Returning After A Break

When “life” gets in the way.

The title of this post expresses a reality that we all occasionally face: that our best intentions, plans, preparations, and regular routines, are disrupted from time-to-time by issues related to work, relationships, health, or other unforeseen circumstances. In regard to healthy living (defined as maintaining a balance of good eating, regular exercise, and stress management/rest/sleep), these disruptions can often result in a “forced” hiatus from some aspect(s) of our regimen. As I wrote about here, these hiatuses do not mean that we have failed, that we are a failure, and that we will always fail. (Don’t become a prisoner of your own plan and expectations.) Instead, use breaks to focus your energy, resources, and attention where it’s needed, and return to your regimen when you are able.

Speaking personally, I made it through April, and the end of the academic year! This is always a good feeling! Even though April (and November/December, for that matter) are expected times of extra work-related stress, this past April seemed more “compressed” than usual, undoubtedly the result of more-than-usual musical events held on campus (which is, in itself, a very good thing). There were days that I didn’t get away from work until nearly 9:30 PM, and, at least once, had to be back at work by 8:00 the next morning. Time constraints caused me to scale back some of my “extra-curricular” activities like reading for fun, and posting here, but I was able to maintain my eating habits and exercise routine: eating a high-calorie breakfast, and then frequent small meals throughout the day, 30-45 minutes moderate to high intensity cardiovascular workouts 5-6 times per week, and a 15-25 minute weightlifting workout once every 4-5 days. For me, the big disruption was my newest activity—writing and posting here. I just realized that my last post was on March 20, and today is May 13! I’m reminded of a Christmas when I was about 13 years old. My parents gave me a paperback journal, decorated throughout with Peanuts cartoon characters. I immediately resolved to write in it every day, and, after 3 or 4 days of faithful commitment, missed one day, and subsequently dropped the activity completely. It doesn’t have to be like this. Rather than allow guilt over a small “failure” to kill your motivation, if the activity has value for you, jump right back in and resume where you left things. This works with eating habits/food choices, exercise, managing discretionary time, etc.

May (once the last of the academic year stuff is done) is usually a season of creative productivity for me. I’ve found, over the years, that I do more practicing of the piano (for the sheer pleasure of it; repertoire that I get to choose, as opposed to that which I’m being paid to learn), and more inner reflection and journaling, than at other times of the year. In the area of healthy living (exercise, eating habits, sleep and rest, etc.), May and the following summer months affords me with opportunities for trying new exercises, routines, foods, and activities, which are not available during most of the school year. Ironically, summer is also a season during which I have to be careful with my food choices and quantities, because, while it’s easy to remain consistent in workouts, it’s also easy to simply relax during the rest of the day! During the school year, I’m constantly getting up and down from my desk, getting up and down from the piano, and walking up and down hallways and stairs, all day long, and burning lots of calories in the process.

How about for you? I know that many of you work the same job, all year long. You folks are challenged to find eating habits and exercise routines that complement that kind of work schedule. But I know that some of you who read my posts are in a situation similar to my own—busy (sometimes insanely so) during the school year, but relatively free during the summer months. How do your eating habits and exercise choices change, if they do?

Get past the hard part.

Most of my recent posts have been about eating habits and food. In this post, I want to talk about exercising.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Woody Allen, goes something like this: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It seems like a stretch to give that much importance to “just showing up,” but, I’ve been a teacher for too long, and been at this “fitness thing” for too long, not to realize that there’s a lot of truth here.

Just show up. Go to class, keep your appointments, go to work, go to the gym. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve made plans to go to the gym the next morning, for weightlifting, for cardio, for swimming, etc., only to get out of bed and feel that I just didn’t want to do it. And, to be honest, sometimes I decided to change my plans and not go. But more often than not, I’d go about my morning routine, and, an hour or so after rising, though my “heart may not have been in it,” I’d get myself and my stuff together, and GO. While traveling to the gym, I’d often still feel that I didn’t really want to exercise.

But then a strange thing would happen. I’d park, get out of the car, get my bag, and enter the building. At some point in the doing of that, something would happen inside of me, and the “just do it” reflex would take over. I’d go in, get changed, and lift, do cardio, or swim.

It took getting there to “get me in gear” to do the workout. And often, these workouts would be ones that I felt really good about afterward!

Backing up a bit, it’s important to distinguish between your body sending you a message that you need to take an unscheduled day off for rest, and a mere “blah” morning, where you’re just slow getting started for the day. In fact, it’s very important that you pay attention to how you’re feeling physically, and to take an unscheduled day off now and then. Your body needs time to rest, repair, and build itself, and its schedule doesn’t necessarily align with whatever plan you may be following (and that’s one reason why I like to keep a lot of flexibility in my routine).

Getting back to the point of today’s post—sometimes the hardest part of getting your workout done is simply getting yourself to the place where you’re going to do it.

From time to time I’m asked about exercise equipment for the home. Treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, weightlifting apparatuses, etc. are all available for home use. My response to such inquiries? Exercise equipment for the home often becomes a clothes rack. I’m sure this isn’t true for everybody, but in my experience, home exercise equipment is just not used very much. Because the exercises can be done at any time, they’re never done. The convenience of owning the equipment, which we think will help us to exercise more regularly, ends up enabling our tendency to procrastinate. Furthermore, you have to find space somewhere in your home to house the equipment, and you have to maintain it (which means paying for repairs if and when that’s necessary).

