The entire field of fitness, condensed into one sentence

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Senior exercise science major, Calvin Wong

Warning: this post ends up being longer than one sentence. Consider how much you care about your health and success, then continue as needed.

This is an excerpt from Scott Adams’s How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I’ve already written about Adams here and here, so I won’t talk more about who he is and why his opinions are important.

Adams credits personal fitness to much of his success as a cartoonist, speaker, and author. After almost twenty years of practicing a fitness routine, I still learned something from his chapter on exercise:

“After a lifetime of trying nearly every exercise tip, trick, and fad and sometimes scientifically proven techniques, I have condensed the entire field of fitness advice into one sentence:

Be Active Every Day

[…]

If you are young and you don’t have crushing responsibilities, you probably have everything you need to exercise regularly. But after a certain age, life transforms exercise from one of your highest priorities to the thing you give up first when things get busy, and that can literally be a death trap.

My challenge in this chapter is to convince you that if you get one simple thing right — being active every day — all of the other elements of fitness will come together naturally without the need to use up your limited supply of willpower.

That last part is key. In my experience, any form of exercise that requires willpower is unsustainable. To stay fit in the long run you need to limit your exercise to whatever level doesn’t feel like work, just as kids do. When you take willpower out of the equation and you achieve a solid baseline of daily physical activity, your natural inclination will be to gradually increase your workout. You’ll do it because you want to, and because it will feel easy, and because you know it will feel good. No willpower will be needed.

If you walk two miles every day for a month and enjoy the leisurely pace, your brain will automatically start to think that walking an extra mile might be even more fun or that running half the way and walking the rest might be interesting. That’s how you turn boredom into a tool. When you are active every day and your body feels good about it, it will become easier to increase your exercise level than it would be to stop it. Ask any dedicated runner, biker, or swimmer how they feel on the occasional off day. They don’t like it. That’s where you want to be. And the only way that happens is if you make fitness — of any kind — a daily habit. Once exercise becomes habitual, you won’t need willpower to keep going because your body and brain will simply prefer it to being a couch spud. And your natural inclination for variety will drive you to do more stuff over time.

[…]

What you need is a natural and easy way to evolve into a fitness routine that works for your specific brain and body. And you want to do it all without drawing on your willpower. The starting point for that journey is nothing more than being physically active every day regardless of the specifics.

[…]

I use the word “active” in an intentionally ambiguous way. That’s what makes the rule a system and not a goal. As you know, goals are for losers. If the rule were “Run ten miles every day,” that would be a goal. And it would probably set you up for failure, since most people can’t do something specific every day. But almost everyone can be active in some way every day. That could mean anything from playing basketball to cleaning the garage to taking a walk. Under my system, any physical exertion counts, and none is better than the other. I’ll explain in this chapter how all paths can lead to optimal fitness if you follow a few simple rules for manipulating your willpower.

The most important and powerful part of the “Be active every day” system is the “every day” part. Everything springs naturally from that. And if you have trouble fitting exercise into your busy schedule, as most adults do, I’ll give you some suggested fixes for that too.

[…]

If team sports aren’t your thing, the next-best solution is to schedule your exercise for the same time every day. Shelly can tell you where I will be on any given Tuesday at 12:40 P.M. I will be at the gym, just finishing my resistance training and heading for some stretching before cardio. Shelly (Scott’s wife) finds my regular exercise schedule inconvenient at times, but it doesn’t feel personal because it’s my system. I don’t decide to be unavailable for a romantic lunch with my wife; I simply have an exercise system. On some level it’s exactly the same, but it sure feels different. And that’s the beauty.

I exercise at lunchtime because mornings are better for my creative work and afternoons are unpredictable in terms of work and family time. Other successful exercisers get up long before the sun to do their workouts. Still others go straight from work to the gym. IN each case the key is to have a predictable system. The method that never succeeds is exercising whenever you have some spare time. If you’re like most adults, you haven’t seen spare time in years.

Motivation to Exercise

…the most important rule is that you should never exercise so much in one day that you won’t feel like being active the next day. To put that another way, the right amount of exercise today is whatever amount makes me look forward to being active tomorrow.

My old exercise system involved workout out so hard that I could barely move the next day. No pain, no gain, or so I thought. I figured the harder I pushed myself, the better. But pushing takes willpower, and if I use up my willpower at the gym, I can barely drive past the doughnut shop without being sucked in.

And soreness is like a penalty for exercising. Humans aren’t that different from dogs: If you give me a penalty every time I do something, eventually I’ll find a reason to stop doing it. And that reason will be something along the lines of “too busy.”

What you want is for your daily exercise to give you a reward every time. Light exercise does just that; it reduces your stress and boosts your energy. Over time, as you become fitter, you will naturally increase your exercise level, but by then your body will be equipped to handle it.

If you want to make a habit of something, the worst thing you can do is pick and choose which days of the week you do it and which ones you don’t. Exercise becomes a habit when you do it every day without fail. Taking rest days between exercise days breaks up the pattern that creates habits. It also makes it too easy to say today is one of your nonexercise days, and maybe tomorrow too.

Reward

I find it important to reward myself after exercise with a healthy snack that I enjoy, some downtime that involves reading interesting articles on my phone, or a nice cup of coffee. By putting those pleasures at the immediate end of my exercise, I develop a strong association between the exercise and the good feelings. It forms a habit.

[…]

So how do you exercise on those days when all you want to do is sit on the couch, eat ice cream, and feel bad? Can you jump-start your body when one part of your brain knows that exercise is a good idea but another part of your brain is using its veto power?

The trick I have found to work best takes advantage of certain cues in your life, or “keys” as hypnotists like to call them. For example, if you were bitten by a German Shepherd as a child, every time you see that type of dog you might get a little burst of fear. That’s a cue, or a key. Your life is full of these little cues and keys that can control your attitude. The trick is manipulating your own cues in a way that programs your mind.

Here’s what I do when I know I should exercise but I feel too tired and droopy to imagine doing a vigorous workout. Instead of doing what I feel I can’t do, I do what I can do — which is put on my exercise clothes and lace my sneakers. (You might call them tennis shoes or running shoes where you live.) Central to my method is that I grant myself 100 percent permission to not exercise, even after getting suited up for it. This is important because I know I won’t take the first step of donning my exercise clothes if I feel it will commit me to something that just seems impossible in my current frame of mind.

But once the sneakers and shorts are on, a funny thing happens, and it happens quickly. The physical feeling I get from my exercise clothes triggers the going-to-the-gym subroutine in my brain, and my energy kicks up a notch. It’s like Pavlov’s salivating dogs. The exercise clothes cause me to think positive things about exercising, and that boosts my energy.

Suddenly the idea of exercising seems possible, if not desirable. There’s one more step, and this too requires granting myself permission to back out at any time. I drive to my local gym, walk in, look around, and see how I feel. About 95 percent of the time this set of cues will put me in a sufficiently energetic mood to go ahead and exercise, and that in turn boosts my mood. But sometimes — and this happened perhaps five times this year, which is typical — I get to the gym, look around, turn, and leave. As I drive home I am not thinking I failed. In fact, I feel exactly the opposite. Failure is for people who have goals. If my goal is to exercise, leaving the gym without breaking a sweat looks and feels like failure. But what I have is not a goal; it is a system. And the system allows leakage. It is designed that way. As I drive home from the gym, a seemingly wasted trip, I never feel defeated. Instead, I feel I am using a system that I know works overall. I win if I exercise, and I win (albeit less) if I use my system and decide not to. Either way, my attitude improves. And at least I get out of the house and clear my head. It’s all good.”

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