I’ve always been intrigued by the connection between personal health and personal finance. The two share a lot of philosophical connections, because they both have to do with managing limited resources and time to give you the best quality of life possible. (I’ve written a lot on the finance/wellness connection, and if you find it as interesting as I do I’ve linked other articles on this topic at the end of this article.)
When you’re learning to budget, you’ll come across the idea of “paying yourself first”. This is a way of thinking that prioritizes savings and helps you not fritter away your income on short-term pleasures.
If you’re living by the pay yourself first philosophy, when money comes into your life, you immediately wedge off a chunk of it to put towards your savings goals. Only after that chunk is stashed away do you turn your attention to paying everyone else (your landlord, the cell phone company, the dog-walker, etc…).
Ideally, this self-payment happens automatically. For example, 20% of every paycheck deposited to your bank immediately transfers to your long-term savings. You don’t have to think about it, you’ve already paid yourself before you start spending any money for the month. Over time this gets big results and you start hitting your savings goals without needing too much discipline.
You can also pay yourself first when it comes to health and fitness.
Every day you wake up with an idea in your head about how the day’s schedule is going to go. You’ll eat breakfast around this time, start work around that time, have that meeting after lunch, and get your workout done before dinner.
But days have a way of not going as planned. Traffic is bad. A task you estimated to take one hour takes three. The meeting runs overtime. A family member needs you to run an errand for them. You have to “pay” your day away to so many competing interests, and the currency is your time and attention. And all too often, after a mentally exhausting day, the item that goes on the chopping block is your exercise session. You just don’t have it in you to lace up your shoes and do cardio or a workout. You’ve been working hard all day!
But what if you paid yourself first? What if you made sure the first thing you did was get your daily exercise safely deposited in the bank? An early morning workout is powerful because there’s almost no chance that it will get cut due to the demands of the day.
For some people, early morning exercise feels like a natural fit, and they jump out of bed ready to break a sweat. But most of us struggle with morning fitness. You’re tired. Your body is cold. Your brain is foggy. The bed is so, so warm. What if you just check the news for a few minutes on your phone before getting up? The struggle is real.
The worst way to start up a morning fitness routine is to make big promises to yourself the night before. Night-before you is a terrible judge of what morning-you is capable of. Then when you inevitably lose the battle of will and stay in the warm covers the next day, you not only don’t get any exercise done, you have a load of guilt that you’re not even able to keep your word to yourself. Here’s a better way.
Kenzai Guide to Starting Up an Early Morning Exercise Routine
Reframe the task as “paying yourself first”.
If you view morning exercise as a bleak chore or punishment, it won’t stick. Take the positive view that no matter what the day brings, you’re already going to have your exercise in the bank. You’re finally paying yourself first.
Wake up early one day at the time you’d need to wake if you were doing exercise. But on this first day, don’t exercise —- plan!
You’ll be a much better judge of your capabilities for morning exercise when you’re actually in the groggy morning state. Choose a pre-game day to wake up early. Get used to the feeling of waking up at that time. Get a piece of paper or calendar and write what you think an achievable amount of exercise will be. Morning-you is sober and makes better goals than night-time you. Keep this paper or calendar posted somewhere visible like the refrigerator or on your desk.
Start mild and build up more intensity over months, not days.
To pay yourself first, the bare minimum deposit is simply 30 minutes of exercise that consistently elevates your heart rate. This is the threshold where all the positive effects of exercise kick in. This doesn’t need to be hard, strenuous exercise. A brisk walk around the neighborhood will get the job done. A half hour exercise video or home workout will get the job done. Just 30 minutes!
As you get used to morning exercise, you can increase the intensity, but don’t sabotage yourself by going too hard too fast. At the end of the morning exercise, you should feel like “I could have done more.” That’s a good sign that you’re working at the right level.
Make morning exercise automatic.
The beauty of “pay yourself first” for personal finance is that the funds are stashed away automatically without you having to think about it. You can get to that same mental place with your morning exercise. When your alarm goes off, don’t indulge in “should I or shouldn’t I” thinking, just go. The morning is a narrow window of time, and you’ve got to get your deposit in the bank before the rest of the day starts piling on its problems and distractions. Eyes open, out of bed, workout gear on, go!
If you can get this right for about two weeks, your brain will accept its new reality and true automaticity will kick-in. Powerful!
Take away any and all decision points from the morning.
Your early morning brain is in low gear. It doesn’t have the bandwidth for decision making. Help yourself out and make decisions the night before. Lay out the clothes you’re going to wear. Pre-determine the exercise you’re going to be doing (write it down to make it feel more set in stone). Make sure your headphones are charged with your music cued up and ready. Anything you can do to help automate the process makes success more likely.
Dwell on the afterglow.
Your sleepy brain will try to tell you morning exercise is the worst idea ever. Leapfrog all the discomfort and instead put your attention on how AWESOME it feels to pay yourself first, and be able to stride through your day knowing that your exercise is securely in the “done” category before most people have had coffee. It’s a GREAT feeling. Focus your mind on how good that feels, not how hard it is to get out of bed.
Believe in thermodynamics
In the morning both your body and the environment are at their coldest. This is very discouraging from the warmth of your covers. But after just 5 minutes of exercise, your body temperature will have become a pleasant warmth. Morning-you doesn’t believe this will happen. It thinks you’re going to be cold forever. Overrule that thought and get going, the sooner you get moving the sooner you’ll be warm.
Rotate and articulate all joints.
Exercise injuries are usually clustered around joints, not muscles. In the morning your joints are fresh, but cold. Before you start exercising, take your joints through their complete range of motion. This heats up and softens the cartilage, and freshens the synovial fluid in your joint capsules. You DON’T need to be doing big deep muscle stretches before morning exercise. The muscles will warm up correctly with movement. It’s your joints that need the warm-up, not your muscle tissue.
Should you eat something before your early morning exercise? It depends.
If you’re just looking to burn some calories and get general health benefits from early morning exercise, then you’ll be fine running on empty. If you need power for your morning exercise (because you’ll be doing muscle building training) then have a small pre-workout snack such as a banana or slice of toast. The glucose from that snack will greatly increase your muscular performance, giving you a better effect than doing the workout under-fueled.
Don’t ruin the effect of morning exercise with too many treats!
The one danger point of early-morning exercise is that you feel so good about yourself that you let a lot of treats pile up during the day. Scone at the café on the way to work? Why not? I did go for a jog this morning, right? Some extra fries at lunch? Sure! I did go for a jog this morning after all. A bite of something sweet after dinner? No problem, I did go for a jog early this morning!”
Thinking like this is equivalent to being so proud of yourself for putting money in your savings account that you go buy yourself something extra nice to celebrate. It’s a poor way to make progress.
Don’t worry about perfect streaks. Perfection is brittle.
As you get started, you’ll likely have a day where things don’t come together and you miss your morning session. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking one missed day has broken your perfect record and now there’s no point in continuing. Just get it right the next day and move forward. Progress is the goal, not perfection.
If you haven’t found an exercise routine that sticks, give the “pay yourself first” early morning method a try. The savings account you’re paying into is worth more than all the money in the world. Health and wellness is priceless!
Want to read more about the connection between personal finance and personal fitness?
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder