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To Form New Habits It Helps to Start Small

Don’t Join a Gym if You’re Not Ready

Anyone who felt genuinely discouraged by a certain fitness chain’s recent “We Don’t Speak January” marketing gimmick probably doesn’t belong in a gym anyway. At least not yet. It feels good to buy a gym membership. It feels decisive. But big, symbolic gestures are not where you’ll get your gains. You have to make exercise a habit, something you can do without thinking too much. This is why it needs to be specific and actionable. We don’t “practice good dental hygiene” before bed; we just brush our teeth. So it is with “getting in shape.”

Building a routine takes time, so it’s got to be easy enough that you can do it every day, with enough of a reward that it generally seems worth the effort, if only in retrospect. (Brushing your teeth is a good example here, too). Start with twenty minutes of bodyweight exercises on your living room floor every morning as soon as you wake up. If this is too hard to maintain, cut it to ten minutes. Or try something else you find less onerous, like jumping rope or handstands or three sets of as many push-ups as you can do. Whatever lets you get some momentum going. Once you establish the habit, then you can tweak it or add to it.

Obviously you can apply this to other self-improvement projects, like learning to cook or honing your backhand. You can also apply it to virtues. Once you realize that faith, hope, charity and the like are less mystical inner states than they are sets of actions you can get better at with practice, becoming a good person no longer seems as daunting. Don’t take my word for it; I’m pretty sure this all comes from Aristotle. I’ll confirm once I’ve read Nicomachean Ethics sometime in 2023. (Fortunately The Last Bookstore does speak January).


Swinging a kettlebell feels uncomfortable the first time you do it; so does manufacturing one. But as long as you stick with it, you’ll see results. Consider the example of the 140-year-old Georgia-based foundry Goldens’ Cast Iron. When the Covid shutdowns hit in 2020, the market for the machine parts it manufactured shrank. So it took a chance on a product with surging demand and severely limited supply.

Almost three years later, many of the supply chain issues plaguing imports have been resolved. Despite the increased competition, Goldens’ Cast Iron kettlebells are still a hit, thanks to a consistent, day-to-day commitment to quality and customer service.


While specific goals are key, you don’t want to get bogged down in the details. You could spend weeks weighing the merits of various fitness programs and methodologies before you even break a sweat. Better to just pick something and get started.

I mentioned bodyweight exercises; as it happens there’s a thriving subreddit for that. Absolute beginners (or those seeking a refresher) can start here. If that’s not advanced enough, you can move on to the next level. Again, the main thing is to begin.

Image: r/bodyweightfitness


One of the most basic ways to get the blood pumping is to step out your door, pick a direction, and start running. Whether you find running’s brutal simplicity elegant or boring will depend on your temperament. Certainly it will humble the impatient. “You don’t become a champion by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years.”

That’s from John L Parker’s cult novel Once A Runner, a semi-autobiographical tale of a college track prodigy competing in the rarified league of sub four-minute milers. What sets Parker’s book apart from many sports novels is his ability to convey, in visceral detail, the psychological and physical effort of countless hours spent chasing marginal gains. In Parker’s hands, the private training becomes just as gripping a test of will as the public contests it prepares for.


Plato doesn’t need me to vouch for him any more than Aristotle does. But it’s worth noting that he strove to maintain a nimble body as well as mind. “Plato” (Greek for “broad shouldered”) is a nickname the great philosopher earned as a young wrestler; he was good enough that he competed in the Olympics-style Ithsmian Games.

For Plato mental and physical fitness were complementary; the slow and patient combat of two wrestlers reflected the productive back and forth of intellectual inquiry. It’s no accident that wrestling metaphors appear in his Socratic dialogues, as when (in the Theaetetus), Socrates urges his interlocutor to “try a fall with me and we shall both be the better.”