I don’t know about you, but I love exercise. Actually, that’s probably a gross understatement. The way I feel towards exercise is perhaps comparable to the way Romeo felt towards Juliet (or vice versa).
Of all my passions – playing the guitar, learning, sharing what I’ve learnt, writing about what I’ve learnt, talking about what I’ve learnt – exercise is the only one that I've remained faithful to. For a while, when I realised I wasn’t going to play guitar like Steve Ray Vaughn (my six string idol), I stopped practicing – to my shame. I have since resumed you’ll be relieved to know.
I made a similar mistake in my campaign for intellectual enlightenment. When I couldn’t comprehend Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason I felt intellectually inferior and turned my back on books – for a week or two (which doesn’t sound like long but for someone who routinely squanders three hours a day turning pages a couple of weeks, I can tell you, is an epoch).
However, what I’ve come to realise is, not once in 20 years have I fallen out with exercise. In all that time, roughly 7300 days, I can only recall two occasions when I went longer than three days without getting a sweat on – both occasions were because of illness, one of which was very nearly fatal.
What’s so different about exercise? For me it is the purest form of expression. Also, for me, it is the most direct route to the flow state – that hyper-focused, deeply engaged state popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (find out more about flow).
Moreover, exercise is not only good for us physically but also psychologically and epidemiologically – that is, it reduces our susceptibility to many diseases and enhances our longevity (unfortunately room doesn’t permit an in-depth discussion on the benefits of exercise; but you can learn more by following the accompanying link: The Benefits of Exercise.)
It is perhaps because of the multi-faceted beneficent nature of exercise why I’ve never been able to give it up.
The purpose of this article
In this article I am going to share with you twenty lessons that I have learnt from exercise after two decades of near daily practice. The lessons are related to exercise, of course, but some of them transcend the realms of the physical and penetrate the mental – perhaps even the spiritual.
You are well within your rights to ask: Why should I read these lessons? What am I going to get out of them?
Though they are not in the least important – in the way Plato’s Republic or Montaigne’s Essays are – the lessons do offer an insight into the many ways in which exercise can improve your life. And I don’t just mean physical and/or health improvements either.
For example, we’ll look at how exercise can help us to cultivate consistency – an essential ingredient for success – develop personal discipline and maintain intellectual flexibility. Yes, exercise can teach us these crucial attributes and so much more besides.
A final point before we start
The lessons are in no particular order of importance; they lie exactly how they fell from my mind. I hope you take something from them.
Lesson #1: The importance of having a goal
Anyone who has resolved to reach a goal will readily attest to the tremendous power it can exert. Just think of all those amazing achievements people have accomplished because they pursued an ambition.
Having a goal to work towards can keep us motivated when we feel like quitting or the going gets tougher than we anticipated. (Want to learn more about how to improve motivation?)
Goals also imbue practice with a sense of purpose. Many people every day quit on exercise. Why? One reason is because they do not have a meaningful destination. Thus exercising seems hollow and devoid of substance.
I’ve discovered that by constantly setting goals, by focusing daily exercise on a fixed objective, I am able to maintain high levels of motivation which translates to consistent engagement.
This lesson can just as well be applied to pretty much all aspects of life. Having that goal to aim for can reinvigorate the lived experience. Let’s be honest here, life can be a drag sometimes and Seneca wasn’t far wrong when he said it was perhaps a little too long.
Thus we should fill it with goals and pursuits and objectives and ambitions. Here are some non-fitness related goals I’ve been working on of late that have added spice to my life.
Developing a website
Writing a book (with no ambition to publish)
Publishing another book
Learning to play a Metallica song (One)
Writing this article
Cultivating what Shunryu Suzuki calls the Zen Mind (I recommend reading Suzuki's book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
Improving my Yoga practice
These are just some of the goals I am currently working towards at the moment. Granted, a couple of them are a bit vague – such as improving my Yoga practice – which is something a goal should never be; an ambiguous, obscure or poorly defined goal can be de-motivational (goals should stick as close to the SMART acronym as possible: Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or actionable), Realistic and Time bound).
Yet those goals still get me out of bed every morning brimming with enthusiasm for the day.
So, now that we’ve discussed the importance of having a goal, my closing question to you is, what goals are you pursuing?
Lesson #2: The importance of discipline
Discipline is that profoundly powerful quality that gets us up doing something. When people find out that I climb out of bed at 5am every morning (check out the Hungry4Fitness 30 Day Challenge: 5am Wake Up), they invariable gasp and, after asking if I’ve a couple of screws loose, say ‘Aren’t you disciplined.’
The thing is, because I’ve been beating the blackbird out of bed for so many years, I don’t really see it as discipline. Just the norm. But I suppose, on consideration, early rising is a show of discipline; this is evidenced by the fact that, even though I’ve been getting up this early for years, some mornings are still a battle.
I believe exercise has helped me to cultivate my self-discipline. A pedantic reader could point to a chicken and the egg situation: what came first the discipline then the exercise, or the exercise then the discipline?
When I first started working on my physicality – in preparedness for Royal Marines Commando training – I found it frightfully difficult to maintain a consistent regime. And I retrograded many times. In those early stages I missed more sessions than I attended.
But over weeks and months something started to happen. Getting up to go for a five mile run before school wasn’t as traumatic as it once was. Forcing myself out of the house to make the two mile trek to the gym didn’t feel like I was off to the gulag.
The power of discipline began to grow and every session seemed to nourish it making it stronger. Since then my self-discipline has developed into one of my strongest attributes and I am able to direct it towards other endeavours.
For example, when I resolved to write a fitness book (not published) I was able to stick to a two hour a day writing regime until, after 100,000 words and countless revisions and incurred costs (photos that needed editing), I successfully completed the project. And even though I didn’t have the courage to solicit publication to me it was a great personal achievement and one that I never believed I could accomplish.
But this is what I’ve come to realise, once you possess self-discipline, once it becomes an intrinsic part of your being, it never leaves you and you always have it to direct towards whatever challenge you pit yourself against.
If you think your self-discipline is a puny pushover who acquiesces without a fight, consider taking him or her to the gym for some strength training.
Lesson #3: The power of perseverance
If there is one frustration all exercise enthusiasts have experienced at least once in their careers, it’s probably the frustration at the snail-like pace at which physiological adaptations take place.
Left tired and dejected by its agonisingly slow approach many people have chucked in the towel long before those adaptations ever arrive.
A great physique and supreme fitness, just like Rome, can never be built in a day. They require years of labour-intensive perseverance and self-sacrifice. Few ever come to terms with this painful reality. And usually it’s only ever learnt the hard way.
As a young lad I watched a Bruce Lee film – Enter the Dragon of course. So impressed by Bruce’s athleticism and incredible flexibility I sought to have some of that of my own. However, in my adolescent enthusiasm, I tried to get from an inflexible piece of wood to Mr Elastic in one day.
The outcome of my extreme stretching regime?
For a week I suffered such severe DOMS that even fairly tame activities - getting out of bed, picking my nose, etc. - hurt like hell. It didn’t immediately occur to me that perhaps Bruce had persevered for many years before he could shatter a light bulb suspended two foot above his head with a single kick. Thankfully I wasn’t quite stupid enough to have a go at that. Though I thought about it.
Painful though that lesson was it taught me something of great value. If you want to improve your flexibility, or your physicality, or if you want that rock-solid super-defined physique, you absolutely can do.
But, just like Bruce Lee evidently did, you are going to have to persevere for years before your labours bear fruit.
Those admirable qualities exhibited by our heroes and idols are testament to the power of perseverance. When I first witnessed Steve Ray Vaughn belt out a blues lick on that battered old Fender Strat I marvelled at his god-like virtuosity. Yet what I was really looking at was years of dedicated practice and dogged perseverance.
Strange as it sounds, exercise has taught me that if I wanted to improve my playing – if I wanted to improve at anything – I know it is possible so long as I’m willing persevere.
Lesson #4: Willingness to suffer
For the past twelve years I’ve been teaching and preparing young people for the rigours of military training. And (not blow my own trumpet) I’ve been quite successful at it; I’ve been personally responsible for helping hundreds of youngsters achieve their ambition. And that, I can tell you, is a great privilege.
My approach in the preparation has always been a very simple one: make the training so hard and horrible that the fight resembles a week on the Costa del Sol – sangria in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other.
If you have to run the 1.5 mile in 9:30 to get into your respective military service, I’m going to push you until you can run it in under 8:30. If you have to perform 5 flawless pull-ups I’ll push for 10 – better still, 20. Why?
