One of my favorite expressions is “I wasn’t placed on earth to fulfill your expectations”. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I never get the chance to use it.
I think the reason I like it so much is that from probably Jr. High School on I resented people telling me what my responsibilities were. That’s my decision. I thought that then and I think that now.
You might take that as very selfish, and it is. In the end everything you do is selfish because at some level you take personal satisfaction or gain some reward for doing it. The question is, are you going to decide what those things are that truly satisfy you, or are you going to derive second-hand satisfaction because you’re fulfilling someone else’s expectations? Or to put it another way, are you going to relieve feelings of guilt from not fulfilling those expectations?
However, sometimes those things we resent other people telling us we should be doing are things that we should also telling ourselves we should be doing. Fat people don’t like to be told they should lose weight and couch potatoes don’t like to be told they should get some exercise. It’s human nature and I wouldn’t change it -it’s natural and good to instinctively not like to be told what to do by other people.
But it’s not good to cut off your nose to spite your face, and what you do today about diet and exercise affects your own personal life from here on. Not the people who do the studies that tell you how many hours of exercise you should get a day, not the people who make the public service commercials, and not the bureaucrats that decide to spend the money on them. Just you and the people you love.
And I think most think most people try to take personal responsibility for their families, one aspect of which is staying healthy so you can take care of them and be with them for as long as possible. The saying goes “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything” – think about the converse. So what could possibly be more important than staying fit?
Unfortunately, exercise is repugnant at a visceral level – and not even exercise itself – but that moment when you’re facing a workout and committing to whatever time period – and not even that moment per se, but the anticipation of all the moments in the future when you’re facing the same drudgery. And it isn’t like you’re going to be that much more fit after your workout today, tomorrow, or a week from today. It’s a lifetime project, and with the best will in the world, for most people, or at least for people like me, just the desire to be fit and even knowing how important it is are not enough.
If you think about it, the whole point of having a physical body is so you can move from place to place and manipulate things. You only need to exercise because you don’t have to work hard enough in doing that to stay in shape or burn off enough calories. That unfortunately makes exercise seem pointless at a primal level. There’s no built-in desire to do physical activity in order to burn energy or exercise muscle.
So, other people can tell me I need to be fit, I can tell myself I need to be fit, but in the long run I will not exercise because I need to be fit. Fitness is a long-term goal. Ipso facto hocus pocus it doesn’t really matter if I decide to skip the workout “just for today”. And if I can blow it off on one day, eventually I’ll blow it off every day.
Fortunately it’s possible to come up with a trivial, short-term motivation that at worst makes a daily workout bearable and at best, fun, as in the case of JumpRock.
I exercise for the most selfish reason you can think of. I feel good afterwards. JumpRock is a different story, but for all those years that I rode an exercise bike every day after work it was for one reason only; I wanted to get rid of that post sedentary work day angst that robbed my evenings of pleasure and energy. That’s also the most trivial reason to exercise there is – because it makes you feel good.
Why does it make you feel good? The body has a built-in reward system that anesthetizes the body against the stress of strenuous physical activity. I have no idea what the latest scientific thinking is, but last time I checked this was attributed to the release of a hormone called endorphins which stimulates pleasure centers in the brain. There’s more to it than that because the goodness lasts beyond the euphoria as I discuss later.
But, regarding enrdorhins specifically, the only semi-objective evidence I have is from when I was in army basic training in 1969 and felt euphoric after a session of P.T. (Calisthenics). I had no idea why I felt that way – I had never heard of endorphins and didn’t even associate how I felt with the exercise I had just done until years later. I felt in an incredibly good mood (any good mood at all would be incredible, because I was in basic training, but this would have been incredible at any time). I though I felt so good because I had adjusted to doing manly things with manly men, and I couldn’t imagine being afraid of the army or anything, so basic from here on would be cake. That feeling re-generated itself until bedtime. When I woke up the next morning everything was just as horrible as ever.
And of course there were the morning runs which I dreaded, but actually made me feel great for fifteen minutes while I devoured a mess hall breakfast that tasted great. And believe me,I rarely felt great during basic.
Which leads to my theory, based on personal experience, that you can cultivate an appetite for the endorphin high and substitute that for the lack of any primal desire to be fit. Now let me say here that I think it’s more than just the endorphin high. I think that blood oxygen and probably chemicals that need to be flushed out of the blood contribute to the overall effect, which I can best describe as mild euphoria that gradually fades into just feeling better than you would have – definitely with more energy and better attitude. As I said, pretty trivial. But going for that feeling every day, in my experience, can lead to the important results of fitness and health going into old age.
The catch is, the only way I know to cultivate that appetite is to exercise every day, preferably after a day at a sedentary job. That’s also the time you’ll probably feel the most reluctant to exercise, which also makes it the time when you maximize the pleasure payoff from exercise and most reinforce the behavior.
I’ve written in other places how the way to get around that is to commit to just starting the workout, not to any amount of exercise. That eliminates any element of real dread which I think is the thing that kept me from starting. Now it just becomes psychological as you make up all kinds of excuses. I have all kinds of excuses to not go to work on any given day, but I go anyway. How much simpler is this?
It works, but you have to actually do it. I hope I’ve given you a selfish reason for doing so.