By Isabel Ryan.

Illustration by Isabel Ryan.

Every year I say I need to start running or do something to get in shape. I used to play soccer and basketball but I quit for drama, so I don’t really have a lot of exercise now besides to and from school. But I don’t know where to start. Any suggestions? —Anna, 14, Boston

Dear Anna,

Hell yeah. I too contain multitudes, and a couple want to talk to you right now. My smug, gym-hating, life-long inner indoors-woman commends you on switching from sports to drama. My inner healthcare provider gently tells that inner indoors-woman to take the day off and shows genuine admiration for your sustained commitment to physical activity, which is pretty much always a good idea with many benefits. (Exercise gives you more energy for a life that it chemically provokes you to enjoy more! It is, perhaps, the weirdest drug of all.)

Before we get into setting exercise goals, though, can we jam about getting “in shape?” I’m taking a ribbon and waving it in a gentle circle around the word “shape.” There’s no need, for anyone, to “get in shape” or “get into better shape,” insofar as it means not being in good enough shape in the first place. You already are a shape. If you mean “changing my size,” know that people can be healthy at any size. OK, now:

What’s your goal?

It can be hard to measure progress with a goal as broad as “exercise,” and that un-measurability may prevent you from achieving glorious reward feels. So why not narrow it down to something “specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely?” (Also known as a “SMART goal”!)

For example, here are two of my fitness goals: “Learn 15-minute yoga ‘flow’ thing that I can do from my chair at work with nobody looking at me too weird,” which was the first fitness goal I ever successfully made for myself, and “Get arm-ripped for dual purpose of winning arm-wrestling matches versus Hazel (←results pending) and being able to carry one of those enormous water bottles from the vault at work.”

Your goal could also be time-based, like, “I want to do a workout video twice a week for 20 minutes each time,” or even, “I want to spend half an hour, twice a week, expressing myself in cosmic dimensions to a hi-power playlist, and my only goal is to not stop moving.” Whatever it is, your goal doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to feel like the right and attainable one for you.

If you’re like, “Hmm, all this would be useful information if I knew what I wanted to set an exercise goal about,” my friend Haley, also a nouveau Exercise Person, recommends this tried and true strategy for finding an activity you won’t dread:

OK, so the best advice I ever got about working out is also the most useless advice: The best workout is the workout you actually do. See what I mean?? Useless!! Like, hi, if I knew which workout I would actually do, I wouldn’t be here, thanks for nothing, helpless platitudes.

But here’s the carefully hidden genius of that advice: In order to find out which workout you’ll actually do, you have to…do the workout. This is the best time to commit to one—just one!—attempt at whatever it is you think might be that magical workout that propels you off your couch, into your running shoes, and toward sweaty ’n’ satisfying results. Like, you could go running once, and be like, “Man, that sucked, never again,” and then move on to yoga, or rock-climbing, or kick-boxing, or whatever. Lots of clubs offer complimentary classes for first-timers, so the pressure is off; all you have to do is show up once—just once!—and pay attention to how you feel during and after.

What do you think are the conditions you need to actually do the workout? Pick a few, and then test them out. Give yourself a few months to just try what’s out there; you’ll still be working out, even if you haven’t yet found your regular routine. The best workout, I am both pleased and sorry to tell you, is the workout you’ll actually do.

Thank you, Haley!

Your letter doesn’t mention that the switch from sports to drama was motivated by changes in your physical ability level. If it was, though, talk to one of your former coaches, a gym teacher, a physical therapist, or a trainer about the exercises you’re thinking about trying and ways to prevent injuries. (Actually, that might be a good idea anyway, as these people tend to know what’s up.)

All right! You’ve got an idea of what you want to do. Next question:

Where do you start?

Option One: Right here, like in this room.

From my tentative forays into being an Exercise Person, I have noticed that the most terrifying and exciting thing about fitness is that it can happen anywhere, anytime, sometimes without warning. Are you sitting in a chair? I am. (Imagine me in one of these situations. That’s my Dad, doesn’t he look cool?)

For very evidence-based workouts that can be done in front of a computer, I turn to Nerds on the Internet: They tend to be really into the science of exercise and none of the bullshit about how you’re “supposed to” shape your corporeal form into some sort of goddamn smoothbeast. YouTube is how I started exercising, actually; most of the workouts that live there require very little space and little to no equipment. But who to hang out with? Shop around: The time I put into my search mostly came from running away from people I found annoying or shaming or who just filled me with an overwhelming sense of “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO WITH MY BODY.” My two best workout friends are Adriene from Yoga With Adriene and Cassey from Blogilates. They don’t know me or anything, I just see them a few times a week on my living room carpet with all the shades drawn. Adriene has a 30-day beginners’ program and Cassey has a beginners’ calendar. Fellow Rookie contributor Julianne loves to do ’80s celebrity YouTube workout videos: Paula Abdul’s and Mel B.’s (aka Scary Spice), in particular. I started a private playlist of the videos I really dig and save them there for when I’m feeling not terribly motivated. And if you have a smartphone, you can grab a fitness app—my favorites are based in scientific evidence, like this seven-minute workout.

Option Two: Somewhere else, like outside or in a gym.

You mentioned running! Couch to 5K (which comes as a site and some nifty mobile apps) has a very structured workout plan, if running is what you want to do. Back to Haley, who’s IN IT right now. She says:

I hate running. It sucks, in my humble opinion. But the fact remains that it is the simplest, most effective, and best form of cheap cardio available. So I experimented with the kinds of variables I needed in order to make it suck less: It turns out I’ll run if I listen to a podcast I want to keep up with (shoutout to “Another Round” and “Reply All” and “Cavern of Secrets“). I’ll run if I have a friend beside me, if only for the very drawn-out warmup and cooldown walk where we talk about our feelings, which is its own form of cardio, if you think about it (“heart-healthy”). I’ll run if I have my favorite shoes on (do not underestimate the power of attractive workout clothes—even a really good old T-shirt can make me leave my warm apartment for a cold treadmill). I’ll run if I have a voice on my phone telling me to run, and then walk, and then run again (shoutout to Couch to 5K). When all of these things are working for me, I’ll run several times a week.

Some other ideas, if you’re not the type to want to stay in your home-zone:

  • School: Does your school keep its gym open for use during non-school hours? (If you can bear going back to that building! Although it might have a fun Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler vibe.)
  • Fam: Does anyone in your family exercise—gym, classes, whatever—and if so, could you be their exercise accompaniment? A lot of times, these facilities have free or low-cost guest passes. Bonus: If your schedules match up, transportation is not an issue.
  • Parks and rec: You’re in Boston. The greater Boston Y has programs for teens. A couple other fun-sounding programs: swimming at the Blackstone Center and maybe a dance class? Or (though more $) kickboxing?

Oh, hey! Look at that: You have a goal, and a method/location for attaining it. All that’s left, quite literally, is to get moving. But first, pour an entire sports drink on your victorious face that has already accomplished so much. (I like the red kind. Not medical advice.) ♦

Bodies are beautiful…and weird sometimes! If you’ve got a question about what’s going on in/on/around yours, please send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Body Talk,” and please include your first name, last initial, age, and city/state.