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Some people are happily married to their fitness routines. Year in, year out, they never question that commitment. If you’re like most folks, though, your relationship with exercise might seem more akin to serial dating. After a summer fling with swimming, a one-night stand with yoga, and a few years on and off with the elliptical, you wonder if you’re ever going to find the right fit. There’s part of you that would like to commit, but you’re just not feeling the love.

It’s no wonder. Between information overload, dread of “going for the burn” and ambivalence about where to begin, finding an activity that suits you and your lifestyle can be intimidating. And then there’s the question of how you can possibly fit one more obligation into your demanding schedule. “People are so stressed out — they think they don’t have time for exercise,” says Keith Kaufman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., who specializes in sports and exercise psychology.

The first step in removing these and other barriers, he says, is to “understand where we are in terms of readiness to change.” We need to have the conviction that exercise is going to benefit us, and be ready to make it a priority, Kaufman says. We also need to recognize that any intentional movement, even if it’s just dancing around the living room, counts as exercise.

“A lot of people have a black-or-white mentality about exercise. They think the only way it works is by logging 90 minutes of cardio every day,” says Julie Felsher, CHHC, CPT, a health coach and personal trainer in New Jersey. “I ask everyone in my practice, ‘If every way you moved your body burned the same amount of calories, what would you do?’”

Too often, Felsher says, we forget that “our bodies are designed to move and we are designed to crave that.” Maybe you had some positive experiences with physical activity or fitness in the past. Think about what motivated you then, suggests Tim Lencki, MS, CSCS, a personal trainer in Waupaca, Wis., and author of Fitness One Day at a Time (iUniverse, 2004). Recall what you enjoyed. “It’s really about what you feel comfortable doing and  what gets you excited,” Lencki says.

The individuals profiled in this story all took very different paths toward finding the fitness pursuits they now adore. A discouraged mom fell for Zumba so hard she became an instructor, a results-oriented professional found heart-rate training a perfect fit for his traveling lifestyle, and an exercise newbie became a triathlete at age 57. Read on to hear how they found their current loves — and get tips on how you can find yours, too.

Jeannie Northrup, Zumba Enthusiast

Jeannie Northrup remembers her first Zumba class. The room was so crowded that she had to stand in a cubby by the emergency exit. “People nearly danced on top of you. And it was so intense, I thought I was going to throw up,” says Northrup, 34, of Marietta, Ga.

When the class ended, however, Northrup felt a surge of positive energy. “Everyone came out of the studio and was so happy. I thought, this can’t be all that bad,” she says.

Northrup decided to give Zumba another try, and is grateful she did. Four years’ worth of classes later, she’s lost 90 pounds and is now a certified Zumba instructor.

Northrup never would have imagined where Zumba would lead her. At the time of her first class, she weighed 240 pounds at 5-foot-6 and was suffering from depression. As the mother of two autistic children, she had put all her energy for the previous 13 years into her family and didn’t pay much attention to her own needs.

“I definitely felt how unhealthy I was every day. I didn’t like how I looked. I certainly didn’t like how I felt. I couldn’t even chase my kids in the yard; I’d get so winded,” she says. Northrup had tried in the past to start exercising but had always quit after a few months. “It was drudgery going to the gym. Just getting on the elliptical and doing cardio, you really don’t have a support system.”

During a family vacation in 2008, Northrup broke down. “I started crying in a restaurant over a piece of cake. I was tired, miserable and fat. At that moment, I decided I needed to change my life.”

Northrup’s efforts started like many of her past attempts. “After doing cardio for about two months, I started thinking, do I really want to get on the stairs again? I started finding excuses not to go to the gym,” she says.

Then a friend suggested she try Zumba. Northrup was uncertain about putting herself on display in a class, but she had been a dancer in high school and college and had some lingering confidence in her abilities. She decided to go for it. Within a few classes, Northrup could tell Zumba was different from her halfhearted bouts on the stair machine. The dancing was fun, but what really captured her was the sense of community.

“People started talking to me and asking when I was coming back. Pretty soon someone’s saying, ‘I’ll see you on Thursday,’ and you know that person is looking for you,” she says. “People genuinely want you to succeed.”

Northrup believes Zumba has a cathartic effect, which brings participants together. “If you’re having a bad day, you leave it on the floor. All these people are in the same boat as you. They’re there to share that experience with you,” she says.