Isn’t it obvious? If you can exceed the requirements by a country mile then even on an off day you’ll have enough in the tank to scrape through.
However, what I’ve come to realise is, high levels of physical fitness are not a true indication of success in a vocation like the military. And that’s probably true of most all arduous occupations or endeavours.
The single strongest indicator of success is one’s willingness to suffer.
It’s for this reason why, when a student expresses their intent to join the military, I ask them: are you willing to suffer? Usually they tip their head to one side whilst awaiting the punch line. But when it isn’t forthcoming they enquire as to what I mean.
In my experience students who endure suffering, who are willing to push themselves to their limit and beyond, they are the ones who succeeded. And it was always over the anvil of exercise that students tested the mettle of their tolerance to suffer. Not only tested but forged.
This has wider implications. A well-tempered willingness to suffer will stand you in good stead for, well, not to sound too corny or anything . . . but life. Who could deny that to live is to suffer? Who could deny that the pursuit of any worthwhile endeavour is little more than a protracted period of suffering?
"If you understand the background of existence, you realise that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our lives."
Thus I opine that in the majority of cases it is the person who is willing to suffer who will emerge victorious from whatever campaign they embark.
Lesson #5: The ability to suffer
It’s not just the willingness to suffer but the ability to suffer that counts. Though seemingly closely related these are two quite different things. When I asked my students if they were willing to suffer in their quest for a place in the military, invariable 100% said ‘Yes, I am willing.’
There’s a glaring contradiction here though. Contradiction: fewer than 25% actually achieved their ambition. And that small number of successes was by no means comprised of the most able students. Far from it.
So when 100% said they were willing to suffer why did only a quarter passed military training? Exercise could always answer that question. Nothing like a five mile run followed by a few hundred reps of various calisthenic exercises to separate the serious from the not-so-serious.
But exercise doesn’t just decide who’s wheat and who’s chaff. Those students who persevered with their exercises, who even after giving up came back for seconds, and thirds and sometimes fourths, over time they developed an almost indomitable tolerance to suffering.
Rare is it that you come across a young person who possess the natural ability to endure arduous physical exercise. Often, when the going gets tough and the burn sets in, they quit. Even those students who show the most promise inevitably jack it in at some point. Thankfully not permanently though.
What I’ve come to learn is that, like a muscle or skill, the ability to suffer can be trained, strengthened and sculpted into a singularly powerful asset. Over time it can take on the form of an immovable promontory that will weather any storm.
The Greatest Living Explorer - Ranulph Fiennes - is no stranger to suffering. There's not length enough on a giraffe's neck to list his endurance and exploration achievements. Not only has he walked to both poles unsupported, Fiennes has also summited Everest, scaled the treacherous North Face of Eiger, ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, completed the 300 mile Eco Challenge . . . and on and on the list of suffering goes. But perhaps his greatest achievement is in raising over 20 million for the Marie Curie cancer charity. Truly amazing.
Lesson #6: Adapt and overcome
‘It’s the strongest species that survive!’ is the common misquotation from Charles Darwin’s profoundly impactful book Origin of the Species. What he actually wrote was, ’It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change,’ (my emphasis).
Exercise has taught me not only the importance of adapting but how to adapt whilst maintaining sangfroid.
In the early days whenever I suffered an injury I would usually retreat into a shell of depression and bewail my lamentable misfortune. Like an actor from a Shakespearean play I would pontificate on the injustices of fortune and make sombre soliloquies on my sad state of affairs.
Nowadays the first thing I do if I get injured is vociferate Napoleon Hill’s wise words: ‘Look for the seed of the equivalent benefit in every unpleasant circumstance you meet!’ (Napoleon Hill's 10 Rules of Self-discipline)
Thanks to these words and my passion for exercise I’ve discarded my shell and given up acting.
So when, a year or two back, I was taking part in a circuit with my students and slipped off a four foot high plyometrics box badly twisting my ankle in the fall, I accepted my fate with perfect equanimity (after rolling about in agony for five minutes). How?
Because, for starters, it was by no means the end of the world and I knew that, though I wouldn’t be running, cycling or Thai Boxing for a month (minimum), I could still do loads of other exercises that I love.
