The Exercise Potential: In the Long Run

Part I: Training for Life

A lone runner strides up the hill. In the distance, the sun slowly begins its morning ascent reflected against the faint, pinkish clouds of a chilly December morning.  The road is quiet other than a few passing cars.  Alone in her thoughts, she ponders what the day will hold and other reflections and fleeting tunes.  Last night ended late, and the morning alarm came much too early.  But as she has for many years, she dragged herself out of bed because she knew that it was good for her even though it certainly didn’t seem like fun.  Gradually, though, as the world around her began to illuminate, she found herself settling into a comfortable, quiet rhythm mirrored by her faint, misty breaths and the muffled melody of her footsteps touching the road.  By the time she got home, her abrupt wakeup call had been replaced by a gracious awareness that she had come.

From the beginning of time, we have been a people of movement. Migrating out of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa where the earliest human remains exist, we have always moved out of necessity and out of leisure.  Whether hunting for prey, searching for food, or dancing in jubilation, we are a people whose activity has defined much of who we are, and where we will go (and have been).  Up until the last couple of hundred years, physical activity generally occurred because it was a requirement to live and love the way we were called.  But the industrial, and most recently technological revolution, have redefined when and how and why we move as modern conveniences have removed much of the demand that once existed.  Gone are the days of our ancestors when the average person reportedly walked up to 12 miles a day simply to survive.  Now some barely need to walk a few hundred yards to get through their day.

With the advent of a more sedentary life and a plethora of calorie rich, tasty, and inexpensive foods, exercise has never been more important for our livelihood. Yet as I will detail more in the next article in this series, many still find themselves falling woefully short of what they need to both survive and thrive.  In addition to the issue of food and convenience, we are also faced with the lure of quick fixes and ready-made alternatives to our health woes, whether it is diet pills, cholesterol medications, or gastric bypass surgeries.  For now, despite our bulging waistlines, we are living longer than ever before although sinister signs suggest a downward shift if trends don’t change.  Still, in the midst of this new norm, serious questions loom about whether we are missing a massive opportunity through exercise to not only add years to our life, but life to our years.

Most of us know the basic advantages of regular exercise. Weight loss (and maintenance) and improved endurance, increased metabolism, improved sleep outcomes, decreased mortality risks (from cardiac issues, diabetes, and other conditions), and even decreased irritability and edginess are just a few of the benefits that have been repeatedly shown to improve.  But beyond the basics, we are now learning and exploring avenues that will peak the interest of even the most seasoned physician.  For starters, researchers are finding that exercise and overall energy expenditure (EE) appears to be associated with how our chromosomes evolve as we grow.  Telomeres are structures at the end of our chromosomes. Telomere length is associated with a number of physical and psychological risk factors, such as heart disease and cancer, and decreased life span.  New evidence indicates that exercise and other lifestyle factors may protect us against various negative factors that can lead to decreased telomere length, and thus potential negative outcomes.  Consider also that as our chromosomes evolve, it is very likely that our offspring inherit these changes to a certain degree as children are conceived and born.

Beyond the obvious physical benefits, tons of other physical connections are found with exercise. Even though asthma sufferers often fear intense movement, regular exercise has been shown to actually improve lung functioning and decrease asthma symptoms.  Through increased blood flow, exercise is one of the keys to healthy skin.  Regular, moderate physical activity is vital for arthritis suffers as it improves flexibility, reduces fatigue, and lessens joint pain.  New findings suggest that exercise may reduce the risk of macular degeneration in protecting vision by increasing the density of brain-derived neurotrophic factors in the retina.  Treatments for headaches are most likely to be effective if, you guessed it, exercise is part of the regimen.  Physical activity has also been called the “most effective weapon against fibromyalgia.”  Recent research has even indicated that 50% of cancers could be prevented through lifestyle changes, including increased physical activity.  Strikingly, researchers estimate that improved rates of leisure time physical activity could reduce “cancer incidence by as much as 85% in 5 to 20 years.”

From the physical dimension to the psychological one, we find a similar account. Repeated studies have found that sustained exercise can be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as medication and therapy.  Similar findings are emerging for anxiety.  Intellectual benefits have also been long known whether it is improved performance in academic domains, or recovery from a stroke, or protection from various types of dementia.  Many studies have even found that individuals with Alzheimer’s who exercise regularly end up socializing better, regulate emotions more effectively, and reason and remember more clearly than those who don’t.  Even bad habits, such as smoking, appear to be addressed better when exercise is part of the equation.  And for all who are 50 or older, physical fitness has been shown to be the best predictor of their psychological and intellectual functioning.

Regardless of your opinion of regular physical activity, it seems rather clear that we are reaching a point in this country where unless we start moving more, we might implode (financially or otherwise) under the weight of our excess (e.g., food) and the stagnation of our bodies. Consider a few points.  Obesity is quickly becoming the biggest health crisis our country knows, soon to overtake tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death. In the United States, the prevalence of pediatric obesity has more than tripled during the past 4 decades.  One-third of adults today [worldwide] have high blood pressure when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure.  Beyond even leisure time physical activity, it is striking just how much we are willing to invest to remove even the slight inconveniences that may also involve more physical movement.  Although I am focusing on intentional exercise, the reality is that many of our calories are (or can be) burned through normal activities during the day.  But as the internet, mobile devices, and other conveniences redefine how much we have to move, research is suggesting that less “incidental” calories are probably being used daily than just a couple of decades before.

In the late 70’s, researchers looked at factors related to longevity (pg. 548) for individuals at 45 years of age.  They found that seven lifestyle factors were strong predictors of increased lifespan from this point forward:  not smoking, controlling body weight, eating breakfast, eating regularly, consuming alcohol moderately (or not at all), sleeping 7-8 hours a night, and of course, regular physical activity.  For those who engaged in all 7 practices, they had an average life expectancy of about 11 years more than those who had adhered to three or fewer of these guidelines.  Comparatively, with all of the medical advances from the early 1900’s, the life expectancy of men who reached age 45 had only increased by a modest four years.  No matter how far medical science may come, it suggested that our life will always be largely bound by just how much we commit ourselves to healthy activities each day, including regular exercise.  I believe that the message remains just as true today.  If so, then the (literally) trillion dollar question remains:  Just what stops us from training for life, and what can we do to change?

http://smmc.mediasite.com/mediasite/Play/09b1339a7b4144f7ab30d23345cccb0d1d

Part II: Why the Treadmill Comes to a Halt

Despite all of the potential benefits of exercise, evidence indicates that many Americans engage in little or no physical activity on a regular basis.  Barely 1 in 5 adults meet the physical activity guidelines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  One in four adults report engaging in no intentional exercise. Less than 30 percent of high schoolers get the prescribed sixty minutes of activity per day.  Only 1 in 3 children engages in physical activity every day.  53% of parents report that their children (ages 5-10) spend less than 4 days a week playing outside; 74% of children in the same age group get less than 60 minutes of activity per day.

Statistics such as these indicate that Americans both young and old are moving way less than they should. Although arguments can be made that some people still lack clear, pertinent information about why regular exercise is critical, there are many other reasons that exercise has become a New Year’s resolution that doesn’t stick.  Failure to truly acknowledge and understand deterrents makes it increasingly unlikely that positive changes can be made.  Therefore, the following list, although not exhaustive, provides further perspectives on the factors that bring the treadmill to a halt.

Priority:  For many people, regular physical activity is simply not a priority.  Whether it is due to growing up in a family that did not exercise regularly, or because time is allocated to endeavors considered more important or enjoyable, some people simply do not see the value in carving out time and effort for physical activity.

It’s Hard: Let’s be honest.  Running and other physical endeavors are not easy, and the worse shape a person is in, the harder the physical activities get.  Even when someone is in peak physical shape, the thought of lounging and relaxing still has great appeal in the middle of training even if the reward for moving is great.  There are many more purely pleasurable endeavors to engage in.

Fear (and reality) of Injuries/Accidents/Assaults: Injuries are one of, if not the biggest, deterrents to both initiating and sustaining exercise.  The unpredictability and often seemingly unfair nature of injuries, and worries about long-term impact on joints leads many to seek out more sedentary options.  Even minor, insignificant aches and pains can lead all of us to catastrophize about the worse;  when the worse does happen, recovery can be both arduous and mentally/physically draining.  Similarly, many worry about the potential for serious accidents on the roadways and even on designated pedestrian/biking trails.  Both injuries and accidents often lead people indoors or to stop exercising altogether, both of which are associated with other issues.  For women especially, fear of assaults or simply being objectified on the roadways often lead to a reluctance to exercise outside.

Busyness/Distractions: Never was the issue of distractions greater than in a society that does not disconnect.  We are a busy people for sure, much of our own selection.  But whether it is social networking, 24 hours news & weather, texts galore, or any other electronic allure, this is only the beginning of diversions that take us away from remaining committed to an exercise regimen.  Excuses reign supreme to avoid physical activity, and they are only a screen away, which most do seem to turn into a regular habit.

Embarrassment/Image: One of the common detractors from exercising especially from those who feel out of shape is the reactions they perceive in others and themselves.  Whether voiced or kept inward, many feel embarrassed about exercising with others who clearly look more toned, or seem to better manage the challenges of the exercise itself.  Whether we like it or not, keeping up (either literally or figuratively, as in the regards of someone’s image) regularly leads people to avoid physical activity in public or with groups, which curbs potential social support that might actually help sustain training for the long-term.

Boredom without Meaning: For some people, especially those that seek out the same activity in the same place repeatedly, physical activity becomes a mundane exercise that never transcends “the knee bend.”  This often happens when people attempt to engage in repetitive activities with little or no social support.  Although a few can sustain Taebo alone in the living room, many quickly resort to more interesting activities when a greater purpose does not underlie regular habits.

Results Don’t Come Quick Enough: Many who start a new exercise routine are enamored with the idea that they will feel and look better in a short time.  Although it is true that even from the beginning, exercise can improve our mood or “take the edge off” (although this does not always happen), goals around weight loss, shrinking waistlines, increased energy, and other desired results often take much longer than people realize.  Part of this is associated with the unconscious (or conscious) misconception that the positive effects of exercise should parallel the speed of our modern conveniences; part of this is simply that really good things in life usually take time.  Regardless of what causes people to lose patience, the ultimate result is that many ditch the workout routine before they ever have a chance to see the fruits of their labor.

Too Fast, Too Hard: One of the biggest culprits of failed New Year’s resolutions around exercise is that people start too quickly and too hard.  Going from no activity at all to five days a week in the gym at 5:30 AM for an hour workout is very likely to lead to disappointment by February.  Human beings are rarely good at changing habits in such a drastic way; exercise is no exception.

Poor Diet/Sleep: One of the key factors in sustaining a good exercise regimen has to do with what a person eats.  Whether it is to provide a good source of burnable energy, assistance with injury prevention, or quicker recovery, food plays a significant role in both helping make regular exercise more sustainable and enjoyable.  Poor diets can quickly derail regular activity as it is frequently associated with greater discomfort during and after training.  Sleep is just as critical. Evidence indicates that it is directly involved in the physical repair of the human body, anywhere from minor tightness to massive injuries, not to mention a psychological break.  Sleep also sets the stage for whether the person will have the energy and alertness to exercise in a healthy, safe way, or even at all.

As noted, this is not an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to send me ideas of obstacles I missed that you feel are pertinent here. But whatever the reason that regular physical activity does not occur, it is clear that if we are 1) not honest about the reasons that deter us, and 2) not willing to think or act in ways to counteract these obstacles, little progress will be made.  We can hear a thousand times over about how great and important exercise is.  But unless we embrace the movement as our own, and the change needed to regularly move, we will find ourselves back in the same, sedentary place.  That being said, the 3rd part of this series will look at perspectives and actions that I believe can aid us in overcoming the challenges noted above.

Part III: Aid Station

Every problem carries a potential solution, some more readily available than others. Individuals can make changes at any point in their lives.  We shift certain habits when our children are born, when we get a new job, when we retire, or even when we are faced with difficult, unexpected circumstances.  Making changes to improve physical activity, and understanding how we do this is not just important for us, but also for teaching our youth.  Therefore, I am going to go back to the obstacles noted in part II of this series, and offer ideas to overcome these hurdles.  Before I do, though, I simply want to offer the disclaimer that I am a psychologist and an athlete, not a trainer, physician, dietician, or fitness specialist of any kind.  Please consult a professional if issues necessitate that this should happen and/or conflicts with advice presented below occur with what is recommended elsewhere.

Priority:   The first way to address the issue of priority is to empower us and our offspring with information that can help make better decisions about how we allocate our time each day.  To a certain degree, we are going to have to decide how our minutes and hours are used.  But if we work to learn more about the potential benefits of exercise, and possible types of exercise that are conducive to our body type and interests, we are more likely to understand why it is worth cutting down on certain things (e.g., television, internet time, eating) so that we have more time for physical activity.  In the first part of this series, I have provided some reasons about why I think that exercise should not be seen as optional.  But there are many other books (e.g., Spark by John Ratey) that can speak to this in more detail.  Beyond books and others resources, though, the best way to understand more is to seek out people that you know who are living a healthy lifestyle.  Consider inquiring with them about what has worked and what has not.  Everyone is different in certain ways.  Yet we often discount the similarities that can unite us in a common, healthy goal. Curiosity is one value that will ultimately shift exercise to a higher priority.

It’s Hard: The issue of the strenuous, at times painful, nature of regular exercise must first and foremost begin with an understanding. Exercise is always going to be hard to some degree, and will always involve some level of aches and pains.  If it doesn’t, it wouldn’t be strengthening our muscles, bones, and organs any more than simply sitting on the couch would.  Tissue must be stretched and stressed in order to grow and develop.  Once we begin to accept this, and learn not to perseverate and worry about every little discomfort (as I myself have been guilty of at times), then what we will find is a greater understanding that our body, if treated well, is more resilient than we believe.  As our fitness improves, we will also start worrying less about getting our workout in, and can more easily transition into our other roles and responsibilities once it is done.  For those who have not exercised much, though, I think it is important to understand that the first few weeks or even months are going to be an adjustment period for the body and the mind.  Just as adult going back to school must adjust to the rigors of studying, so those who have been rather sedentary must expect that the mind and body will go through a period of adjustment before any comfort level will occur with an exercise routine. A new exercise regimen might seem to induce more stress than it dissolves until it becomes part of our normal day. Much of how we handle this initial period will depend on how quickly we start, and how hard we push ourselves out of the gate.  But commitment is the value that will supersede the hardships that derail regular physical activity.

Fear (and reality) of Injuries/Accidents/Assaults: Just as with the prior issue of hardness, injuries, and accidents are a reality of exercise.  Some seem to make out rather well; some seem to constantly be battling unfortunate and often unfair circumstances.  But everyone who exercises for any amount of time will deal with this issue somehow.  In regard to injuries, there are certain things that can help to reduce their intensity, duration, and frequency.  Diet, regular stretching routines, appropriate rest (at least from the same activity, such as biking one day and swimming the next), good sleep habits, moderate strength-training (especially with lower weights and high repetitions), and acute awareness of one’s body (which can be assisted by foregoing pain medications unless necessary) can all help minimize injuries.  But sometimes injuries happen.  Ironically, though, what tends to occur when people get injured is one of two things.  They either stop exercising altogether instead of taking a slower, more flexible, or even alternate course.  Or they ignore injuries completely, use large amounts of pain relievers to mask a more serious issue, and just forge ahead without regard for what is best.  There is a third option.  The option is to be aware of what the body is trying to communicate, remain active and healthy in ways that might be slightly uncomfortable (but not hugely painful or injurious), and continue to find ways to move on a regular basis.  This is one reason why I think that a number of triathletes seem to do well longer in this sport than in others.  If there is a nagging injury related to running, there is always the option to reduce or eliminate running for a few weeks, but continue to bike, swim, stretch, and lift weights in a way that is not destructive (and sometimes even constructive), but at least maintaining.  Obviously, certain injuries might require a complete cessation of activity (in certain areas of the body).  But I would caution that various experiences and evidence suggests that too much rest (primarily of the whole body) makes injury recovery much more difficult.

In regards to the issue of accidents, I will speak to this more in the final part of the series. It is something that is not only central to how our culture views physical activity, but also something that is dear to my heart in the constant discernment of how I move each day.  But I will say that for women especially, one of greatest travesties for our community is that many people do not feel comfortable exercising outdoors, particularly alone. Statistically speaking, the risks are minimal; however, I understand why many, including my wife, have reservations about being on the roadways or trails when others are not around.  I believe that this reflects a societal and personal issue not in the scope of this article, but two immediate thoughts come to mind.  We as a community must find ways to help people feel more secure in exercising wherever they desire.  We as a people must find strategies, including having a training partner or group, to feel more secure exercising outdoors.  I truly believe that although indoor facilities can serve a clear purpose, one of the biggest keys to promoting a more active society is to help people more fully experience all of the natural and seasonal wonders that our world brings. But regardless of injury, accident, or assault, the value of perseverance reigns supreme when it comes to staying on an active course.  For an amazing witness (and personal friend) when it comes to exercise, check out Sister Madonna Buder’s story in The Grace to Race.

Busyness/Distractions: As the number of potential, unnecessary distractions increases, any successful exercise routine must start with the following question: Just what do I most want out of today? If the primary answer is comfort, entertainment, and leisure, then it is going to be difficult to forego all of the potential issues that might derail an otherwise healthy existence.  But if we consciously consider that setting a routine which involves some level of disconnection can provide for many other needs (which still includes leisure and entertainment), and consciously be aware of any distractions that might threaten this routine, the distractions themselves gradually become more manageable. The key, though, is that there must be a conscious decision made on a daily basis to carve out time and space for physical activity, not just an assumption that it will happen.  Because it won’t.  This may involve a routine as simple as laying out clothing and other needed accessories at night to make the morning plunge a little easier, or simply going to bed a half an hour earlier when a run is scheduled first thing in the morning.  Some people can sustain exercise at any time, especially if their day is a little more flexible.  But for many, especially those that work, the morning time is the best time to work out, not only because distractions are at a minimum, but also because the toil and challenges of a full day makes for readymade solutions to avoid the gym, at least until exercise is just part of the lifestyle.  It is the value of consciousness that will help negotiate the distractedness of our day into a healthy routine.

Embarrassment/Image: We all want to look good.  Anyone who says that they like being fat is saying that they like being able to eat what they want, not that they like weighing fifty pounds more than they should.  Even men who brag about their “beer belly” are doing so because it reflects an endorsement of a particular lifestyle, not because they enjoy experiencing similar pains and discomforts that a pregnant woman might feel.  In dealing with the issue of embarrassment/image, it is critical that we are honest about this with ourselves.  I also believe that it is critical that we give ourselves a break, and realize (see my May 2015 article entitled “It’s What’s On the Inside…) that we were created (for multiple reasons) to perceive healthiness as attractive.  Exercise can become a primarily vain endeavor (but doesn’t have to be), and for those who don’t “feel” fit, it can be an embarrassing proposition.  But think for a moment.  Have you ever walked into most gyms, or stood at the starting line of any race, including an Ironman?  Look around.  You will quickly notice that athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and varying stages and levels of fitness.  How do you judge them?  For myself, I will say that nothing is more inspiring than seeing someone who is clearly not in the shape they desire, but who is still striving in a public place to both improve their health and unite with others in a wonderfully “moving” endeavor.  There certainly are those times that people respond in a criticizing or degrading way; however, I believe that the embarrassment we often perceive within is way worse than the negativity that occurs beyond.  I am not minimizing the struggle that many people feel.  But hopefully I am encouraging you to consider a different perspective if this issue deters you from a more active lifestyle.  Ultimately, it is the principle of humility that will see individuals through this struggle to realize that we are all flawed in certain ways, yet the desire to come together to strengthen each other should always win over.

Boredom without Meaning: My response to this deterrent begins with three thoughts.  First, consider soliciting others to be part of your activities if you are someone who finds him or herself struggling with the mundaneness of exercise.  Two, as I said in a prior point, do whatever you can to experience the beauty of the outdoors, whether it is seeking out new trails or trying new routes, or making a point to walk the golf course hills when snow comes in.  Three, it is crucial that we mentally train ourselves to see exercise as more “than the knee bend” over and over again.  Imagine for a moment that you could do something for 20-30 minutes at work every day that could enhance and provide for rich life beyond the actual practice of what you were doing.  Would you do it?  Would you just accept that this time was reserved for a greater purpose even if you didn’t really enjoy it when you did it?  This is where we have to start in addressing the boredom of exercise.  We can’t expect that it is going to seize us like a roller coaster or soothe us like a milkshake.  But we can expect that long after the milk shake and the roller coaster are gone, regular exercise can provide us with a framework that can allow for commonplace experiences to be pleasurable—like enjoying a simple walk or having the clarity of mind to enjoy a conversation—or adventurous experiences to be possible, like hiking to the top of the mountain.  Every time my brother and I take our long backpacking trips into the heart of stunningly gorgeous places, like the inner waterways of Isle Royale or the alpine meadows of Yosemite, I am reminded again why I put in the time to be healthy even when I don’t feel like doing it.  But in order for all this to occur, it is the worth of transcendence that is necessary to turn a “ho-hum affair” into a sprout of joy and meaning.

Results Don’t Come Quick Enough & Too Fast, Too Hard: I believe this issue is one of the biggest reasons that exercise fails.  I ask that anyone interested in this topic to first read my January 2014 article (Resolving to Make This Year…) which addresses the issue of establishing new behaviors in greater detail.  But a few points remain worth emphasizing here.  One, whenever we seek to be physically active, we must consider how active we are right now.  If we don’t, we will assume the expectations of others/society as our own, and not personalize our transition to a healthy lifestyle in a way that will work for us.  In the world of marathon training, there is what is often known as the 10-15% rule (although some variation exists). It means that as people are progressing upwards in their training long runs, they are advised from increasing their distance by more than this percentage to avoid both injury and excessive fatigue.  I think that a similar rule (although the percentages may fluctuate a little) should apply when establishing a new routine.  If you are not exercising at all (which obviously means any change will initially be a 100% difference), then start with two days a week for 20 minutes.  Then, each week, increase this by 5 minutes until gradually you reach the point where you meet the recommended daily amount of exercise.  If you decide to keep going further, that is up to you.  But in order for this to work, you absolutely MUST stick by your initial commitment, and not worry about results (or lack thereof) unless a physician or trainer has mandated that you should attain certain standards by a particular time.  Channel what the elite athletes often do in a race.  They start slower in the beginning so that the second half of the race is done at the same pace or even faster (termed negative splits) than the first.  When it comes to establishing routines, it is the “second half” that allows a new exercise routine to become a lifestyle, not how quickly we start.

Moving beyond the routine, the second piece of advice involves the physical activity itself. We as physical beings, even some of the most seasoned athletes, often can’t help but to go out too fast in the beginning.  I still do it regularly even though I am gradually getting better.  I could write another article on why this is the case, but let’s just say it is a confluence of pride, competitiveness, and limited awareness that causes our body to move too quickly out of the starting gates.  So, here is a strategy to help.  Start at your normal pace (whether biking, swimming, running or whatever) and within the first two minutes, do two things.  One, force yourself to slow down and stay at this pace for a prescribed amount of time (e.g., 15 minutes).  Two, observe your breathing.  Most people are going to naturally breath harder when the body first starts to ramp up, but especially with running, you should strive to be able to be breathing at a pace in the beginning where you could still talk if you wanted to (which you probably won’t).  Breathing harder than this for any extended period of time can signify a rough race ahead, especially for beginners.  For some, it might require that they vigorously exercise for a short time, then break for the same or a little less time, such as running for 5 minutes, then walking for 5, and doing this repeatedly until a predetermined time or distance is complete.  All of this speaks to the value of patience in coming to realize the potential of exercise.

Poor Diet/Sleep: Finally, we address the issue of diet and sleep, which I again feel is one of the most imperative issues in providing for the energy, alertness, and natural repair capabilities required to train consistently.  In addition to previous my series written (see both February 2015 and April 2013) which address this in much more depth, I have a chapter in my book Into the Rising Sun that is dedicated to describing a solid, accessible endurance diet based on research and experience.  As I note in all of these sources, though, we must value sleep and diet in a way that allows what we learn about their potential benefits to actually impact change.  We also must put our money and our habits where our beliefs and research are.  If you keep looking for the cheapest deals on food, and do not understand the value in spending more for better foods, then there is little chance you will overcome this obstacle.  If you keep adhering to the idea that two hours spent in front of a screen late at night is worth more than going to bed, then little change will likely occur.  Unlike some of the other connections that I have made, it is difficult to see how a better diet and improved sleep habits actually lead to enhanced health and physical activity even though we know that they do.  We can all perceive how paying money for sweet foods leads to an immediate reward; we all can grasp how buying paint and new furniture will lead to a more aesthetically pleasing living room.  But because both healthy sleep and dietary habits are more difficult to experience in an immediate way, we often forego them for actions that deliver now.  And so, the last value we must assume to overcome our training woes is trust—the kind that knows that good will come to those who commit first on what they know, not on what they see or feel.

With that, I will end this thread as it could easily be another book to pursue. But before I depart the aid station, I will say what I find myself saying (and being reminded of) often these days.  To some degree, all of these suggestions funnel into addressing the unhealthy pride and fear that gets in the way of making positive changes.  Not all experiences of fear or pride are unwarranted or unhealthy.  But so often, when we really do not take the time to be honest with ourselves (and others) and consider that the feelings we have might not reflect an obvious reality, we miss out on opportunities to embroider a new life that literally lays a step away.  Tonight, take a few minutes to step outside.  Look up.  Look around.  Look down.  Just because you are an adult doesn’t mean you have to give up your playgrounds.  It just means that you get to find them whenever and wherever you want.

Part IV: Thoughts on the Move

As a young boy, sports quickly became an important source of competition and activity. For the most part, team sports that relied on fitness and collaboration became the focus of my activity.  Running was simply a means to become fitter and little more; biking was a rare activity.  Even years after I left high school, running was something that I disliked and did not feel was conducive to my larger build.  A year after Amy and I got married, we bought our first bikes as a source of fitness when the weather was good, but did little else other than some volleyball leagues for a number of years.

Things suddenly changed in the course of a few months, though, after we found out that Amy was pregnant with twins. As I detailed in my book, Into the Rising Sun, I had begun to notice that my eating habits and increased sedentary nature were leading to insidious signs that I was not as healthy as I prided myself on being.  My blood pressure and weight began to increase.  Unexplained dizziness and other symptoms of stress emerged, and I suddenly found myself faced with the worries that two little babies would only make things worse, and force me towards medications and other artificial antidotes.  That was unless I committed myself to a more healthy existence that seemed to demand I convert my body into one of endurance from one designed to play sports like basketball and football.  These sports were getting tougher from a physical standpoint (as they do for most people after the mid to late twenties) with increased risk of injuries.  Also, finding the time to get to the gym, and having coordinated groups of people to do this with in a way that met my fitness demands, all presented challenges.  These challenges mainly involved meeting the physical activity standards needed to be healthy while also keeping up with the other demands of my day.  I knew it was time to look for exercise options at home and right outside our front door.

A few months before Zach and Emma were born, I finished my first half-marathon assuming that this was probably as far as I would ever go, especially after a short triathlon years before ended in misery that included being smoked by my wife, who casually waited for me at the finish line. But years later, two things happened that suddenly challenged whether my road would end there.  One was the moment that I stepped into my current office, and realized that biking to work was now not just a dream, but a reality (given my own shower).  And two was an encounter with a coworker’s husband, who was on his way to his second Ironman.

Less than six years later, I find myself in a place I never intended. I have been blessed to complete the 2011 Louisville Ironman, two 50+ mile runs, a single day 200-mile bike ride, and many other endurance endeavors that just a few years ago I thought were simply not possible for someone like me.  I am currently training for another attempt at a 100 mile run (and walk, when needed) that I hope to complete in under 24 hours (or at all).

It has been quite an education and quite an experience, and although none of us know what tomorrow brings, I can honestly say that it has shaped my perspective on many things, and certainly much of how both Amy and I live each day. For starters, I will say that I have learned a few basic things:

  • Our capacity (in many areas) is so much greater than what we think it is if we remain open to possibilities that present themselves
  • What we often perceive as healthy is really not healthy at all
  • Our most gratifying, transcendent moments are often the simplest, and at times, most difficult ones
  • Exercise is first and foremost a mechanism to facilitate life’s most meaningful things

Over the years, I have spent countless hours alone in the darkness and cold. I spend much of the time on the roadways as I have probably accumulated around 30,000 miles on the bike given that I ride to work in all temperatures (as long as there is not ice and snow on the roads).  I have been blessed to learn how to run in all conditions.  Many people who know me, and love me, understandably question my decisions in matters such as these, especially when it comes to safety concerns on my cycling commute.  There certainly are risks (ones that I take very seriously) as our family has experienced some challenging circumstances, but there are also ways to minimize risks in order to also maximize the benefits that a ride home from work (or anywhere) can incur.  See Jeff Mapes book Pedaling Revolution for a good discussion of all bike-related matters.  My bike commute alone provides me with a built in method for exercise (much of this time would already be used if driving a car), time to prepare, reflect, and/or decompress from the day, massive financial savings, and simply being more connected to our natural surroundings among other things.

It is also interesting that despite many fears that I have heard expressed to me regarding individuals who have been hurt or even killed on bikes, we as a society seem to gloss over the risk that is incurred while operating a motor vehicle. Certain evidence suggests that if we compare fatalities and serious injuries while on a bike or a motor vehicle, using the parameter of time (not miles traveled), risks appear similar.  Also, I can certainly say that my roadway acuity gained in riding my bike has prevented multiple accidents while driving our car.  All this being said, I am not trying to convince any of you reading to hop on your bike and/or scrap the car, but simply to consider active alternatives as we continue to battle an epidemic of unhealthiness in our country today. We can’t simply keep adhering to a sedentary, convenient lifestyle and expect that we as a society are not going to pay the price of inactivity for a long time, as people and communities.  For our family, there certainly have been challenges in being a one-car family for the past nine years, but the benefits have tremendously outweighed the costs.

In reflecting more broadly on the promise of regular activity, one other reality seems abundantly clear. Despite the fact that I have never been busier in my life, as a spouse, father of six young children, and a pediatric psychologist, something peculiar has occurred in the process.  I have also never been as creative, productive, energetic, healthy, curious, and calm as I have been in the last five years since I began endurance training.  Not even close.  And never have I needed or desired these attributes more than now, both in and out of my home.  I want to be a source of education, inspiration, and love for my kids (and grandkids) long after I am gone from this earth to help them live a life of “wholiness in whatever unique ways they are called.  I want to be the husband that my wife always dreamed she would have.  And I believe that removed from the stressors and difficult circumstances that often cloud or distort our goals and behaviors, it is something that every person desires—to be an instrument of growth, love, and positivity, not an agent of stagnation, resignation, and negativity.  Yet, one of the biggest threats to this pursuit, and to families in general, is poor health, physically, psychologically, or otherwise.

Many means are available to help pursue who we desire and are summoned to be. Still, I have no doubt that the means of consistent, at times intense, physical training has not only transformed me in ways that I would have never expected, but that it can also be this mechanism for others who are willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience for a greater purpose.  Each person is called to move in his or her own unique way.  For many, it is not into the world of endurance training such as me.  But I firmly believe that we are called to a dynamic, active existence that can transform our mind, body, and spirit in mysterious ways that we simply must accept might come without understanding how (and even through Whom) it may occur.  But I will end with this, and then leave it for you to discern.

If you come to know what I have been blessed to find, you would gladly leave your car, electronic device, and whatever unhealthy eating habits behind without any regrets. There is an adventurous calling waiting right outside your door that can help provide for the adventurous one in the confines of the four walls that you reside.  Both young and old alike yearn for it even if it has been decades in hiding; all of us desire to feel the exercise potential emerge within the midst of the freneticism and strife of each day.  Consider joining me on the road, the trails, in the waterways, or anywhere we move, as it does get lonely at times as I train for life.  And if you see me on the road, I ask just two things.  Pray for me and my family (as we are always in need) and keep your eyes and ears alert so that we can both stay safe.  And let’s all keep moving ahead.

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