As Northrup began regularly attending Zumba classes, she started modifying her diet and set a goal weight. “I made a promise that if I reached 153 pounds, I would splurge on the cost to become Zumba certified — if only to have the certification say, ‘This changed my life,’” she says. In December 2009 Northrup accomplished her goal, and in June 2010 she completed a Zumba certification program.

Initially, she had no intention of teaching, but when an instructor friend became pregnant and asked Northrup if she’d substitute for her classes, the former back-row student found herself up on the stage. Much to Northrup’s surprise, she loved it. Since then, she has also become certified in yoga and R.I.P.P.E.D. training, and now teaches at Life Time Athletic Atlanta.

Stephanie Maxim is a former instructor of Northrup’s who has witnessed her transformation. “Jeannie was extremely introverted when she started coming to my class. She would walk into the studio, wouldn’t make eye contact and would go straight to her spot,” Maxim says. ”About two years in, she was the party in class. Instructors look for those key people who help with the energy. That’s Jeannie. Every other breath, she’s making noise.”

Today, Northrup sees fitness as a gift she gives herself. But she also finds she has more energy to give to others, as a fitness instructor and as a parent. “I’m just focused on living in a way that I can enjoy an active life for as long as possible, specifically for my kids,” she says.

Andrew Davidson, Heart-Rate Trainer

Andrew Davidson’s departure from fitness began like that of many young, married professionals. An athlete in high school and college, Davidson gradually stopped exercising as his family and work responsibilities grew.

When he was about 30, he began putting on about 10 pounds a year, until he reached 278 pounds (at 5-foot-4) at the age of 40. He was borderline diabetic, had poor liver tests, and suffered from neck, back and knee pain. But Davidson, of Sharon, Mass., was in no hurry to do anything about his condition. “I was enjoying my life. I was smiling, but I knew I was very unhealthy,” he says.

Davidson’s wake-up call came from his son, Matt, then entering high school. Davidson was concerned that his son’s physical condition would prevent him from making his high school’s tennis team. During a family vacation in April 2009, Davidson sat down with Matt for a heart-to-heart, suggesting that he start working out.

“After 20 minutes of silence, my son looked up and said, ‘Will you do it with me?’” says Davidson.

Matt, now 18, recalls that conversation well. “I knew I wasn’t in good shape, but there had been bad examples in my family for years,” he says. “At the time, my dad was eating massive amounts of food and doing a lot of social drinking, and it was really unfathomable that he would change.”

Davidson, however, was determined to set a better example for his son. He signed up the entire family, including his wife, Susan, for a gym membership, and the three of them began regularly doing strength and cardio workouts. Davidson also dramatically changed his diet and became a vegetarian. After three months of working out and eating better, he had lost 25 pounds and Matt had lost 10.

With his son on the right track (Matt eventually made the tennis team and became a starter), Davidson became more focused on his own health. Because he traveled for his job as sales director for an office-products company, he was doing most of his workouts on the road. To keep himself accountable, Davidson began tracking his workouts religiously. A self-described clipboard fanatic, he recorded every piece of data he could find, including his schedule, workout duration, calories burned and distance.

When Davidson’s weight loss stalled about six months into his routine, though, he became frustrated by the inconsistency of readings on cardio machines. He also felt that his workouts were not as efficient as they could be. He noticed that nearly every cardio machine had an outlet for a heart-rate monitor. Hopeful that the device might solve his problem, he bought the most basic model made by Polar.

Initially, Davidson was just interested in tracking calories, but soon he began to learn about the function of different target-heart-rate training zones and the importance of heart-rate recovery. He started to set goals, and his workouts became more structured.

“Before, I didn’t understand the concept of working out efficiently. It helped me realize that you can work out in a certain manner to reach certain goals. Do you want to lose weight? Gain mass? Get faster? You’ve got to make sure you’re working out in a way that helps you accomplish these goals,” he says.

Davidson also found a support network through the online Polar community. He regularly contributed to forums, participated in challenges, and swapped nutrition and fitness tips with other users, which he says helped him stay motivated.

For Davidson, heart-rate-training technology is a perfect fit. “I love spreadsheets and making graphs, and I’m very results-oriented,” he says. “The techie aspect is definitely there, too.”

Davidson now weighs approximately 180 pounds and is in very good health. He plays tennis regularly with Matt — usually winning. “My goal is to play tennis with my son for the next 40 years,” he says.

