If you’re reading this, it means you clicked on our less-than-glamorous title. And for that, bless your heart, I think it’s safe to say that you’re in the minority. What can I possibly share with you about exercise that you don’t already know? Intellectually, the value of exercise isn’t something we have a difficult time wrapping our minds around. We know that spending 30 minutes on a treadmill benefits our bodies more than 30 minutes at the donut shop. We know that an intense workout beats out mindlessly watching our favorite sitcom. We know that standing is better for us than sitting. When it comes to exercise and physical activity, knowledge isn’t typically the problem.
The problem then lies not in logic, but in emotion. It’s a left brain/right brain sort of issue. The left-brain understands that a consistent workout regimen is conducive to a longer, healthier life. The right-side brain just can’t get excited about it. And, as Mark Manson so eloquently describes in his latest book We’re all F&cked, A Book About Hope, ultimately we’re all governed by the right-brain, whether we admit it or not. And exercise, at least initially, sucks balls. It’s hard. It hurts. It’s not much fun. As an aside, I would argue that over time, exercising does actually “feel” good. It releases dopamine in the brain, and the natural high from that can actually stimulate the emotional side of the brain. We’ll get to that later. Initially, we can almost universally agree that exercise sucks to some level.
So the obvious question then becomes, how do we bridge the gap from understanding that we “should” get exercise, to actually doing it, then to enjoying it and/or seeing enough benefit from it to continue to partake in consistent physical activity?
As Simon Sinek would say, It Starts with Why. That theme is what I began this series of health and wellness with, My Why. The fact is this: Exercise is hard. And, assuming you’re starting from essentially nothing (in terms of physical fitness) like I did, the first several times that you exercise, it’s not fun. Our emotional side, or as Manson refers to it: the “Feeling Brain” hates it. And what’s funny is that because the feeling brain ultimately governs our behavior, it has a way of manipulating the logical part of our being to develop seemingly sound reasoning to follow its lead. Hence excellent excuses: “I don’t have time today.” “My body doesn’t agree with that form of exercise.” “I can’t do it.”
The only way to combat these unavoidable feelings are to develop a truly badass why. Simply wanting to lose 10 pounds (or 100 pounds) isn’t enough. Why do you want to lose that weight? What problem in your life will that remedy? Can you picture the new you? How will that look? How will that feel? Would it be nice to “feel” healthy? To live longer? To see a sleek, slim hottie staring back at you in the mirror? To model health for your children? Maybe these questions trigger your “Why,” maybe they don’t. That’s OK because guess what? It’s YOUR why. It has to be genuine. It has to be unique. And if it’s going to serve you – I mean really serve you long term – it has to be badass.
So our why has to be badass. That’s step 1. Step two is creating habits to feed the why. As Darren Hardy illustrates in his classic The Compound Effect, getting fit (or getting rich, or attaining any high achievement) isn’t something that happens overnight. We can’t flip a switch and have a Bruno Massel-like 6-pack. Success, rather, is most often the result of small, seemingly irrelevant but incremental habits and actions performed repeatedly and consistently over time. Hardy uses compounding interest to demonstrate (a penny doubled everyday for 30 days is more valuable than $3,000,000 up front… And it’s not close). The same thing happens with our exercise habits. Initially, we may not see much impact: a pound here or there. Maybe a slight increase in strength or stamina. But keep at it, and the next thing you know, the results begin to compound.
“People are not lazy. They simply have impotent goals – that is, goals that do not inspire them.” –Tony Robbins
Take me for example. In early 2019, I decided that I wanted to run a 5k. I made it a goal. As a forcing mechanism, I signed myself up for a 5k race before I took much time to think about it (I didn’t want that pesky right-brain to talk me out of it). At that time, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping to pant and hack relentlessly while bemoaning how stupid I was to decide to try and run that day. The race I signed up for was less than 2 months away (a 5k is a little over 3 miles). So, I googled “Training for your first 5K” and printed off the steps. I started running a half mile a couple days a week, and worked my way up. Was it easy? No, it was awful! But guess what? I finished that 5k. Truth be told, I may or may not have finished behind a 50+ year old woman who was power walking… But that’s not the point. The point is, I finished that 5k!
And honestly, that’s not even the point. Because that doesn’t illustrate the power of the compound effect: I was too early in the progression to see the benefit. I probably still am. But here it is 9 months later, and my regular run (I try to do 1-2 each week) is 2.5-3 miles. And it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t suck. I actually miss the feeling I get from running when I don’t get to do it!