For me, weighing the costs/benefits of a gym membership versus having equipment at home, leads me to the conclusion that the gym membership is worth every penny. The gym maintains the equipment, there is a greater variety of exercises available, I don’t have to find space in my home for equipment, and I have to get to the gym if I’m going to work out. If you’re paying for a gym membership, you’re more likely to use it. If you drive yourself to the gym, you’re more likely to work out. If you’re the type of person that enjoys exercising in a group, or even with just one workout partner, the gym provides ample space for that, as well.

Just show up; that might just be the hardest part of the workout.

What keeps us on track?

Several years ago I attended a workshop where the clinician talked about the difference between “motivators” and “activators” in regard to rewards for specific behaviors. In this case, the behavior was practicing the piano. But I believe that the differences between these two factors have ramifications for us, as well, in the realm of healthy living.

Motivation refers to the intrinsic rewards one receives as a result of doing something. In music, one is motivated to learn a piece of music because that composition provides the musician with “food for the soul,” or the opportunity to overcome particular technical or musical challenges. Activation refers to external rewards or benefits that one receives as a result of doing something. One might be activated to learn a piece of music, or to practice scales, exercises, etc. in hope of receiving a prize, a “gold star,” “praise from the teacher or parent,” etc. Learning music for a job is also an example of being “activated.” As an accompanist, I am, from time to time, required to learn music that I don’t particularly care for. But that’s irrelevant. I don’t get paid to “like” the music; I get paid to play it. The promise of financial reward “activates” me to learn the music and perform it to the best of my ability.

Already thinking of parallels with the way we think about healthy living? Several have occurred to me, over the years. First of all, let’s review the three factors that support a healthy lifestyle: 1. Generally taking care of yourself, including medical/dental care, stress management, and sufficient rest/sleep, 2. Nutrition, and 3. Exercise.

What’s gotten you to bother with any of this? I just saw an advertisement on television for some diet or exercise device that was saying one could be “beach ready” in just nine weeks! And it’s easy to find workout routines, mostly marketed to men, touted for “building 10 pounds of pure muscle in just 10 weeks!” And of course, these ads are always accompanied by pictures of women and men in bathing suits, looking beautiful, perfectly sculpted, with defined muscles and glowing skin. Which brings up another issue—what does society consider “normal” and “good looking” and why? That’s a topic for an entire book in itself!

Embarking upon a diet/exercise plan because one wants to look like the model on the front of a magazine would be an example of “activation.” “I’ll follow this diet and this exercise plan, and then I’ll be rewarded with a body like that one.” Here’s the catch, though, that you’re not told: genetics play a large part in the way one’s body appears, and beyond that, the staging, lighting, body position while being photographed, makeup, and even the way that a model eats and drinks in the days leading up to a photo shoot, all contribute to the look of the final product. Furthermore, an editor can enhance the photo after the fact to make it look even “more perfect!” I confess that I’ve picked up an exercise magazine or two over the years, and been inspired by the athletic, fit, men who appear on the covers, but I’m telling you from personal experience that most of us will never look like those people. And that is completely OK! “Appearance” is an activator, just as is the goal of getting into a certain clothes size. Nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s appearance, and if losing (or gaining) some weight contributes to that, then great! Other, more obvious activators include things like the wager I made with my friend at the beginning of my weight loss journey. A monetary reward if the goal was met. Now that I think about it, I remember that my mom promised to buy new clothes for me after I’d reached my goal weight; yet another activator. Other less obvious activators include “doing it for someone else.” Whether it’s believing that someone will love us more, or we’ll gain their approval, or they’ll stop making fun of us—all activators. More subtle activators include our own ideas about body image, healthy weight, etc. These can even become toxic, as in some cases of anorexia or bulimia.

I propose that it would be better to be motivated.

What if our primary goal would simply be to enhance our quality of life? Less joint pain because we’re not carrying around excess body weight? Improved strength and flexibility to make day-to-day activities easier? The potential for longer life along with better quality of life, giving us time to spend doing things we’ve always wanted, or to spend time with loved ones? Think about it: is there really any greater reward? Don’t misunderstand me, and think that I’m only listing positives here. Some motivators can be negative. Fear of dying prematurely is a good example. I know of several people who started their weight loss program, and/or started exercising because they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of family members. It’s sad when we watch a loved one in declining health; especially if he or she could have taken better care of him/herself. And this is a motivator because the reward is intangible; it’s something inside us, that we feel—physically, emotionally, mentally.

It also means that our primary goal is, and always will be, to be headed in the right direction, to be on the road toward success. Being in the process of improving your health means that you’ve already achieved an important goal. Improved health and quality of life are the results of staying in that process. And please remember: the path to success is rarely a straight line. Be prepared for ups, downs, sideways movements, plateaus, etc. Keeping your eyes on the primary goal, and thinking about the “big picture” are the important things.

All this is not to say that activators can’t be useful: “I’m going to buy myself a new outfit after I’ve lost twenty pounds,” for example; but I believe that keeping one’s focus on the deeper motivation is the secret to staying on track. When quality of life is the motivating goal, we take the entire person into account, and attend to all of the factors that contribute to it.

Not just getting ready for the beach.