This piece originally appeared at Andrea’s Consultant Journal in a slightly different format.

Exercise is a funny thing. When you start a fitness regimen, you feel awful, especially if it’s been months (or years) since you’ve been physically active. The first couple of weeks can be grueling. But once you make it a habit, once you find the groove, exercise can become exhilarating, even addictive.

During the summer of 1997, I lost 40 pounds. My ten-year high school reunion was approaching, and I wanted to look good. I made it a goal to get fit.

On May 8th — clocking in at 200 big ones — I got on a bicycle and rode 2.4 miles. I felt terrible. My shorts barely fit. I moved slowly. I had to get off and walk at the big hill. I had no endurance.

I felt like a cow on wheels.

That first ride was short and painful. Many people claim that the first time you make any sort of change is the most important. I disagree. I think the second ride was more important than the first. Anyone can take just one ride. It took tremendous force of will for me to get back on that bike again May 9th.

But I did get back in the saddle, and then again the following day. I didn’t ride everyday, but I stuck to it as best I could. I kept reminding myself of the ten-year reunion.

Progress was slow at first. My mental fitness changed before I made any significant gains to my physical fitness. (Today I know that must always be true, but back then it seemed odd.) But eventually changes did happen.

My strength improved. My belly shrunk. Then one day I made it to the top of the hill without having to walk the bike. Such a small victory, but so important, too! I felt a sense of accomplishment out of proportion with the actual achievement.

My rides began to lengthen: 3-1/2 miles, five, ten. I would reach my normal turnaround spot and tell myself, “I can go farther today!” And I would!

By the middle of August 1997, I was riding ten miles in half an hour, when once I could only ride five. One afternoon, on a lark, I spent ninety minutes riding 25 miles through the Oregon countryside. It was awesome. I felt awesome. My legs looked awesome. I was in the best condition of my life.

In fact, by the time autumn gave way to winter, I had lost 42 pounds. When my class reunion rolled around, I was happy to attend. I was proud of what I had accomplished.

But it didn’t happen overnight. First, I had to get on the bike. More than that — I had to get back out there a second day.

Note: As most of you know, I’m again trying to become physically fit. I’m taking the lessons I learned while defeating debt and applying them to diet and fitness. I’ve been chronicling my experience at Get Fit Slowly.

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