I've been meaning to write a follow-up post about exercise, and excuse-making, for a long time. It has been quite a while since I looked at that post, so if you have, and some of it is redundant, please forgive me.
Before I say what I have to say however, I should repeat the qualifications that I (don't) have to be writing about this topic in the first place. I'm not a personal trainer, or a professional athlete, or anything of the sort. I'm just a guy who has somehow managed to stick to an (ever-changing) exercise routine for the last 20 years, without any significant lapses. My goal isn't to look like a Men's Health specimen, just to be able to bench-press my own weight a dozen times and do a sprint-triathlon (without actually sprinting, but merely without dying) on any given day of the week. But the commitment issue is what most people seem to struggle the most with, and so that is the one aspect of this that I might be able to shed some light on.
But I am going to start by sharing a little secret that I have learned over the last two decades, and one that is rarely, if ever, heard from those who are trying to sell you an exercise/diet/lifestyle program:
It has to hurt.
No, really, it does. Of course, you don't often hear this because if exercise guru A is selling a program that promises “no-pain,” and exercise guru B is selling one that is honest, whose program is everyone going to buy?
And this is the largely the root of the reason people struggle to commit, especially in American “where can I get a pill to make it all better?” culture. Unrealistic expectations of what it actually takes to get, be and stay fit, cause most people who have a half-hearted desire to be physically and mentally healthy to quickly give up when the mental challenge of commitment becomes too much.
Here is the problem with the almost any approach that is being “sold” to you, whether in the form of a magazine article, a DVD set, or a 6-month deal on gym memberships: almost invariably they try to sell you on the fact that you can get fit in only 90 days, with minimal fuss, and you'll look like Spartacus or Mira when you're done.
You don't need me to tell you that these are lies, lies, lies. But if these are lies, what is the truth?
Not 90 days- 90 years.
There will be a great deal of fuss.
You will never, ever look like someone who is paid to look good.
Staying fit is a lifetime commitment. It is. There is no way around it. Taking up yoga for 18 months in your 30s will not keep you trim and healthy in your 50s. Having played high school football does not mean you are in shape now. We all know this, logically, but many people fail to appreciate what it means in a practical sense. Here are some things that anyone who wants to get/be/stay healthy needs to think about:
Forgive yourself. Just because you missed a week or six, does not mean it's all done, you're through, finished, kaput. Just identify the next available time you have to resume your routine (make it soon), whatever it is, and do it. This is one of the problems with thinking of exercise as a “program” that you can “mess up.” It's not a program. It's your life. If you don't get enough sleep for a week, you don't give up on that, do you?
Adapt. We age. Circumstances change. Schedules change. When this happens, you need to change. Maybe you used to jog, but your knees can't take it anymore. So swim. Bike. Do something. Maybe you used to play tennis, but your partner moved away. Keep going and playing off the wall. It probably won't be long until you meet someone else in the same situation. Or join a league. Something. Or maybe you now have a meeting on the Mondays when your yoga class met. So do Zumba. Or cardio-kickboxing. Try something new. Anything.
Variety. I sometimes hear people say, “Well, I was trying to run everyday but I got bored.” Gee, you think? There are people who can run, or bike, or swim every day. But most of us can't. And why would you even want to? Unless you are training for that sport in particular, branch out. There are no exercises that work every muscle in your body, even swimming. Mix it up, so when the day for your run comes around, it has been a little bit. Who knows? You may even look forward to it.
Get outside. Get off that ridiculous treadmill or stair machine or stationary bike. Are you really wondering why you are bored? Here's a hint: If you can read a magazine while you do it, you're not working hard enough. But more importantly, get some fresh air. It wakes you up. The scenery changes. Running through your local park or along the ocean reminds you why you are doing it in the first place- Because you are alive.
