanted to, even though that seemed a little over the top to me.

I’d gained weight again working as a senior manager at Quill. I must have been in the mid-150s (at 5’6″ with a small frame, that’s a good 20-30 pounds too much), but I’m not even sure because I wouldn’t weigh myself. My triglycerides were chronically high and my good cholesterol was low; I suffered from health problems including migraines, food sensitivities and adrenal burn-out. It finally hit me that I had to stop the cycle of building up fitness and then falling off. I had to change the question — not of how I could get in shape this time using my tried and true methods, but how I could stay that way. I couldn’t fathom a “lifetime,” so I set a concrete goal of continuing to work out regularly for FIVE YEARS. I’d read in bodybuilders’ articles that it takes five years to transform your body at the gym, and I’d also read, separately in health articles, that it takes five to seven years to rebuild all the cells in your body. It seemed like a crazy long time — all the workout plans I’d done or seen had been 30 days or 6 or 12 weeks, and even marathoners’ plans are only 24 weeks — so I kind of kept it to myself.

Like any good change of question, it instantly changed the way I thought about the problem. Instead of diving into some intense cardio and weight training program and gritting my teeth to “get through it” for X weeks, I had to find a way to keep coming back, day after day after day. The first thing I discovered was that I was not nearly fit enough (or even well enough) to do the six days of exercise — three days of weights and three days of treadmill running — I had planned. My body needed a full day of rest between every workout I did. I couldn’t do more than one set of weighted lunges without blowing out my legs for the week, and I could barely do more than walk on the treadmill without my lungs feeling like I was tearing them. In the past I would have remained attached to the plan, and would have kept trying to work it until I was too fatigued three weeks later and stopped for good. But I had five years in mind. I couldn’t do that.

I ratcheted down to three workouts a week, alternating two cardio and one weights with two weights and one cardio. Find me any trainer or plan that says that’s enough; they won’t! But it was what I could do, and it gradually got me stronger. I used just body weight for squats and lunges, and did only one set of strength moves for the first three or four months. For cardio I mostly walked. I also followed the easiest “Cardio Coach” CD that directed me through a couple of jogging intervals. (A manageable jog for me at that time was 4 mph, or 15:00-minute miles!) I remember pulling up my shirt and looking at my squishy stomach in the bathroom mirror and saying in despair, how is this ever going to change? But I figured I’d gotten this way doing the things that were wrong; and all I could do now were the things I knew were right.  I kept going.