Also, it afforded me the opportunity to work on those areas of my fitness that I tend to neglect; such as flexibility. And because I couldn’t train for as long – after all, there’s only so much weightlifting one man can justifiably do in a day – I had more time to devote to other activities.
It is to exercise, Charles Darwin and Napoleon Hill to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for teaching me how to adapt to change and to do so with a smile.
Lesson #7: Knowing when enough is enough
By far the hardest test of Commando training – physical test – is the 6 mile endurance run over Woodbury Common. It’s not the distance that’s a killer, it’s the terrain, the tunnels, gorges, bogs, pools and the fabled ‘sheep’s dip’. Plus, you have to run it in full combats, with 40lbs of kit and a rifle. On conclusion of the run you are required to hit 6 out of 10 targets. If you hit only 5 you have to complete the run again – recruits are only ever given two chances (video clip of the endurance course).
I can remember standing on the start line sick with nerves like it was yesterday. I told myself over and over: ‘Adam, either emerge victorious or die trying! They are your only options.’ Why so melodramatic? In the two practice attempts I developed a visceral fear of the course. Honestly, to me it was like hell on earth – especially the 30 metre-long smarty tunnels that are as dark as pitch and half filled with disgusting stagnant water.
As much as I wanted a green beret of my own – desperately so – I wasn’t prepared to run the endurance course for a second time under test conditions. This accounts for why on the day of the test I passed out the moment I crossed the finish line.
I ran so hard, pushing myself beyond my natural limit, that when I stepped over the finish line it was as if someone flicked off the switch. Bang! I slammed into the concrete and all was black.
When I came to – at the impatient behest of a corporal, who’d moved on from light face slaps to 'soft' kicks to my ribs – I was ushered onto the firing range and told to wait for ‘targets to be presented’.
Thankfully I hit 8 out of those 10 targets and arrived at the finish line 4 minutes before the cut-off. However, far from leaving scars that experience awoke an unhealthy appetite – an addiction – to exercise to exhaustion.
Few people will ever understand how somebody can become addicted to excessive exercise but it is a recognised disorder; kind of like OCD on steroids. And though there are arguably worse things to get addicted to, exercising excessively is very dangerous and can result in severe injury.
For me this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn (though truth be told I still relapse on occasions). That is, to recognise when I’m over-training and to listen to my body: to know when enough is enough.
Lesson #8: Be willing to learn from others
I’m not going to lie to you, for a long while I was a conceited, cocky, over-confident little s#!t who thought he knew everything about physical fitness. No one can teach me anything. No one can execute a technique with more precision than I could. And few could match my hard-won physicality.
‘I can’t be educated in the domain of exercise,’ I erroneously believed. ‘I was one of the youngest recruits to pass the hardest and longest basic military training in the world. I’ve also ran marathons on a whim and without a week’s worth of training, and I’ve completed fitness sessions that would induce cardiac arrest in 95% of the population. Who can teach me?’
These delusions that I harboured held me back for years. My blinding ego inhibited me from advancing my knowledge and skill base.
This pernicious mind-set was almost instantly effaced when a kindly gentleman one day pointed out to me that my rowing technique was dreadful. ‘Dreadful!’ Yes, dreadful. On hearing this highly offensive insinuation I struggled to maintain composure. My face must have gone through more colours than a chameleon’s. I beat down the impulse to defend my wounded ego and instead said:
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Do you really want to know?’ he asked, clearly already clued-up on the decrepitude of my arrogance. Arrogant types who think they know it all do not want to be advised. Why would they? They know it all!
‘Yes,’ came my meek response. ‘Yes I would like to know.’ In truth I didn’t. But you knew that already.
‘Ok, you’re pulling with the arms too early which nullifies the legs. Consequently your strongest muscles are under-utilised. From the catch position your . . .’ and on and on he went his words like wrecking balls to my ego. Before he’d finished I felt like a fool. Here’s this old timer telling me how to row. Can you believe it!
I went away and dismissed his tutelage. But the thoroughness of his analysis got the cogs whirring. Over the next week (and in secret – so sad) I applied his recommendations and sought to ameliorate and amend the shower of shite that was my rowing technique.
Did it make a difference?
By god it did! After applying and embedding his method I improved all of my PBs. Furthermore, the back ache that would often developed whenever I rowed 10k or more literally stopped overnight.
