A little over a year ago, my husband challenged me to fit an hour a day of fitness into my routine. I had been finding excuses, and he had noticed my matching decline in overall energy and wellness that resulted from too many days off. A year-ish later, I can say that it literally* changed my life. Here’s what I learned.

1. Putting myself first when it comes to fitness is critical.

It’s incredibly easy to find excuses. As a self-assessed Obliger, I tend to put my own needs or desires on the back burner. It’s difficult for me to take time away from other obligations to do something for myself. And not to get completely on the Gretchen Rubin train here, but I’d always thought of myself as a moderator — much more likely to do something in small quantities, than embrace the black and white, binary nature of commitment or avoidance. But it turns out, my brain responded much more positively to the simple fact: each day, I’d pick an hour, and go do something. There was no debate on whether this was the best way to use my time, or of value to anyone else, or more or less important than the other things on my to-do list. It was just a part of my routine, a built-in expectation and an existing commitment. And over the year, I learned how truly valuable this hour was, to my mental and emotional state as well as my physical health. There was never an hour spent on fitness that I later regretted.

2. Taking the day off doesn’t have to mean not exercising.

Realizing the potential audacity of this commitment, I gave myself a lot of leeway in terms of what my hour would look like. Some days it was an intense interval run that elevated my heart rate and left me wiped out. Other days it was gentle yoga, or simply a long walk. A key accomplishment of this year was rewiring my brain from the concept that fitness must mean intensity. Absolutely, it can and should include workouts that drive my heart rate high and push my limits. But there’s nothing wrong with something more relaxing, as long as it gets my body moving and ideally, soaking in the fresh air of the outdoors. I cycled through a number of phases over my year – from training for, and achieving, a 5k pr; to working on strength and core with a few months of crossfit-inspired workouts with friends; to finally embracing yoga at home via the fantastic Yoga with Adriene videos. The more this hour became a part of my daily normal, the less I let myself worry about the exact format it would take, and the more I came to look forward to it as an opportunity to reset my brain and refresh my body.

3. It’s amazing what you can do with a reasonable training base.

After roughly a year of following this routine, I decided somewhat belatedly to register for a 48-hour ultramarathon with a goal of running 100 miles. I started training too late in the calendar, and my training regimen wasn’t great. I had one solid weekend of back-to-back long runs; otherwise, I was achieving 30-40 mile training weeks, not the 50+ weeks that would really set me up for success. In the midst of training came a vacation and holidays and the end-of-year busy season, all of which served to distract and degrade my time in running shoes. But, ultimately, my foundation of fitness really paid dividends here. I didn’t win any time awards, but I was able to accomplish my race goal, and I’m certain that a good amount of that success rested on the discipline and steady baseline that I’d established over the previous year.

4. I’m really, really, not too busy.

This was perhaps the most surprising thing to me from this experience — how little everything else in my life suffered based on carving out this hour a day. Much of the year fell during a period when I was working 70+ hour weeks, on top of a long commute and the regular obligations of life. And to be honest, I wasn’t 100% successful – I did miss a few days over the year, whether due to travel, or sickness, or unexpected circumstances. Looking back as a whole, though, the time I gave to fitness was paid back with interest in other areas of my life. I ate more healthfully, not due to any strict regimen, but because I’d see the results of my diet a bit more directly in my performance and maintenance of my energy. I had the chance to combine social time with friends with walks or gym workouts or yoga classes. My energy levels were more consistent, I slept more restfully, and I felt well and eager to take on new challenges. Ultimately, my life is busy; I’m sure yours is too. But this year taught me that I’m really not too busy for fitness.

5.  Intake leads to Output

Here’s where I see the direct link between my hour-a-day workouts, and a literal* change in my life. As I was establishing my routine, I began to enjoy a series of audiobooks and podcasts. Starting with an audio re-read of The Happiness Project and Better than Before, I moved into regular consumption of a few podcasts — specifically, the Tim Ferris Show, The Lively Show, and Slow Your Home (and particularly their year of experiments). More recently, I’ve added in The Minimalists podcast and She Explores. (Scattered among these as well were my other loves, All The Books and WSIRN, which continue to keep my TBR pile high). And in the midst of the running and walking and lifting and listening, something interesting happened.

I consumed this content each day, with themes such as matching intention to your lifestyle, studying the successful tactics of high-performing individuals, understanding your why, and engaging in targeted experiments. And slowly, I began to look at my life with new eyes. I was motivated to take more ownership of my life and career. I began writing again and started a more consistent yoga practice. I completed a few lifestyle challenges (including my first Whole30). And after a year of filling my brain with this material while simultaneously strengthening my body,  I decided to change my life.

I’m not certain how or whether this shift would have played out without my year of hourly fitness and the constant stream of inspiration that I coupled with my workouts. It’s possible I’d be in the same place I am now, jumping into a new life and a new career and a new adventure. But I also think that this year slowly gave me the confidence and the framework to build this new reality.

What could an hour a day do for you?

*: We’ve recently been greatly enjoying catching up on Parks & Rec. While I do see a literal link between my fitness experience and the life transitions it caused, this is also what I felt to be an appropriate Chris Traeger shout-out.

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