Building a better, more stable wagon

Last week I talked about how to salvage things and get back on the wagon if you happen to fall off it. While useful, it would be even better if we could limit the chances of slip-ups and provide a softer landing when we do, perhaps even creating a more powerful wagon while we’re at it.

Today’s post will be about a few strategies we can employ in order to make this happen. Let’s get to it.

It’s not life + movement

A big factor in losing the exercise habit is the mindset that exercise is a separate thing to our lives, that it’s a component that has to be bolted on — and tightly — to an already full life.

What we need to do instead is look at life and movement as one and the same thing.

I don’t mean that you need to make everything an opportunity for exercise (though I do of course, advocate working it in), but more that if you, in your mind, see exercise and health in general as a distant satellite aspect of your overall being, orbiting out there, remote from your core, you’re far more likely to fail than if you instead see it as a foundational pillar on which your life stands. Have a baseline routine that you do every day, regardless of what else is going on. Suddenly that landing off the back of the wagon is much softer.

Don’t think of exercise as a thing that you can forget to do, or purposefully skip out on. It should be as important to you as work. We work to pay the financial bills, but think of movement as how you pay some of your health ones.

Money isn’t much good if you’re too dead to spend it.

Incorporate, integrate, incarnate

Okay, forget the third one. And while I realise this goes back on the opening sentence of the last point, I’m unrepentant.

What I mean by this is less about the “glamorous”, whacky stuff like toilet squats and Van Damme teeth brushing and more about incorporating movement into your actual life.

The most obvious example for this is to cycle more. Cycling must be one of the most wonderfully efficient ways to travel that man has ever invented, and the financial and physical barriers to entry are so ridiculously low that there’s really no excuse for anyone not to integrate this into your life. It should be your go-to mode of transport for anything less than five or ten kilometres.

Without even breaking a sweat some days I was getting ten to fifteen kilometres of cycling in every working day of the week while living in Dublin (more on not living in Dublin in a different post, stay tuned). It didn’t even feel hard, but you can be sure that it was having a positive effect on my heart, lungs, muscles and brain. There was a tangible difference in my mood and alertness on days when I cycled compared to the days before when I used to use public transport.

Other examples include walking more, carrying your own shopping around rather than relying on trolleys, taking up more active hobbies, doing something more exciting than Netflix-and-chilling on date nights, whatever. I have no doubt you can think of something you do that you could easily swap for something less sedentary.

Fluctuate with life

I’m not saying you have to become a robot. Part of bringing movement from the periphery into the core of your life is that, as with all other aspects, it has to have some fluidity.

If you’re working fourteen hour days for a week to get a project done on a tight deadline, it’s likely that you aren’t cooking extravagant meals and working on your poetry when you get home. If your kids get sick and you’re suddenly up at three in the morning looking after them, your sleep is going to suffer, and probably everything else too.

In cases like these, it’s okay to skip the fourth workout of the week. It’s okay to cut back your intensity under the bar. You’re not going to have it in you every single day to give “100%”. In fact, the very definition of what is 100% for you on any given day is in flux constantly.

If we remove this aspect of killing ourselves with pressure to perform in our physical endeavours and guilt at justifiably missing a session, suddenly exercise is much easier to accept as a part of ourselves and our lives.

In cases like this, you’re not falling off the wagon. You’re reining the horses back to a walk for a week or two, or even stopping them for a day while you replenish your physical and mental stores.

As I said last week, in a life full of exercise, the odd missed day, week or even month is not going to matter too much. If exercise is a core part of who you are and what you do with yourself, then that’s the shape of things. You can absorb the odd week off, guilt free, and avoid harbouring that kind of negative emotion around your activity.

A few missed days don't mean so much over a lifetime... (my first gif!)

A few missed days don’t mean so much over a lifetime…

The problems arise when instead exercise is a thing that exists out there, on the edge, that you really should be doing but you just can’t bring yourself to because you’re all or nothing and the pressure of that, and commitment level, can be too much when life gets busy. In that case your life looks more like a lot of sitting interspersed with the odd flurry of activity. Those flurries are great, but a slow and steady approach is what is going to win this race, ironically by elongating it and keeping you healthy and mobile for longer.

Enjoy it

I keep mentioning this, but it bears repeating. If you don’t enjoy your exercise activity, then try something else.

I don’t like long distance running. I’ve tried it many times, and for me, that’s a wagon-related accident waiting to happen. In contrast, I like to sprint. It’s rare that a week goes by without me wanting to sprint. That’s a marked difference to the dread I feel at the thought of even a slow jog.

You might like swimming, but hate lifting weights. No problem. Swim away!

You might love lifting, but hate the atmosphere in commercial gyms. That’s cool – try a new setting, or invest in some equipment of your own and save money in the long run as well as enjoying it more.

You might hate this “golf” all your work mates are obsessed with, but loved tennis back in college. Great! Join a club and get active. You’ll make new tennis-playing friends when you get there.

Don’t see it as a chore

This will be a short point, but it could be a powerful one for you. Many people don’t seem to consciously realise that they frame their thoughts around exercise similarly to how they think about cleaning toilets. They picture the massive effort involved, the potential pain during, the aching after, the time used. They get themselves dreading the thought of the activity – it becomes a household chore like any other instead of an enjoyable thing to look forward to.

Practice this: instead of groaning and moaning as you pull your running/gym/dancing shoes on, practice seeing this as a fun activity you are lucky to be able to do. Hold in your mind how good it is going to feel afterwards when you’re taking the shoes off again, about to slip into a warm shower. Think about the great results you’ve seen so far, and how this activity is going to help you continue and even improve them. Focus on all the positives. Don’t allow the negative thoughts to take hold.

If all else fails, force a smile as you prepare for your session — research has shown that even faking a smile can make you feel better, and I imagine that associating your exercise with smiling will lead to large gains in the positivity over time.

For anyone who is healthy enough to be able to move your body in interesting ways, it helps to keep in mind how incredibly lucky you are. It’s not a thing to be squandered. It’s to be respected and relished.

If we can create better metaphorical wagons for ourselves, while keeping in mind the strategies discussed last week for getting back on if the horses bolt, you fall off, or, in the case of the featured station wagon, it breaks down, you’re bound to have more success.

It’s all about changing mindset: from exercise being something you do to a part of your actual being; from sedentary to seeking opportunities to move; from pressure and guilt to fun and forgiveness; from chore to pleasure. If you can make this critical shift you can make exercise almost effortless, and reap the benefits for your entire life.

Until next time, enjoy yourselves out there!