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 blog: 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 (lessons 6 to 10) 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 #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 kicks to my side – 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 – even death.
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 scene.)
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. What do you do sir?”
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 because it occurred literally 20 minutes after I wrote this lesson.
I’d just polished and published an article on The Benefits of Stretching and whilst scrolling Google images for precisely that, I happened upon one that was linked to an article entitled The Dangers of Stretching which very persuasively supported the emerging, but by no means contemporary, view that stretching can actually increase injury susceptibility and decrease athletic performance. Which completely contradicted everything I’d written (including the citations I'd used to lend credibility to my discussion)
Now I already knew that stretching can impede physical performance which is why I advise against pre-session stretches. However, I wasn’t aware there exists such an abundance of research demonstrating that, for example, stretching decreases a muscle’s force production capacity and can weaken not only the muscle stretch but localised muscles also.
As a consequence of serendipitously stumbling on this article I have had to invest a number of hours reading research that completely contradicts my current knowledge. For this eye opener I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Phil Maffetone.)
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.