Updated: Feb 23
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 like Steve Ray Vaughn (my guitar 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 reading my article: 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 #11: Learn to love it
I’m going to follow in the footsteps of one of my intellectual heroes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and make a confession. Here goes. Deep breath, deep breath . . . In the beginning, back when I first started to sweat voluntarily, I didn’t much enjoy it.
And exhale . . . Damn that’s a weight off the old shoulders. I’ve been carrying that rock about for years. Catharsis never fails to lighten the load.
For me running was a miserable chore; so much so that tying my shoelaces felt like clamping shackles around my ankles. And I would procrastinate for ten minutes before finally blackmailing myself out the house.
Going gym wasn’t much different. It was one of those spit and sawdust, sted’ed gyms that stunk of fart, rotting rubber and Maximuscle protein shakes. A truly noxious combination of odours if ever there was one.
In fact the only reason I use to endure an hour of feeling inferior amongst the herd of bison-like body builders was for that post pump protein shake; which was a pint-sized polystyrene cup of pure molasses – and that accounts for why I could never sleep on gym nights.
I couldn’t accurately put my finger on the moment when the change took place. But at some undefinable point in my meagre history I began to like – nay love! – physical exercise.
What can this diametric change in feeling be put down to? Well, sad as it sounds, exercise is really the only thing I’ve ever been any good at. I’ve poured countless hours into guitar practice and I’m still a tenth-rate fiddler. I’ve spent more hours than I care to count filling my head with knowledge, yet I’m still as clueless about the world as I was when I first opened my eyes. Actually the one sure thing I’ve come to understand over the years is that the more I learn the less I know.
It is perhaps because I find exercise easy, and that it is eminently comprehendible, why we get on so well.
I know that the majority of people do not feel this way. As a pedagogue and professional personal trainer it has been my challenge to motivate clients and students to engage with exercise. This is especially difficult when they harbour ill feelings towards all things fitness.
How can I help them overcome that seemingly insurmountable barrier so that they can begin to reap the rewards of exercise? Honestly, I haven’t figured that out yet. But what I have figured out is, if a person cannot learn to love exercise they are far more likely to quit.
And that’s a damn shame when there are so many benefits up for grabs. (Would you like to learn more about the benefits of exercise?) I suppose what I’m trying to say here is if you love what you do it’ll never be a chore.
Lesson #12: When the going gets tough you get tougher
I’d just staggered past the 22 mile marker of the Taunton marathon and I was in a world of hurt. My feet were on fire, I could’ve been walking barefooted across glowing embers. My hamstrings were as tight as drum skins and I feared they might snap at any moment. I was fatigued, thirsty and thoroughly fed up and I was as close to quitting as I’ve ever been. To make matters worse an old woman trotted past me and cheerily exchanged a few words of motivation. They didn’t achieve the desired effect.
Across every mile and with every step I kept asking one question: Why in god’s name are you putting yourself though this?
How had I landed myself in this lamentable state?
Two weeks earlier whilst at my local Ju Jitsu club a friend – more a casual acquaintance – proudly proclaimed that he’d soon be running the Taunton Marathon and would anybody like to sponsor him.
‘Marathon?’ I thought. ‘That’s on my exercise bucket list.’ I asked him for the event details and that evening signed up and paid my entry fee.
Now two weeks’ training is not ideal. Most runners will have spent anywhere between 6 months to a year preparing for a marathon. But I didn’t have that luxury. Also, I’d only recently gotten over a particularly persistent Achilles injury – which, in my optimism (aka ignorance), I thought had heeled (no pun intended).
My first preparatory run consisted of a blow-the-cobwebs-off ten miler. Bad idea. By mile two I was limping. By mile three I was hobbling back to barracks, my head lulling left to right like that of a bovine animal’s.
I decided to give running a rest until the marathon. For the following two weeks I rehabbed my injury to death and prayed like hell that my cardio wouldn’t waste away to nothing.
Standing amongst the 1500 competitors, feeling quite nervous and regretting not going for that seventh poo, I noticed that only a small minority of runners were wearing numbers front and back. When I caught up with my friend I asked what this meant. He told me that a single number signifies that the runner is taking part in the half marathon whereas two numbers signify the full marathon.
‘Ok, that makes sense. But why,’ I said, ‘do you only have one number?’
