On the schoolyard field of battle known as gym class, I made the geeks look good. I was such a klutz that I always got picked last when teams were being selected, and the gym teacher seemed to hold me personally responsible for it taking him eight years to finish a Phys. Ed. degree.

I always came out of dodge ball with head trauma.

In college I got the “freshman fifteen” factored by three, and after seeing a vacation beach photo decided it was time to get in shape for the first time in my life. That was 1993, and I’ve never looked back.

Nowadays, over two decades later, I’ve managed to stay in pretty good shape. Fitness isn’t just a means to an end for me. I’ve never been tempted to buy some body-bow-blade-ellipto-flex-ab-shocking-cruncher because such things are crap and it’s not a healthy attitude. I see exercise as not only about achieving goals, but a righteously ass-kicking attitude that needs to be embraced with vigor until the day I start pushing up daisies. Here are my 10 personal fitness commandments that have kept me going strong for almost a quarter century.

1. Thou shalt feel the love
It’s impossible to sustain something you hate long term, so don’t concern yourself with what is the better calorie burner or muscle builder, but instead experiment with a variety of things. Embrace that which feeds your fitness soul and eschew others. If it is fun and enjoyable you will want to keep doing it.

2. Thou shalt make time
Lack of time is the number one excuse people provide for not exercising. A.C. Nielsen Co. reports that Americans average four hours of TV time every day; there is a logical disconnect here. Understand that much of what is on TV is crap anyway, and by making fitness a top priority you can find the time. Alternatively, you could always workout while you watch.

3. Thou shalt get instruction
Remember when I wrote, “feel the love?” Gaining confidence and competence at an activity is what allows that love to flourish for me. Sucking at something again and again and never getting any better does not lead to passionate adherence. This doesn’t mean you must spend a fortune on high-priced trainers, but instead engaged in continuous learning for your chosen activities, be it via the Internet, books, magazines or the people you drink with. A good trainer definitely can help, but if money is tight there are other ways.

4. Thou shalt spend money
Speaking of money possibly being tight, you’re probably going to have to find at least some. I buy a new pair of $150 runners every five months and dropped a pretty obscene amount of money on a road bike. Something like running is not about putting on those old Magnum P.I. shorts from high school gym class and a pair of tennis shoes and heading out the door because that’s a recipe for failure. Regardless of the activity, there is value in having some appropriate clothing and equipment to improve both attitude towards the activity and performance. I don’t golf and I don’t own a boat. Fitness is my hobby and that’s where my extra cash goes.

5. Thou shalt eschew quick fixes
I remember a long time ago when I was 50 pounds fatter and tempted by pills and powders. I soon learned that the noble tortoise is often the one who wins the race when it comes to getting in shape. The hare sprints 50 yards, gets tired and says, “Screw it. Too hard. I quit.” When it comes to fitness, there is no such thing as “quick and easy.” I was a donut-scarfing couch potato and had to accept that it was going to be a hard slog taking many months. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, which is why it was important for you to learn to love that journey.

6. Thou shalt be competitive
There are a number of ways to be competitive. It is proven that people who track their progress with fitness have higher adherence rates. It can be as simple as endeavoring to lift more weight, do more reps, more sets, run further, cycle faster, swim more lengths, do the harder class etc. Some feats I’ve endeavored to accomplish include bench pressing 315, running a 10K in under 40 minutes, qualifying for Boston, and eventually I hope to complete an Ironman triathlon. Sometimes I achieve my goals, and sometimes I don’t. What matters is that they keep me in a “quest” mentality. If you regularly plan for something to train for, it will keep you in that training mindset.

7. Thou shalt sweat on vacation
Sitting poolside and sucking back 600-calorie margaritas is not conducive to sustaining fitness. You don’t want to have to spend a month burning off flab gained in one week at an all-inclusive resort. Instead, plan vacations wisely to incorporate exercise. I’ve used the gym on the cruise ships, explored the area via hikes, cycling or running, gone swimming and sea kayaking to help stay ahead of the extra beer intake. You’re not forced to sit in front of a computer all day while on vacation, so get up when the birds start chirping and move!

8. Thou shalt suck it up
There are days that I just don’t want to. This is not the same thing as a required rest day, being injured or sick. Sometimes the body really says “no” and you must listen. However, there are many other days where the weather sucks, you’re busy, the kids are being brats, your iPod isn’t charged … there will always be excuses by the bucketful not to exercise. And these will add up until a regular exercise regimen becomes a regular couch and TV regimen. When you find yourself making excuses, just stop, suck it up, and do it anyway.

9. Thou shalt fuel appropriately
Unless you are training at competitive marathoner levels, it is pretty much impossible to out-train a bad diet. It’s far easier to take in an extra thousand calories than it is to burn it off, so in order to stay prevent weight gain you must be careful about caloric intake and ensure that you get the right nutrition that is in line with your health, performance and physique goals.

10. Thou shalt never stop
I’ve had 48 trips around the sun and think that perhaps I am not yet in the best shape of my life. There will come a day when I must slow down, a little, but I am committed to continuing my fitness journey right up until I get creamed by some futuristic bus while riding my dilithium-crystal-fiber bicycle along a scenic mountain road in the Mars colonies. Don’t let work or life challenges derail your efforts. By putting fitness first, it makes you better at everything else you do. So just keep doing it.


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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.