Get inside. On the other hand, if you live in a place like I do, where you get, at best, seven months a year where it is really comfortable to get outside, that's not an excuse for taking half the year off. Find something else to do in the winter- swim, play indoor basketball, take a class, dance, even get on one of those awful stationary machines. Whatever. Even if you slow down a bit in the winter, as most of us do, it will make starting up again when the weather clears a lot more fun and a lot easier to look forward to.
Compete against something. This is something I am not terribly good at. This can be someone else, your own personal best, or the stranger running ahead of you on the boulevard. You will find it much easier to push yourself hard if you are determined to beat your husband in racquetball than if you are just going for a jog because it is time.
Have fun. For those of us who aren't training for anything, this is probably the most important thing to remember. All of the above add up to this, but it is important to keep it in mind as a separate goal. Exercise is fun, or at least it should be. If it's not, you need to find something else. Think of it like reading a book. We know when a book is not holding our interest. So put it down and find one that does.
Wait a minute, I thought you said exercise had to hurt? Now you're saying it's supposed to be fun?
There are two ways to think about this. You can be having so much fun that you ignore the pain. But also, pain is fun.
But before I go any further, I need to be clear about what I mean by “pain.” I'm not taking about excruciating, about-to-keel-over-and-vomit kind of pain. That usually means you're doing something wrong. What I'm talking about is the pain of those last few repetitions in the weight room, or the sprint of the last hundred yards of a jog. Because it is precisely right before this point where most people quit. And this is precisely the point where virtually all your gains are made.
As an example, this is how I do dumbbell curls. For some reason, my arms ache if I don't work them to absolute exhaustion on a somewhat regular basis. So when I go to the weight room, I do three sets of curls with the 35 or 40 lb. dumbbells. But this only gets me to the point where I can't work those weights anymore. So when I have finished everything else, I return to the dumbbells and do 30 reps with the 20 lbs. Then I put them down and immediately pick up the 15 lbs and do another 30 reps. Then 30 with the 10 lbs, and finally 30 with the 5 lbs. By the time I am done, I can barely lift the 5 lb. dumbbells. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes, and I get more out of it than I do with the 40 lb dumbbells. And those 5 lb-ers hurt.
Its the same principle that applies when you sprint that last quarter mile, or go all-out on the last lap in the pool. That is where gains are made. If you start running three miles, three times a week, your body will quickly adapt to this. You will probably lose some weight, and you'll notice you have more energy and a better appetite (and not just for food...). But, like anything else, if you just keep doing the same thing, the same way, you'll plateau. And the gains will diminish, then cease. Then you'll get frustrated, and it won't seem worth it anymore. So you'll quit.
So you need to find a way to push harder in what you are already doing. One thing I love about weight training is that it allows you to push harder without costing more time- you just add more weight. But with endurance activities, pushing harder usually means adding distance, which means adding time. I typically only have about 45 minutes total to run, including stretching and cool-down. This means I can get about a 5-mile run in, at most. Most people face the same reality of having other duties to attend to. So instead of running further, try running harder. This is a hard thing to sustain over miles. (I can't do it.) But we can select an ever-increasing distance at the end of our run or swim or bike or whatever to really push and really try to empty the tank. If you have anything left when you finish, you're not doing it right.
This isn't to say that moderate exercise doesn't have its benefits. It does. Any exercise, even cleaning the house, is better than nothing. Walking is wonderful. But if you are looking to lose weight, or want to tone up, don't expect a whole lot if you aren't willing to give a whole lot. Exercise is like learning- you get what you give.
And this is why I am a big proponent of pain. If, like me, you only have three or four afternoons a week to exercise, an hour or so each, you really need to get the most out of it that you can. You need to find something that you enjoy, but that pushes you and challenges you to work just harder than you are really comfortable with. You should sweat. You should ache the next day.
You are NOT exercising just to look good. Stop thinking that. Right now.
