The 12 Gifts of Fitness, Day 12: Waking Up…To Everything

The 12th gift of fitness is that it gives us the ability to wake up in our lives.

This image needs no additional caption. Fitness wakes us up to life. That is all. (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This image needs no additional caption. Fitness wakes us up to life. That is all. (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Fitness gives us the physical and mental fortitude to pay attention to the right things. It gives us the ability to know which things are the right things to be paying attention to, and which noisy distractions aren’t worth our time.

It gives us the physical confidence to try new skills at any age. It gives us the ability to look in the mirror and see a strong, accomplished athlete, no matter how we compare to anyone else out there doing the same thing.

There is something deeply life-altering about committing to a life that includes regular fitness training, regular activity, regular exercise, and regular commitments. When I swim twice a week but forget to run, I miss it. There is something about this “Every 48” concept that is a complete fit in my life today. If I don’t push myself in a workout at least once every 48 hours, I start to feel just a little bit tired, a little slower. And that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: slowness leads to tiredness, and that leads to fatigue, skipping more workouts…and oh, doesn’t that (fill in name of your favorite junk food here) start to look really good all of a sudden?

I crave exercise today. This is someone who used to eat chocolate and fast-food hamburgers on a daily basis typing these words here. Life really can change. We change our sense of who we are. It happens slowly, cell by cell, over time…until one day, we just realize that things are different.

Junk food doesn’t talk to me anymore. Swim workouts are fun. I watch Ironman triathlon videos on YouTube when I’m taking a work break. Or videos on how to improve my freestyle technique, or my flip turns.

Waking up to life means that every day is an opportunity to reach a new goal. A goal just for that day—and that’s enough! Some days, it’s a mile-long swim. Some days, it’s getting out for a run with my latest playlist. Some days, it’s a spin class, or a session on a rowing machine, or a yoga class, or a lovely, meandering walk through the woods.

Waking up to life means that even though we’re older than we’re used to be, we can still learn new tricks. (See those flip turns again. I had to learn them from scratch. Again, YouTube videos. Awesome.)

And finally, waking up to life means being able to solve problems in a positive way. Finding not just “a” solution, but the best solution for the moment. On Christmas Eve this year, my gym was offering just one spin class for the day, and I thought it would be an excellent way to start off the holiday. So I showed up promptly at 9 a.m. The only problem: a whole lot of other people had shown up at 8:45 a.m. There were no bikes available. And no other classes that day.

The old me? I would have gone home, no doubt. Maybe with a spin through a coffee drive-thru for a mocha.

The new me? I got on a boring ol’ stationary bike in the weight room, clipped in to the pedals, and rode for half an hour at 90 RPMs anyway. I fought through the fatigue and breathlessness of that workout (it’s been a while since I did that one) and said to myself, hey, I know how to positively solve problems now. I need a workout. I can’t do what I planned to do. Let’s see what other options I have, given the equipment I have available to me.

And another Every48 workout was in the books—just like that.

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 11 – EXPANDING THE POSSIBLE

The 11th gift of fitness has to do with how it affects our imagination, and really, how it affects our sense of boundaries. Here’s the gift: when you start to test yourself through new physical challenges, your sense of what’s possible in your life might just get bigger. A lot bigger.

Committing to a fitness lifestyle? You might just find your horizons expanding. (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Committing to a fitness lifestyle? You might just find your horizons expanding. (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A lot has changed in my life since that initial Every48 blog post in late 2013. I’m a mom now, dealing with a postpartum body that doesn’t quite want to bounce back into shape as quickly as that old monkey mind of mine wants it to. Hard. Oh, and there’s that sleeping thing. As in, babies don’t really do it the way that the adults around them really, really wish they would.

So there’s that.

That’s why I trudge off to my workout as often as I can, but no less than once every 48 hours. I try to sweat. Most days, it works. Some days, it’s hard. Once in a great while, it’s too hard for my tired bones and so I say, okay, I tried today. Tomorrow, after a better night of sleep, I’ll feel better. (Note: you will always feel better after a good night of sleep. Sleep is sort of magical that way.)

But what happens when we push ourselves on a regular basis? Our bodies respond. I’ve seen this happen with every single body type I’ve ever brought to a workout: when I was overweight, when I was normal weight, when I was pregnant, and now, with a few leftover postpartum pounds still to lose. Every body type, every stage of my life, has benefited from exercise. Every. Single. Time.

And what else benefits? A sense of optimism about what’s coming up next. A sense of possibility. A sense of confidence that things will probably be okay. A taste of “hmmm, I wonder what else I could do if I committed to it the way I’ve committed to fitness?”

A vision of the future begins to come into focus. Every workout completed makes the workouts to come a little easier. And every step forward makes it easier to take the next step, no matter what you dream of accomplishing.

This post, by the way, was written by a new mom who started her premedical coursework when she was six months pregnant. Just wrapped my third course. Step by step. Horizons change. Possibilities open up. All from getting out there and getting after it, at least once every 48 hours. Join me out there.

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 10 – Focus

Further thoughts on the 12 Gifts of Fitness…Today, the tenth gift: the gift of focus.

The 12 Gifts of Fitness
Day 1: ENERGY
Day 2: PATIENCE
Day 3: GETTING REAL
Day 4: KEEPING PROMISES
Day 5: RIGHTING THE SHIP, QUICKLY
Day 6: RESILIENCE
Day 7: A BRAIN RESET
Day 8: BENCHMARKS THAT MATTER…TO YOU
Day 9: THE GIFT OF KNOWING YOU CAN’T PHONE IT IN
Day 10: FOCUS

Want to shine? Gotta focus - the tenth of the 12 Gifts of Fitness. (Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Want to shine? Gotta focus. It’s the tenth of the 12 Gifts of Fitness. (Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

How can you not love Maz Kanata, the Yoda-inspired character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? She’s played by the incomparable Lupita Nyong’o, and she has fascinating eyes. The better to see into the souls of the people she is meant to help. The better to…focus.

The wisest among us seem to have extraordinary eyes. They take time observing everything around them. They often speak little—but when they do speak, they command the room. And they pay attention, closely, to all of the details of life around them.

The tenth gift of fitness is focus. In order to fully embrace a fitness lifestyle, a lifestyle where we’re exercising hard enough to sweat at least once every 48 hours of our lives, we have to be able to focus. There are details to be considered: when will I work out? Where? What gear do I need? Is it clean? Do I need to pack a gym bag a day early? How will I get where I’m going?

All of these details demand focus: an unrelenting focus on taking care of the details so that you can get stuff done. And once you’re there, in the moment, in the workout, the only thing you need to do is to focus on the single task at hand. The next repetition of the exercise. The next spin of the wheel in spinning class. The next tricep extension during BabyRobics:

Yep, that's me doing a tricep extension while holding my son during a recent BabyRobics class.
Yep, that’s me doing a tricep extension while holding my son during a recent BabyRobics class.

(And yes, being able to stand in a stable way while holding a 15-pound baby in one hand and a 7.5-pound weight in the other definitely takes focus!)

Focusing on the task that is right in front of us builds discipline. It builds confidence in our ability to get things done. And it simplifies the unbelievable radio noise of our culture. When I’m running, I’m running. I’m not surfing the web, checking out how much more fun my friends had than I did during our recent vacations, or feeling depressed about the state of the world. I’m just running. (I might be listening to this awesome podcast, but that’s not depressing—that’s fun.)

What does focus lead to? When we focus on the task that is right in front of us, without the “distractables” around that conspire to make us feel like we’re getting absolutely nothing done (the devices, the TV…you know, the noise), we feel powerful. Strong. We’re checking something important off the to-do list for the day.

And all of that power for some reason is multiplied a whole bunch when I get my workout done in the early morning hours. It just makes the whole day go better. It makes me more able to focus on what I need to focus on for the rest of the day as well.

(There’s a whole bunch of brain science behind what I just wrote, but I’ll save that for another day.)

So, the tenth gift of fitness: Focus. Get it done, check it off, and enjoy the buzz for the rest of your day.

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 9 – The Gift of Knowing You Can’t Phone It In

As we move into a new year, reflections on the true gifts of fitness…Today, I offer you thoughts on the 9th of 12 gifts of fitness: the gift of completely knowing that you can’t phone it in, and why that’s such a good thing.

You can't phone in fitness. And that is a very, very good thing. (Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
You can’t phone in fitness. And that is a very, very good thing. (Image courtesy of Stoonn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The 12 Gifts of Fitness
Day 1: ENERGY
Day 2: PATIENCE
Day 3: GETTING REAL
Day 4: KEEPING PROMISES
Day 5: RIGHTING THE SHIP, QUICKLY
Day 6: RESILIENCE
Day 7: A BRAIN RESET
Day 8: BENCHMARKS THAT MATTER…TO YOU
Day 9: THE GIFT OF KNOWING YOU CAN’T PHONE IT IN

Some things can be faked (like pretending to listen in on a work conference call when you’re really checking your email). And some things just cannot be faked (like trying to run a marathon when you haven’t really trained for it).

You might finish the task, but it won’t be  your best. And even if it looks good to the rest of the world (“Look, Ma, I ran a marathon!”), in your heart, you know the truth. You could have done much better.

The ninth gift of fitness in these waning days of 2015 for me is this: it’s impossible to phone in good health. And it’s especially impossible, at least for someone like me without any particularly good athletic genes tooling around my DNA, to phone in good fitness.

And that is very, very good news.

More than ever, I’m inspired and completely impressed by people who had to dedicate themselves to a task over many years or decades to make something amazing happen. (I won’t beat this horse too much in the coming weeks, but if you want to have some fun, look at how the national press was writing about Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson when he signed a grownup contract last summer, and how they’re writing about him now.)

I especially love the part in the first article I referenced about how Wilson, a Super Bowl champion, was reportedly not worth “Aaron Rodgers money.” Rodgers has exactly the same number of Super Bowl rings as Wilson (1), and Wilson has been rewriting the record books this season. Wilson works for it. That’s it. He doesn’t phone it in, ever. And his results show it.

Three times in my life, I have trained completely correctly and properly for a marathon. Those three times were, coincidentally, the three times I set personal bests at the distance. (I’m not counting my first-ever marathon, a 1993 Boston that I did as a bandit back in the days when that wasn’t a horrible thing to do—just the races where I bested my previous best time.)

I’m thinking especially about my most recent personal best, set in December 2011 when I finally cracked the four-hour barrier, by a bunch. All that year I was training well. I woke up early to get in my swim laps at the gym pool before work. I pushed hard during interval training. And then got somewhat surprised when I started throwing down race times I’d never dreamed of before (a sub-50 minute 10K, a 5K at 7:30 mile pace…those are really good times for a turtle like me).

Why the surprise?

I wonder to this day why I was surprised that hard work equaled measurable success in fitness. This is the ninth gift of fitness: showing you the value of cause and effect. Demonstrating that hard work will help you achieve all of your dreams.

Dedicating yourself to a fitness lifestyle means you’re working for it. You’re getting up when you need to get up in order to fit in your workout around your other responsibilities. (Yes, I am writing this as the mother of an infant. I have to get up earlier than him in order to fit in my workouts some days. That’s just the way it goes right now.)

You’re disciplined. You get things done.

And here’s the true gift of all of this: being able to get things done in a workout program (especially when you’re training for an event of any sort) trains you to expect to get things done in other areas of your life as well. You might find yourself getting far more organized. Getting more done in less time. Not paying attention to things that are distracting (like a certain presidential primary season—oh, if I want to start the day depressed, all I have to do is read the national news these days).

The gift is knowing where hard work leads. You can’t phone it in—it took all of me to clock that speedy (for me) marathon four years ago. But why would you want to? Doesn’t it feel way better to do the work, to put in the time, to dedicate yourself to a goal? That way, when you actually achieve the goal, it feels like exactly what it is.

An achievement.

 

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 8 – Benchmarks That Matter…To You

The 12 Gifts of Fitness
Day 1: ENERGY
Day 2: PATIENCE
Day 3: GETTING REAL
Day 4: KEEPING PROMISES
Day 5: RIGHTING THE SHIP, QUICKLY
Day 6: RESILIENCE
Day 7: A BRAIN RESET
Day 8: BENCHMARKS THAT MATTER…TO YOU

12-29-15_ID-100131395_Dashboard.jpg
Dashboards can give us lots of helpful information. But ultimately, the only numbers that matter in fitness, and in life, are the numbers that matter to us. (Image courtesy of jiggoja at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Benchmarks. Dashboards. Big data. We’re swimming in numbers these days. But one of the 12 gifts of fitness has everything to do with numbers. Specifically, the numbers that matter to you. Because—here’s the biggie takeaway from all of this—the only numbers that are going to motivate you are the ones that matter to you.

Body fat percentage? Total cholesterol? Blood pressure? Marathon personal best? All numbers. All measurable. All quantifiable markers that might mean something to you personally when you’re tracking your health—and especially when you’re looking to improve your health.

The Eighth Gift of Fitness is this: regular exercise gives us lots of opportunities to decide on benchmarks that matter to us. Things we can measure on a regular basis to see progress.

benchmark [ˈben(t)SHmärk/] 

noun: a standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed. (Google.com)

Here we are in December 2015 (yes, we’re finally back in real time after re-experiencing the first seven gifts of fitness, which I started writing about this time last year). I am about eighteen pounds heavier than my best racing weight (down from over forty from my pregnancy). There’s a benchmark right there—weight—but interestingly, it’s not the benchmark that motivates me the most. Oh, no, siree.

The benchmark that matters to me is the one that tells me how fast a runner I am. Because running, as an activity, is what defines me as an athlete.

Back in 2008 when I started to finally pay close attention to my weight, when I had forty pounds to lose not because of pregnancy but because, ahem, I had been taking care of myself rather poorly for years, I sort-of cared about my blood pressure reading. I kind-of cared about the size of my clothes.

But I really cared about how fast I could run a mile. And how fast I could run a three-mile loop at a local park.

That’s what motivated me. Those numbers became two of my benchmarks. (The other two were how many push-ups I could do on my toes in one set, and how long I could hold a plank.)

Notice how all four of my benchmarks, during a weight-loss effort, were fitness-related? Yup. Because it’s motivating. Because it’s fun. It wasn’t super-fun to jump on a scale every week (though the accountability absolutely helped me lose those forty pounds). But it was super-fun to go to the park with the three-mile loop and wonder…Can I run this loop just one second faster than the last time I tried?

The first time I did that little test (that is, the second time I ran that loop to time it), I was four minutes faster than I had been the first time. (I had lost ten pounds since that first timing, so that may have explained some things.)

Funny thing about that incident. I had gained a little bit of weight that week, after losing those ten pounds. And if weight had been my only benchmark, the only number that mattered to me, I would have thought I’d failed that week to take care of myself. But when fitness is your benchmark, you have a much wider universe of potential successes to draw from. I went straight from my weight-loss meeting (which I highly recommend for the great nutrition information and the accountability) to the aforementioned park. I strapped on my running shoes. I turned on my running watch. And I killed my previous personal best.

Fitness hands us opportunities to succeed, at every turn. That’s how I use the numbers. They’re opportunities to succeed. (Even just for today. Don’t want to compare yourself to yesterday? Set a “December 22, 2015” personal best!)

For me, coming back from pregnancy and childbirth means a whole new set of benchmarks. All of my running records are pre-Baby Bear. So now, I have a whole new set of benchmarks I can use to track my progress.

Here are the numbers that matter to me: How many push-ups can I do on my toes in one set? (Answer: none yet after giving birth, but I can do a bunch on my knees, so that’s progress.) How long does it take me to run one mile? (Answer: I haven’t timed myself yet because I’m not quite up for a big time-trial effort, but I do know that the time it takes me to complete three miles has improved by seven minutes since I started timing myself postpartum.) How long can I hold a plank? (Answer: Not as long as I want, but longer than I thought I could given that my ab muscles were stretched into all sorts of new shapes when my son was incubating in there.)

And onward we go. Pick a benchmark, or two or three, to use as you track your fitness progress. You might find a whole new set of motivating tactics. And, can I just say? You’ll also feel like a badass every time you set a new personal best.

Recent Every48 workouts: Getting back in the swing of things, finally. A one-hour BabyRobics class with Baby Bear last week, followed by three miles running/walking on the treadmill. A few days later, another treadmill run—this time without walk breaks, and seven minutes faster than the first time around. It’s still turtle pace, but I’ll take it.

 

 

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 7 – A BRAIN RESET

The 12 Gifts of Fitness
Day 1: ENERGY
Day 2: PATIENCE
Day 3: GETTING REAL
Day 4: KEEPING PROMISES
Day 5: RIGHTING THE SHIP, QUICKLY
Day 6: RESILIENCE
Day 7: A BRAIN RESET

[Originally published March 10, 2015]

True confession: I’m writing this post when I should be at my swim class. I was super duper massively tired today and gave myself permission to take a little bit of rest…but something tells me I could have just as easily been okay if I’d jumped in the pool and done what I could do. Because one of the gifts of fitness is that the act of exercise—especially a decently challenging aerobic or strength workout, one that leaves you panting (at least some of the time) and sweating (most of the time)—creates a Brain Reset.

Brain Reset: Kind of like that red pen thingie in Men in Black

Vigorous exercise gives us a brain reset. Works every time. (Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Vigorous exercise gives us a brain reset. Works every time. (Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

You know the red pen thingie? That little flashy thing called a Neuralyzer that Will Smith’s character flashes at people when he wants them to forget whatever they just saw? That’s what a good, solid, hard workout does for me, every time.

If I was frustrated before the workout…I’m happy afterwards.

If I was tired before the workout…I’m energized afterwards.

If I was crabby before the workout…I’m oozing positive energy afterwards.

Never once, not once in all of the time that I have made exercise a part of my regular routine, have I ended a workout feeling worse than I did when I started it. (Well, there was that one time in October 2014 when I took a nasty fall while running the day after a massive windstorm and tripped on a fallen branch…but that’s a major exception to the rule.)

What’s the science behind this one? Pretty simple. Vigorous aerobic workouts give the feel-good chemicals in our brains a big ol’ boost: endorphins, neurotransmitters, and endocannobinoids…say that last one five times fast. And check out the Mayo Clinic article that expounds on the value of exercise for alleviating depression symptoms. Even if you’re not “depressed” by clinical standards, all of us have our mental ups and downs. Exercise provides a brain reset, and that’s one of its greatest gifts.

(And yes, there is an actual Wikipedia entry about the Men in Black Neuralyzer. Really. I just had to share that, because it’s awesome.)

The 12 Gifts of Fitness, 2015 Edition: Day 6 – RESILIENCE

The 12 Gifts of Fitness
Day 1: ENERGY
Day 2: PATIENCE
Day 3: GETTING REAL
Day 4: KEEPING PROMISES
Day 5: RIGHTING THE SHIP, QUICKLY
Day 6: RESILIENCE

[originally published March 9, 2015]

“If you have one bad mile, don’t worry. Just run as comfortably as you can through it. The next mile might feel a whole lot better.”

Marathon running is like climbing a mountain. The goal is spectacular; but not every step will feel perfect. The key ingredient: Resilience. (Image courtesy of moggara12 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Marathon running is like climbing a mountain. The goal is spectacular; but not every step will feel perfect. The key ingredient: Resilience. (Image courtesy of moggara12 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

That quote right there is a paraphrase of what my running coach taught me about marathoning: it’s not all over if you have a “bad mile.” You can regroup, run a little more slowly, relax, breathe a little more deeply, and see if your energy comes back. The key to marathon running is to train the resilience to see the race through to its end, no matter what happens between the starting gun and the finish line.

Ah, resilience.

I’m thinking about resilience today, and how fitness gives it to us in spades (and for a whole lot more than our fitness lives, too) because a friend lost her job recently in a corporate-layoff situation that involved a lot of people. Difficult industry, tough times, and finally the company had to do what companies have to do from time to time: take out the spreadsheets and figure out how to cut costs. This time, a talented person whom I respect deeply was on the unfortunate “cut” list. The company won’t be the same without her.

But resilience will get her through it. And, wouldn’t you know…she’s an athlete. I have tons of confidence that she’ll bounce back better than ever.

Thinking back more than five years ago…it was October 2008, when the real axe of the Great Recession had just hit the U.S. economy, when I saw a number on the scale that I’d never seen before and had no idea what to do next. Forty pounds above my healthiest weight. And, no work to speak of; when the recession hit, companies went into lockdown mode and froze hiring. I was coming off a big work contract and figured the next contract was right around the corner. As it turned out, it was more than six months away. And I had a mortgage, on my own, to cover. And I was overweight.

Today, things are better. Much better.

What happened? It turned out to be a great time to start taking care of my health, in the end. I could cook at home (the better to be both healthy and frugal). I could take time to figure out what I really wanted from my work life going forward. And as I started to drop the weight (gradually and on my own at first, and then more effectively with a solid program to follow), I felt more confident and more sure of myself. I knew what career moves I wanted to make, and which ones to steer clear of (hint: the ones I’d be doing just “for the money”).

And I embraced fitness, in a pretty major way. I didn’t give up my gym membership; instead, I used it more often. The gym gave me the chance to be around other people, to be in a positive place, to set a daily goal and reach it. (My philosophy: workouts are pass/fail. If you showed up, you passed.)

Moral of the story: If you show up to your workout on a regular basis, you’re training resilience. That will help with the tough times. Guaranteed.

Recent Every48 workouts: [We’re back in real time now, December 2015] Finally, finally starting to get back to an Every48 lifestyle. A 60-minute BabyRobics class and three miles on the treadmill (three very slow miles compared to pre-baby life, but I did ’em) made the difference today.

 

Fitness Inspiration. Science included.

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