Exercise has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I used to play soccer for six-hour stints at a time, and I was introduced to weight training early, getting my first set of dumbbells and a barbell at the age of 12.

When I took up rugby, my love of exercise blossomed. I had a reason to train and I reaped the benefits associated with exercise. But most importantly, I had fun. I loved going to the gym, I loved running, and I loved playing rugby with friends. If I had any spare time, I would find myself playing some kind of sport, whether it was rugby, soccer or basketball.

I was lucky. With a set of parents who both played soccer to a semi-professional standard, the exercise bug was in my genes.

Not all plain sailing

While exercise came naturally when I was younger, things changed a little when I went to University. After leaving school, I played a season of professional rugby and was unquestionably in the best shape of my life. Upon arriving at University, I continued to play rugby and even began training with a local professional side.

This all changed, however, in my second year at University, aged 20.

In what was a pretty innocuous tackle, I managed to dislocate my left thumb and split my scaphoid right down the centre. I didn’t know it at the time, and I spent over a year trying to return from injury, but that was to be the end of my professional rugby career. Doctors and physiotherapists told me that it is one of the rarest and most complex breaks that you can sustain.

Why am I telling you this?

The reason is simple, if you detest the thought of doing exercise, I can, without a shadow of a doubt, say that I understand how you feel.

While exercise was a huge part of my life, the injury I sustained completely turned me off exercise for about three years. In three years, I went from being fit, with a body fat percentage of less than 10%, to piling on the pounds and feeling awful about myself. I went from exercising for at least two hours per day, to not even entertaining the idea of going for 10-minute jog.

The road to salvation

It was a long road, but, eventually, I did rekindle my love for exercise.

The strange thing was that even though I had exercised so much as a kid, and knew the benefits, I still made all the same excuses that anyone who is inactive makes. I was embarrassed to exercise in public because I was so out of shape, it hurt my joints when I ran because I was carrying too much weight, I got bored easily, I didn’t really have a reason to exercise, I couldn’t afford gym membership, it was too hard, I didn’t know where to start, I was putting in all this effort and seeing no changes, and the mother of all excuses, I just didn’t have time.

There was not one excuse that I didn’t make, for three years. And I bet, if you’re honest with yourself, the reason that you don’t exercise is probably in the list above, isn’t it?

Exercise is once again a key part of my everyday life, and I feel great because of it. So, today, I thought I would share with you some of the lessons that I learned when trying to get back into the habit of exercising on a regular basis.

These are my top 5 tips that will help make you fall in love with exercise, whether it’s for the first time, or you’re trying to rekindle an old flame.

1.    Find your why: Have short, medium and long term goals in mind.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Nobody should begin an exercise regime without knowing their why, it’s just not sustainable.

For me, my why was a loss of confidence. I had always been someone that was in shape and never worried about what they looked like in the mirror. After my injury, however, I began to lose confidence because when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like what was staring back at me. That was my why and when I realized that, I stopped making excuses and started on the road back to being active. I never looked back.

Your why could be absolutely anything. It could be as shallow as someone having called you fat, or it could be that you just want to feel healthier or fit into an old suit or dress. You may have loftier goals like running a marathon to raise money for charity or climbing a mountain. The important thing is that you dig deep and realize what your inner driving force is. And keep it close in your mind, because you’re going to need it when things get tough. Finding your why is the first step on the road to becoming more active, but, without taking it, all the other steps are a waste of time and energy.

Try writing your goals down. Pick a short (1 month), medium (3 months) and long term goal (6 months or longer). Put the piece of paper somewhere you can see it and keep referring to it. If you don’t fancy going training today, have a look back at your goals. Ask yourself, is sitting around eating junk going to get me any closer to the things that I want?

2.    Do things you love or have always wanted to try.

Exercise doesn’t have to all be about running around parks in the early morning for hours on end, forcing yourself to do something you hate. For some, that’s what they enjoy, and that’s great. For the rest of us, self included, it’s not our thing. So mix it up, try new things and rekindle old passions. Maybe you have always fancied trying surfing, it’s a great calorie burner, you are intrigued by ballroom dancing, or you’ve always wanted to learn to ice skate.

Don’t just think that exercise means running and going to the gym. This can form part of your exercise regime, but adding variety is a great way to burn calories, and have fun while you’re doing it. I personally now play rugby, the occasional game of five-a-side soccer, the odd pickup game of basketball, go jogging, lift weights and train in martial arts. When I had playing professional rugby as a goal, I had no motivation problems because everything was geared towards that. Now, however, I like to mix things up and try all sorts of things to keep in shape.

3.    Start slow, don’t get too carried away too early, listen to your body, but don’t be lazy.

This is an extremely important one. Once you have found your why and decided to get active, most people are so overcome with the initial sugar high of enthusiasm that they do too much; they think that more is better. It isn’t always. If you have been inactive for a long time, the worst thing you can do is to start exercising for hours every day, six days per week. If you want to do that in the long term, then that’s great. In the short term, however, rigidly sticking to one-hour exercise sessions three times per week can be far more helpful. Doing too much at once and getting fatigued is one of the major reasons that most people give up and quit. Know your body and listen to it. Don’t be lazy, but set a realistic exercise routine and gradually build it up as you become more confident.

4.    Begin to associate exercise with positive experiences so that you get motivated

Sadly, our brains are in fact wired to minimize effort, unless there is a perceived reward associated with that effort. There is, however, a way around this and it requires a little brain trickery, because while the brain may intellectualize that exercise is a good thing in the long term, it is looking for more of a quick fix.

And it’s up to us to find a way of giving the brain the quick fix it craves. The way that we do this is going to vary greatly from person to person, but the key underlying principle is that we must find a way of convincing the brain to link exercise with a positive experience. We may begin to tell ourselves that if we go for a run, we are going to get a release of endorphins, commonly known as runner’s high. We may start to internalize the fact that exercise makes us sleep more soundly. Or we may use some external tools; for example, choosing an audio book or podcast we want to listen to and saving it for when we go running or to the gym.

Joining a club can also be an effective tool. By enhancing our social lives, while doing exercise, the brain begins to associate sport with fun and laughter, craving more of it. We also set up a situation where we begin to feel bad if we let our teammates down. It’s a win-win.

5.    Measure your progress

It may sound obvious, but at the end of the day, this is what is going to help drive you on to continue exercising once you have taken the first step. If your goal is to lose weight, then take a picture of yourself on day one and then take another on the first day of every month. On a month-to-month basis, the changes may not be huge at first, but over several months the changes will be extremely noticeable. Seeing these changes in picture form will help spur you on to make even greater strides towards your goals.

If you are beginning to train for a marathon, then perhaps keeping note of your times for certain distances will be what motivates you. Whatever the barometer of success, make sure you have one. Refer back to it regularly and track your progress, it will keep you motivated and give you piece of mind that all the sacrifices that you are making are worth it.

Join the movement

As well as having long term health benefits, exercise can be a lot of fun. And above all, I would urge you not to forget that. It doesn’t have to be boring, and if it is then perhaps it is time to reassess what you’re doing. Go out and find the things you love, and do those. Sure, the occasional trip to the gym or a run around the park might be part of the regime, but the most important thing is just to get active, whether it’s for the first time, or you’re trying to rediscover the old love you once had for exercise.

Exercise has always been a part of my life. Those three years that I didn’t do any were probably the most miserable of my life. And that’s no coincidence. When you’ve found your why, just get started, no excuses. We would love to hear your success stories, and if you have any other handy tips and tricks for becoming more active then we would love to hear from you.