This was an epiphany moment in my life. Ever since I have endeavoured to learn from other people. I give thanks to this fortuitous encounter as it has made me a better person.
(I have endeavoured to capture in a video tutorial the rowing techniques passed on to me. Hopefully they will improve your performance as much as they have mine.)
Lesson #9: Failure is a fundamental fact of life – accept that and learn from it
Exercise is a great teacher. One of the single most important lessons that it’s taught me is how to accept failure.
I use to be a real sore loser. If I failed at something or I was beaten by a better competitor I would go nuts; literally I’d lash out at any inanimate object to hand and I would sulk pitifully for days – sometimes weeks.
I took this petulant mentality with me to the world renowned Sasiprapa Thai Boxing Gym in Bangkok, Thailand. Concluding a pretty dismal show at sparring, when one of the professional fighters threw me to the canvass (to add insult to injury he was a foot and half shorter and about 2 stone lighter – but by god was he good!), I flew into my obligatory rage.
F#’@k! this and F#’€k that I began ranting and raging – I think I even unleashed blind fury on one of the ring corner pads. . . . Pa-thetic!
Anyway, the head coach walked over to me, smiling pleasantly, his hands clasped disarmingly behind his back, and said: ‘Adam, here, in this gym, we do not conduct ourselves in that way.’
That simple sentence dropped me to the floor with more force than did the throw. He added: ‘Losing control of your temper is a sign of weakness. You must master your emotions before they master you.’ (This was a real Mr Miyagi moment.)
At this point my head was drooped down and I was nodding obsequiously like a schoolboy in front of his headmaster. But it was my coach’s closing remarks that made an indelible impression on my mind.
‘The true fighter,’ he said, now placing his hand lightly on my shoulder, ‘. . . the true fighter accepts failure as a fundamental fact of life. They not only accept it, they welcome it.’
Perhaps he saw that I was at the point of bursting into tears, or that my westernised mind was struggling to comprehend these profound teachings, but he abruptly turned and walked away.
For the remainder of the session I sequestered myself away in a dark corner where, whilst kicking at a cast-iron punch bag, I ruminated on those words of wisdom.
I’ve come to realise that exercise – and combat sports (any sport!) – can teach us not just how to fail but, more importantly, how to learn from failure. That’s what my coach meant by welcoming failure. For it is failure that teaches us how to become better – if, that is, you’re willing to learn!
Lesson #10: Maintain intellectual flexibility
“When the facts change, I change my mind.”
The field of exercise and fitness is in an ever-changing state of flux. What do I mean by this? Well it wasn’t too many moons ago when continuous training sat proud as punch upon the throne as the crowned king of fat-burning exercises.
If you had a pair of those flappy bingo wings the best remedy was a long slow run (three times a week for a few months – plus cut back on the carbs and confectionery). Or if you were baking up a muffing top steady state cardio was just the thing to trim the fat.
This was exercise orthodoxy at its most dogmatic and it reigned supreme for many years. At least it did until sports science research showed steady state to be not nearly as effective a method of dissolving fat as HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training.
When the usurper took the throne all hell broke loose.
The crown came crashing down and a schism tore the paradigm in twain. (Another feather in Kuhn’s cap.) And all those in the physical fitness profession were left trying to make sense of the world from the scattered fragments of their shattered beliefs.
But the chaos has since settled, as it inevitable does, and the professionals flexible enough to adapt to change happily adopted HIIT into their practice. However, many a brittle-minded old dog remains sceptical refusing to relinquish the bone of contention.
Another example? Ok . . .
For more years than I’ve been conscious sit-ups were a staple of the exercise enthusiast’s diet. You want abs like slabs? Sit-ups! You want to sculpt the transverse abdominis into a piece of Renaissance art? Sit-ups!
Emerging evidence suggests, however, that this seemingly harmless exercise could seriously damage the vertebrae. It transpires that over time sit-ups may cause anatomical instability by compressing the sponge-like inter-vertebral discs. (Follow me if you want to gain a deeper insight into the anatomy of your spine.)
By failing to adopt this information into their practice the exercise professional could be putting not only themselves at risk but also their clients. It is for this reason why, in such a shape shifting discipline, it is imperative to maintain intellectual flexibility.
(A final example that lends additional credence to the importance of intellectual flexibility. I’ve included it in parenthesis becau