‘Because I’m running the half marathon,’ he replied, in that irritatingly cheery way of his.
‘But you said –’
Before I could challenge his evident lack of honesty the event organiser came over the tannoy to initiate the 10 second countdown. I was forced forward as the horde lurched closer to the start line. The start gun sounded. We were off.
The marathon consisted of two halves – making it a bit dull (second time round). I did well on the first lap and set a PB of 1 hour 28 minutes (I still haven’t beaten that PB). As for the second half – well that was an epic disaster.
At mile 20 I slammed into the infamous wall. Honestly, it felt like I’d gone from running through air to wading knee deep through treacle. By mile 22 I was all but down and out. Then the old granny shuffled past me, tossing over her shoulder a couple of empty words of motivation. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d suffered so badly during exercise.
It was whilst preparing an excuse to justify quitting that I realised, with cutting clarity, that in fact quitting was simply not an option. ‘Even if it means being beaten by a septuagenarian – you’ll finish. Even if you have to walk the remaining three miles – you’ll finish. Even if you have to crawl. By god boy you’re not going to give up!’ boomed that Churchillian voice in the back of my head.
Winston gave me that sobering slap across the cheeks I desperately needed. I promptly pulled myself together and with gritted teeth marched on. After the longest 3 hours and 40 minutes of my life I completed the distance.
As awful and humiliating an experience as it was (I’ve now got to go to the grave knowing that a Mary Berry lookalike pipped me to the post) it taught me that when the going gets tough you absolutely must get tougher.
Lesson #13: Variety really is the spice of life
One of the primary reasons why people quit on exercise – quit on most things – is because they get bored. And boredom, if you didn’t know, is a precursor to declining participation which itself is symptomatic behaviour of someone who is soon to Q-U-I-T.
If I had a quid for every time I heard the excuse ‘Yeah, I quit gym cuz I just got bored with it’ or ‘I sacked-off circuits because the trainer kept rerunning the same session’ I’d easily be six perhaps even seven English pounds better off by now.
Many trainers, and I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, get trapped in a Groundhogian Day cycle of completing the same routine, the same exercises in the same order, session after session for weeks, months and years.
God, it’s no wonder they quit (or don’t improve). To me even the mere thought of such a repetitive regime induces bovine boredom. But then that’s to be expected from a diet of grass! Going to the gym to work through the same workout would evoke the same enthusiasm as heading off to spend an evening in the company of a gathering of train spotters. (No disrespect to train spotters.)
I won’t deny that exercise shares a similarity with sex in the sense that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve really only one end in mind. For exercise that’s preserving health. However, irrespective of the fact that the destination remains the same, we should still seek out new and creative routes whilst in transit.
Apparently settling into a repetitive cycle is a human characteristic. Over the course of a year the average dining room table (or lap tray) will see no more than four different meals. It transpires that most people stick to the same recipes week in week out. So sad when you think about the immense variety of foods and recipes available.
This phenomena, the one of willingly accepting monotony (in case you’re lost), could probably be identified in a whole host of human activities. (Ever noticed how cafes are mostly populated by the same customers?) I find this quite strange considering our seemingly unquenchable thirst for novelty. This is a huge contradiction of the human condition and one which I am not going to discuss a single syllable further.
What I will briefly comment on is how exercise can teach us to shake things up, to add spice to a flavourless part of our life. For you see, exercise acts almost the same way a mine candle does. If starved of oxygen the candle begins to dwindle, slowly at first, eventually extinguishing – the remnant of its former existence no more than a puff of smoke in the dark!
To keep the passion alive, to keep the flame of enthusiasm flickering, we’ve got to keep the fire well stoked. And by that I mean, whether your gig is exercise, sport, or something completely unrelated like, oh I don’t know, train spotting, if you don’t regularly add some spice you’re going to go the same way as that candle and the only trace you’ll leave is a puff of smoke.
Lesson #14: Never stop trying to push past your perceived limits
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Isn’t it amazing the way words can affect us? I can’t quite recall the moment when I first parsed those three sentences but I am well aware of the impact they have had on my attitude towards physical exercise. Indeed, towards every facet of my life.