If you are exercising to look good, to look like someone in the movies, just quit now. You will never get there. There are some people out there who are paid to look good. You aren't one of them. Remember, when an actor hunks-up for a role, they are in full-time training, often for 4-6 hours a day. They have a professional dietician watching everything they eat. People you see in “health” magazines are on a 24-hour dehydration plan so that their muscles “pop” for the camera. Bikini models are photoshopped up the wazoo.
Exercise makes you healthy. Being healthy looks good. In fact, the definition of “looking good,” in every species, is some display of health and fitness. Among birds this may be shown in bright plumage and robust song, but the principle is the same. The underlying attribute of “attractiveness” is always a display of vitality.
Among humans, we look at faces and bodies. We judge faces based on symmetry, which is a display of health during development, and a lack of any debilitating, disfiguring accidents or diseases. We judge bodies based on vitality- strength, tone, fitness.
In other words, worry about being healthy. The way you look will take care of itself.
(And while we're at it, not being obese is not the same thing as being healthy. Nor is finding a diet that keeps you under-weight, but leaves you without the strength or energy to do a whole lot else.)
And the health benefits of exercise extend far beyond the ability to run a 5k. The most important benefits are those that exercise grants the mind.
Recent studies have revealed two very common-sense facts. Aerobic exercise (running, swimming, etc.) boost your ability to coordinate multiple tasks simultaneously, make long-term plans as well as boost your ability to remain mentally on-task for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, anaerobic exercise (weight training, etc.) boosts your ability to remain focused amid distractors. Both of these make a lot of sense, and the data backs it up. Results like these are also the reason I strongly (very, very strongly) advocate both types of exercise.
Both of these factors come back to pain. Mastering pain requires discipline. It requires learning to resist temptation. When exercising, the temptation is always to quit. When I am finishing my first quarter- mile in the pool, I always wonder if I am actually going to make it for three times what I have already done. Then, when I am working on finishing my third quarter-mile, I am thinking how I could probably do two miles, if I had the time. There is always a hump to get over. When you learn that, and learn to recognize that you can, and will, get to the other side, you start to see this challenge, this opportunity, everywhere.
You'll see it when your spouse has really, really infuriated you, and you've been stewing all day on what nasty thing to say to her when you get home. Until you realize that your anger is the hump. You will get over it. And you'll still have to resolve whatever issue set you off in the first place, but you will be able to do so without any emotional complications.
You see it when you realize you drink too much, but every time you try to slow down, you do well for a few days until your boss chews you out for something that isn't your fault, and then you're right back at it. That's your hump. Get over it. It's not worth slipping back for.
Really, a Lifetime Commitment
More and more, doctors and scientists are recognizing just how much a difference exercise makes as we age. In my family we have diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's. What is the number one practice for staving of all of these? Not hard to guess.
But we're not just talking about stretching out your lifespan. We're talking about increasing the quality of it every second you are living it. Who doesn't want to look better, feel better, sleep better, eat better and make love better? Who doesn't want to have more energy, more self-control, more discipline, more focus?
Your body and your brain are intertwined on so many levels. And they are so similar. They are both learning machines that need to be constantly challenged and stimulated or they stagnate. You actually need to push them both, all the time, if you expect them to be there for you when you need them. Just as never reading anything but the sports page, or young adult novels, or never trying to pick up a new skill, or never listening to a contrary viewpoint, are all sure ways to a sedentary mind, so is treating a weekly walk as your “exercise,” a sure way to let your body stagnate.
I can't see exercise as anything less than a duty. You owe it to the rest of us to not be a drain on our health-care system. You owe it to your spouse not to “let yourself go,” just because you've got one in the bag. You owe it to your children to teach them what a healthy lifestyle looks like. You owe it to your spouse, your children and your grandchildren to be there for them as you all grow older.
But lastly, you owe it to yourself. You owe it to yourself to not suffer, on a daily basis, from fatigue, illness, and lack of confidence in both your abilities and appearance. You only get one body. Why on earth would you want to throw it away?