Process Goals & Habits
So how do we get from our why, through the self-accountability to these incredible compounded results? The answer lies in reinforcing our why with positive habits. How do we placate the emotional brain in a way that allows us to accomplish the goals set by our logical brain? Take the why, break it down into smaller goals, then reinforce it with supporting positive habits.
We have to support our big, gaudy goals with smaller process and habit goals. Setting the goal of losing 50 pounds or running a marathon is a motivator, to be certain. But progress can be hard to come by, and at some point – whether it’s 3 days in, 3 weeks in, or 3 months in, that lack of progress is going to make the big gaudy goal seem unattainable. That’s why smaller, attainable process and/or habit goals are so critical.
“Successful people immerse themselves in process goals.” -Dr. Bob Rotella
For me, one of the answers is tracking, in the form of regular checklists. Back in the first series of blogs under this Beyond Racing title, I focused on time management, and I shared this Monthly Goal Checklist. After reading the Compound Effect, I’ve also used Darren Hardy’s Weekly Rhythm Register, which I think is actually a bit cleaner way of doing the same thing. Regardless the tool, the point is the same: real, written habit goals are a motivator for me. I take the time to right them down regularly. Then, and this is the trick, I make sure that those goals are in front of me, essentially at all times. This is why paper is important; this isn’t lost in the depths of my iphone. Several times each day, they’re staring me right in the face! As silly as it sounds, when I check off the habit goal of “exercise” or “cardio” each day, or when I look at that sheet and see a handful of check marks stacked behind one another, it makes me feel good. I accomplished something. I’ve harnessed a little momentum. That appeases my flighty, finicky emotional brain. And it does so in a way that is conducive to the goals established by my logical or thinking brain. It’s a way to develop a reconciliation of the two.
So to recap…
- Step 1: Develop a genuine, unique & truly badass why!
- Step 2: Break down that big gaudy why into process and/or habit goals, with some self-accountability tied in.
- Step 3: Reinforce those process goals with daily habits, and track your progression for added accountability and ultimately momentum.
Now, for the part that you probably expected to read 1500 words ago. If you’ve never really had a detailed exercise program (which, dude… you’re OK: I hadn’t either a year ago), where should you start? It’d be simple for me to tell you to go to the park and go for a walk a few days a week. And that’d be great. But it’s not enough. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to move the needle. Do a little research on High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. It’s a great place to start.
My second piece of advice? Join a gym. Yep, join a damn gym with all the other yuppies and get your ass in gear. Not your cup of tea? I get you man, I said all the same things. I even put off joining until well past the holidays because I didn’t want to be amongst all the other damn yuppies (who are, let’s be honest, just like me). I didn’t want to join a gym because I’m too self-conscious. I finally did it. And you know what I learned? There aren’t too many people in there who really look like they belong “in a gym.” And we’re all self-conscious. It’s cool. The truth is, we’re all there for the same reason: we’re trying to reach our personal goals. We’re trying to grow.
My third and final piece of advice? Hire a trainer. When I joined the gym, it was intimidating as hell. Forget self-consciousness, I didn’t even know what half of the damn machines did or how I was supposed to use them. I hired a trainer for 4 sessions (it was $100) to show me the ropes. We did an initial strength test. He showed me areas that he thought I should focus on. He showed me exercises to do. He showed me the machines and/or weights to use in doing them. I’m over 6 months in, and the simple workouts that he recommended haven’t gotten old or stale yet. When they do, I’ll enlist his services again to reevaluate and see what’s next for me.
I’ve actually come to love my regular exercise routine (I hit the gym at least twice a week, and do cardio 1-2 times as well – even at the race track!); not just because of the obvious health benefits (I’ve lost weight, gained stamina, have more energy, look better, feel better), but because of how it makes me feel. I feel healthier. I feel better about myself. Most importantly, I feel like I’m doing something FOR myself, for my wife, for my kids. I’m living my why. In addition, exercise can also provide some hidden cognitive benefits. When you’re staring down an assisted pull-up machine, there’s not much room for the mischievous thoughts that often consume our day. It’s like a forcing mechanism for single-tasking. And for many of us, can create the clarity that often leads to our best ideas or solutions.
“(Exercise) opens up what I can best describe as a channel of inner intelligence that I rarely, if ever, access through focused thinking. Without fail, I get some spontaneous download that leads to a clear plan of action to move ahead. For me, creativity lives in the body, not in the mind.” –Marie Forleo