Before those words wandered into my consciousness my acceptance of limitation was far more liberal and laissez-faire than perhaps it ought to have been. Yeah I was fit, as a Royal Marine you have to be, and I did more than my fair share of exercise. But I certainly wasn’t making a habit of testing myself, of seeking out and breaking down boundaries and limitations.
For it is through physical tests that we identify strengths and weakness. Also they enable us to come face to face with our physical limitations.
However the point is this, once we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and when we meet a limitation (or two or three), we should continually strive to improve and advance – to move beyond – them.
Well as Bruce rightly pointed out, if you accept limits and are not continually pushing forward then you are, by proxy, either standing still or sliding back. This attitude will result in stagnation or, worse, woeful decline.
Also, by not habituating the attitude of striving for self-improvement, and by allowing the limitation mind-set to take root, these two pernicious forces will spread into your being. And believe you me, when they have taken hold they are mightily difficult to break free from.
It is for this reason why we should – nay! must – make it our daily habit to improve or advance, even if it is only a single solitary step. For any advancement, however imperceptible, is infinitely preferable over stagnation, over decline.
How can we achieve this?
Simple! By setting ourselves little daily challenges, goals, targets or objectives we can cultivate a culture of continual self-improvement. These challenges can be anything from setting our morning alarm 30 minutes earlier, thus forcing a fracturing of ingrained habit, to a daily good deed.
Really, it doesn’t matter what you do so long as not standing still. Remember: rolling stones gather no moss!
Lesson #15: Celebrate even small successes
I popped out the womb a pessimist – so I’m reminded every Christmas day around the dinner table. When I entered the world I wasn’t crying but complaining about poor hygiene and the untimely hour of my delivery. But then nobody wants to be woken up at two thirty in the morning.
Apparently the doctor whose unenviable responsibility it was to supervise my entry into the world, on seeing that I was a sour lemon, held me at a distance and proclaimed: ‘This here child is destined to see only shades of grey and his life will be a colourless canvas.’ And for a good many years I made it my daily mission to fulfil that prophecy.
What does this look like?
Nothing I ever did was good enough. And before I attempted anything I predicted failure. Instead of identifying positives, though perhaps there were many, I actively went in search for negatives. It was as if I was afflicted with some strange visual impairment that prohibited me from seeing the colour of personal success.
This is no way to be. It is self-destructive and only serves to sabotage, to stifle, growth and development. But, and anyone who is a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist will readily attest, breaking free from the shackles is no mean feat. You see, after a time pessimism becomes your default setting and it is the one you automatically revert back to.
How did I set about emancipating myself from the cell of pessimism and negativity?
Well I can tell you this, it’s not one of those prison breaks where you pick the lock, slip past a guard or two and peg it into the concealing woods. It’s a Shawshank Redemption affair where daily you scratch and scrape away at a concrete wall in the hope that it’ll one day lead you to freedom. And it will so long as you persevere.
This is what I did.
I made it a weekly habit of setting small physical goals – such as achieving a new PB or completing a particularly challenging circuit – and then celebrating the outcome. Even if it wasn’t the outcome I anticipated.
Here’s one example. I wanted to achieve a personal best time over the 2000m ergo row (this is the test that all Olympic rowers have to complete in order to secure a place in the boat). My previous time was 6:40; which is not bad but by no means anything to brag about. I felt the time had come to go sub 6:30.
So I set about training and working diligently to achieve this goal. Come test day I felt up to the challenge. But before I’d even entered the second 1000 metres I knew my pace was off and that my target time had slipped away.
Now the old me, the negative pessimist, would’ve tossed his toys out the boat and threw a right benny. Instead, I stuck to my guns and celebrated the many success that before would have been overshadowed by my failure to achieve the desired time.
Sticking to a month-long training regime is a success – more so when your only reward is to shave a few seconds off a PB. Also, the extreme effort exerted just to fail ought to receive commendation. Rowing 2k at threshold is a horrible experience. And finally, though I didn’t achieve sub 6:30, I did set a PB of 6:32. These are all mini successes which I celebrated.
I’ve carried this mentality into other aspects of my life to positive effect. By taking the time to celebrate even small wins I introduced colour into my life and by so dispelled the doctor’s prophecy.
This concludes the second instalment of 5 lessons. I hope to see you for the next 5. Until then, keep on learning.
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.