In 1961, a new president announced that America would, before the end of the decade, land a man on the moon and bring him back. With those bold words, he caught the country's scientists off guard; many admitted not knowing whether the prediction was optimistic or unrealistic. But in his inaugural address a few months before, John F. Kennedy had already outlined how the task should be accomplished.
Quoting an ancient Chinese philosopher, he said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step."
So it is with most things in life. An educational degree is earned one class at a time. A retirement savings account accumulates one dollar at a time. And (yes, you knew it was coming) fitness is achieved one workout at a time. But therein lies the problem.
How do you take that first step?
Nothing is more likely to deter you from beginning a fitness program than the feeling that your fitness goal lies too far in the distance, at the summit of a seemingly unscalable mountain. You're fat and you want to be thin. You're flabby and you want to be toned. The attainment of both desires takes the kind of work and dedication that are all but impossible to muster when you stop to measure the miles you have left to get there, rather than the steps you've already taken. As JFK understood, the first step leads to the second, which leads to the third, which leads to the fourth, and so on. Now, instead of inertia, you have momentum--and you can look behind you and see the old you getting smaller and farther away.
What it takes to achieve any complicated or ambitious goal is to break the process down into smaller, more manageable steps. That way, you're much less likely to lose your passion, your willpower or your patience.
The first time I used this technique was when I ran my first marathon, in Hawaii, nearly 25 years ago. Young, inspired and naive, I made it all the way to mile 18 on pure adrenaline. Then I looked up and saw that monster, Diamond Head, facing me.
I thought I could hear it taunting me, telling me there was no way I'd be able to reach its top and over the other side. With every fiber of my body and soul whipped by the sight, I felt like quitting--and almost did.
As luck would have it, though, a very philosophical friend was running with me.
"Just keep putting one foot in front of the other," he said. "Forget about the finish line."
Just one foot in front of the other. One step at a time.
His plan worked. Instead of counting down the next eight miles, I began thinking of the race as a series of absurdly short races--one-step races. All I had to do was keep taking one more step, then another. And because of that, those final eight miles became the easiest of the whole marathon. Before I knew it, I'd crossed the finish line.
I've never forgotten that lesson--which also happens to be the principle of the L.A. Leggers. The Leggers are a Los Angeles-based running club that, over nine months, gradually prepares veterans and beginners alike for the Los Angeles Marathon. Though the next one is not until March, the Leggers will start their beginners' training at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Senior Recreation Center in Santa Monica (1450 Ocean Ave.)--with a single mile.
Countless people over the last decade have relied on the Leggers to accomplish the most difficult physical task they'll ever undertake. I know it works because my own dentist, Martin Rotman, used the Leggers to help him run the marathon, as a way of commemorating his 50th birthday. One mile at a time, one training session at a time, one week at a time, he got in shape. And nothing he talks about when I see him brings as broad a smile to his face as the memory of that achievement.
To my way of thinking, if nonrunners can learn to complete a marathon, anything can be broken down to small, manageable steps. Your eating habits can become a series of one-meal diets; your exercise program a series of single workouts. One meal at a time, one workout at a time--that's how you get fit.
Eight years after JFK's promise, Neil Armstrong's "one small step" represented the culmination of many thousands of steps. By the same token, the new you that you'd like to be but are too overwhelmed to face can begin with a single step.
It's the hardest one, yes, but you'll soon look back on it as the most rewarding.
Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her new video, "Kickboxing Workout." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.