Matt says his dad’s transformation has given him awareness about his body that will stay with him for life. “If this change hadn’t happened in our family, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he says. “I’d definitely not be playing varsity tennis and I wouldn’t be conscious of what was going into my body and how I was living my daily life.”

Sue Bartoszewski, Triathlete

Sue Bartoszewski watched her son Dave cross the finish line of a major triathlon in 2007, and to say she was inspired is an understatement. “The atmosphere was absolutely electric,” Bartoszewski says. “I thought: I’m going to do this someday. I wanted to be one of those people.”

Bartoszewski, however, had one problem. The then-55-year-old had absolutely no fitness background. “Even as a kid, I was never brought up with sports or any physical activity besides jumping rope,” says Bartoszewski, 61, of Woodstock, Ill.

She had spent most of her life working as a nurse and raising her three kids, and even after they grew up and left the house, Bartoszewski had never made fitness a priority. She was 210 pounds at 5-foot-5, was borderline diabetic and had high blood pressure.

No one would have imagined that Bartoszewski would one day compete in a triathlon. She decided that first she would learn to run. In June 2008 she started walking on the treadmill, adding short bouts of running.

Dave Bartoszewski, 34, remembers getting a phone call from his mother. “She called to tell me she ran one minute nonstop. She was so excited,” he says. In October 2008, Bartoszewski ran her first 5K. With confidence in her running ability, she was ready to tackle swimming and cycling, so she asked for her son’s help. Over the next several months, Dave taught her basic freestyle technique and got her started on a road bike. In June 2009, she competed in her first sprint triathlon, followed by two more races that summer.

Bartoszewski was hooked. She loved the variety of training for three sports, and she thrived on being part of the triathlon community. “Triathletes are highly competitive, but they care about each other. You become such good friends because you work so hard together and support one another. That alone makes it worth doing,” she says.

Bartoszewski discovered a strong support system in her family, too. Dave, his wife, Ana, and Bartoszewski’s older daughter, Cheryl, are all triathletes. “I’ve always been close to my kids, but this has brought us together on another level,” she says.

The previously untested Bartoszewski also realized she liked being pushed by others. “I never thought I was competitive, but I think from that first race, it started to build. You set little goals, like you want to pass this person or you want to PR [set a personal record],” she says.

Bartoszewski’s goals just kept growing. In 2010 she completed two Olympic triathlons and a half-marathon. In 2011 she did her first marathon and half-Ironman race. And in September 2011, Bartoszewski registered for Ironman Wisconsin in Madison.

One thing that helped Bartoszewski make such amazing progress was her willingness to ask for help. In addition to training with her son, she began working with a professional triathlon coach as well as a personal trainer.

“One thing that made Sue successful was that she did absolutely every workout I gave her,” says Jennifer Harrison, Bartoszewski’s triathlon coach. “She did a phenomenal job
of communicating with me, and I just kept on adjusting her training load as she went.”

When Bartoszewski lined up at the start of Ironman Wisconsin in Madison on Sept. 9, 2012, she knew she had done all she could to prepare. The gun went off, and for the entire race, she never stopped moving. “It’s so hard to describe the emotion because I actually did what I worked so hard to do. I felt wonderful,” she says.

Bartoszewski did more than what she set out to accomplish. She placed first in her age group and qualified for the 2013 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, though she passed up the opportunity. “It wasn’t my goal. I was just trying to wrap my head around what I had just done,” she says.

Bartoszewski has already lost 60 pounds, is off blood-pressure medication and is no longer borderline diabetic, but she’s still working to get stronger, faster and leaner. Though she will not be competing in Hawaii, she’ll continue to do shorter events. “You slow down as you get older, so it’s harder to PR. But I started later, so I haven’t peaked yet and I’m not slowing down. I’m going faster,” she says.

Finding Fitness Bliss

Finding your fitness groove may take some experimentation. Here are some tips to get you there faster.

1. Find your happy place. Do you feel more at ease on a trail or inside on a treadmill?

2. Stay true to character.
If you’re an introvert, you’ll gravitate toward solo activities that require concentration, like weight training or swimming. If you’re an extrovert, you might prefer fast-paced activities that involve others.

3. Revisit past glory. Think of a pursuit you enjoyed in the past. If you loved Little League as a kid, consider joining an adult rec team or practicing your swing at a local batting cage.

4. Be grateful. Shift your thinking about activity from obligation to appreciation. What do you get to do?

5. Set your sights. Dream up inspiring new goals or visualize yourself doing something that makes you feel satisfied and happy. Then do it!

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