I'm an executive coach, not an athletic trainer, but I regularly discuss exercise and fitness with my clients, all of whom are extremely busy professionals in demanding leadership roles. This aspect of my practice has evolved over the past decade as a combination of research, my clients' experiences, and my own life have highlighted the important role that exercise plays in our overall well-being and our professional effectiveness. While I don't advise clients on specific exercise activities or fitness regimens, here are 10 principles that guide my approach:
1. The perfect is the enemy of the good.
This sly line from Voltaire is relevant to any number of topics I discuss with clients, but it's particularly applicable to exercise and fitness. Physical activity compels us to deal with imperfection. We decide to get active again but discover that we can't run as fast, bike as far, or lift as much as we once could. The demands imposed by work, family, and other obligations prevent us from experiencing the optimal workout routines we enjoyed in the past--we can't exercise every day, or we have to cut our workouts short. And these imperfections in ourselves and our lives can be profoundly demotivating. If we can't work out the way we did when we were younger, with a simpler life and a fitter frame, then we may just say the hell with it. And that is what Voltaire is warning us about. When we allow the perfect workout, the perfect schedule, or the perfect body (all perfectly unattainable) to deter us from pursuing and accepting the merely good, then our failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's essential to recognize this response and arrest it by allowing the merely good to be good enough.
2. ANYTHING is better than NOTHING, so start SOMEWHERE.
Even when we've accepted the imperfections in our selves and our lives and committed to being more active, our goals related to exercise and fitness can be so large and abstract that they make it difficult to figure out where to start. Here it's important to get some momentum and keep moving forward--a useful guideline anytime we're trying to effect change. One specific way to do that is to scale down and identify a few micro-goals--daily or weekly accomplishments that will allow us to track our efforts and feel a sense of progress. "Get fitter" or "Be more active" sound great in theory, but what do they mean in practice? Better alternatives might be "Walk 20 minutes every morning" or "Go to the gym 3 times a week" or "Take a ride on Saturdays." Don't worry about what activities or goals are "best"--just get started and adjust as needed once in motion.
3. Exercise for improved performance, NOT for weight loss.
The evidence for the mental and psychological benefits of exercise is compelling. When we're active on a regular basis we tend to "feel better" in multiple ways--we're happier, more fulfilled, and less stressed; we have higher self-esteem; and we're more in touch with our bodies and our emotions. But many people pursue exercise because they're concerned about their weight, and that's actually an ineffective strategy: a substantial body of research in recent years has shown that diet has a far greater impact on weight than exercise. This isn't to say that physical activity is irrelevant, but if your primary goal is weight loss or maintenance, focus on what you eat. And don't be dismayed if working out doesn't yield results on the scale--those expectations are based on an outdated and disproven "calories in, calories out" model of physiology.
4. Seek consistency AND novelty.
One definition of routine is a regular sequence of steps, and we're more likely to stick with an exercise plan when it's a consistent one. Working out at the same time of day, or on the same days of the week allows us to take advantage of the power of habit. Greater consistency also allows us to celebrate small victories on a regular basis, an important element in any effort to change behavior. But another definition of routine is typical or boring, and this highlights a potential challenge. Human beings love novelty--we're highly stimulated by the new and the unexpected--so it's important to mix up our exercise routines to maximize our engagement. We can plan different workouts for different days, seek out activities that present us with novel situations (like rock-climbing or competitive sports), and even take up entirely new pursuits from time to time. The key is insuring that a consistent routine doesn't become a boring one.
5. Lift more weights.
Among the professional classes there's often a bias in favor of endurance sports and against weightlifting. White-collar runners and cyclists are much more common than white-collar weightlifters. But emerging research suggests that lifting weights and other forms of resistance training may yield particularly important health benefits and that excessive endurance activity can be counterproductive, both because of increased risk of injury and potential cardiac problems. The data is far from clear, but it's worth bearing in mind, particularly given the dynamics that make endurance sports more socially acceptable for professionals.
6. Intensity > Time.
On a related note, recent research also suggests that working out at a high level of intensity for short periods of time may have a much greater impact than moderately-intense activities. So a brief sprint workout may yield greater benefits than a long jog. Again, the science remains unsettled, but the idea that we have to exercise for hours for it to make a difference appears to be outdated. (Note that this dovetails nicely with points 1 and 2 above: Not only are shorter, more intense workouts easier to fit into busy schedules, but they may also be better for us.)
7. Walk more.
Despite my emphasis above on the value of weightlifting and high-intensity workouts, I'm also a huge fan of walking, which remains one of the best activities for superior health and performance. In this case the science is quite clear: extensive research associates regular walking with outcomes ranging from longer lifespans and fewer illnesses to improved mood and even better problem-solving abilities.
8. Try silence.
For many of us music is an important part of working out, particularly now that we can listen to almost anything anywhere. I vividly remember getting my first iPod shuffle in 2005, and it was amazing. (I know, I'm old.) Music can motivate us to get out there when we're feeling sluggish, and it can fire us up to tackle that steep hill or heavy bar, and these are valuable contributions. But if we always listen to music while exercising, we're missing opportunities for reflection and spontaneous thought. When we're constantly entertained, we become dependent on the distraction. I'm not suggesting that music should be avoided, but if it's part of your everyday routine, try unplugging once in a while and see where your mind goes. While I'm a big fan of meditation--which is also a workout--a reflective walk, run, swim or ride can also be a path to mindfulness.
9. Get out!
Another significant conclusion of recent research is the value of being outside. Even just one hour a week in a natural setting can improve our mood, decrease our stress level, and sharpen our ability to concentrate. This can be a challenge if our preferred activities take place indoors or if we lack ready access to the natural world. But note point 1 above--just because we can't get to Yosemite or the Mendocino coast doesn't mean should fail to take advantage of parks and green spaces in urban settings.
10. DON'T GET HURT.
I first thought about writing this post in late August 2016, in response to a tweet from Holden Hao, and at the time I was in some of the best shape of my life, working out very intensely and even achieving PRs at age 49. Then a few days later I tore up my elbow doing too many pull-ups, and that put a stop to that. (And put this post on long-term hold.) I was able to get through daily life, but I was in constant pain, and I had to stop lifting entirely. I decided to rest it before seeking treatment, and it did heal eventually, but very slowly. Over three months later it's still only about 85%, and I've just begun lifting again with very light weights. It's been a long, painful lesson in the paramount importance of avoiding injury as we grow older and slower to heal.
This is a companion piece to Don't Just Do Something, Sit There! (Mindfulness for Busy People).
- The First 20 Minutes, Gretchen Reynolds
- Eat Bacon, Don't Jog, Grant Petersen
- The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance, Dr. Jeff Volek and Dr. Stephen Phinney
- Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes
- The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz
- The Nature Principle, Richard Louv
Tools I Use
Thanks to Holden Hao for the inspiration.