For as long as I can remember, exercise has been co-opted as a tool in the pursuit of image or some kind of lifestyle accessory. This is demonstrated by it’s situation almost immediately adjacent to the “beauty” industry. But why is this? Surely looking a certain way is only one of the many thousands of significant benefits of exercise.
You can read more about the fascinating history of exercise here. And I highly recommend you do. As it turns out, for a long part of human history, exercise was used to prolong life, prevent disease, improve the functioning of the mind and to improve our conditioning to cope with the demands of life at the time- hunting, gathering, and generally getting about your life as a primitive, nomadic person. Times have changed but the benefits of exercise have not.
For me, exercise has always been such a critical part of my life, that apart from during times of illness or injury, not a week goes past where I wouldn’t perform some kind of structured physical activity. The motivation for this has never been to look like a model (I don’t) nor compete like an athlete (I’m can’t). For me, exercise has kept my mind, body and emotions in a good place. I sleep better, I can work harder, and I can endure greater personal challenges because I know I have the relieve valve of exercise to look after me, and the strength of mind it has developed within me. It both gives me capacity and increases my capacity.
I’ve always jokingly said that without exercise I’d be dead, and always known how critical it is for me, but could never precisely put my finger on WHY that’s been the case… But I found this great quote that explains why. Former NFL football coach George Allen encapsulated it brilliantly:
“A workout is 25 percent perspiration and 75 percent determination. Stated another way it is one part physical exertion and three parts self-discipline. A workout makes you better today than you were yesterday. It strengthens the body, relaxes the mind and toughens the spirit. When you work out regularly, your problems diminish and your confidence grows. A workout is a personal triumph over laziness and procrastination. It’s the badge of a winner – the mark of an organized, goal-oriented person who has taken charge of his or her destiny. A workout is a wise use of time and an investment in excellence. It is a way of preparing for life’s challenges and proving to yourself that you have what it takes to do what is necessary. A workout is a key that helps unlock the door to opportunity and success. Hidden within each of us is an extraordinary force. Physical and mental fitness are the triggers that can release it. A workout is a form of rebirth. When you finish a good workout, you don’t simply feel better. You feel better about yourself.”
This powerful quote put into words what I’ve only suspected over the last decade that I’ve been training regularly. There are so many reasons why exercise can be the trigger to unleashing your best work, career, and life performance:
Practice For Life
Holding a tough pose in yoga, getting pinned under the barbell, heaving for breath on a run and pushing through the discomfort – all of this is great practice for the unpleasant aspects of life. If you can get comfortable with the discomfort of exercise, you are learning how to endure – when you can endure you can conquer.
Practicing & Demonstrating Achievement
Don’t think you can run? Try walking. Walk regularly. After doing this enough times you’ll find you want more and might break out into a trot for 50 meters. Eventually you’ll do this again, and again, and then again. Then you’ll want to try running. Then you’ll run. Then you’ll have achieved what not a lot of people manage to achieve in their lifetime – you’ll propel yourself under your own physical and mental power. This ability to achieve will spill over into other aspects of your life. I guarantee it.
Breaking Tasks Down & Learning New Skills
For a lot of people, a first failed attempt is an only attempt. To achieve things physically, you need multiple attempts. For many people, perfecting a squat involves learning to activate a new muscle group – engaging and moving the hips in a way they haven’t before, and having joints move through new ranges of motions. If you have the patience to be able to learn each of these components and put them together to do a perfect squat, you will be able to do this for other tasks and challenges.
Better Perception Of Self
When people achieve a physical goal, they stand a little prouder and walk a little taller. And I’m not talking about losing weight. Literally, figuratively and actually – a strong core and upper back allow you to pull your shoulders back, which allows you to stand and walk with better posture, and can actually make you taller. We know that this has a profound effect on mindset and mental acuity – this great TED video by Amy Cuddy explains why. My favourite trick before a job interview or a stressful situation is to find a quiet space to stand up straight, bring your elbows up to shoulder height, with your hands pointing up, and pull your elbows backwards into a chest stretch, closing your eyes and taking in 5 deliberate, slow breaths. Try it now – you will feel energized, calmer, and ready to deal with whatever comes your way.
Better Perception Of Self, By Others
Because the key to successful physical improvement over any other quality or trait is consistency, people who exercise regularly know how to integrate it into their life, and into their working week/days. I like to train at lunchtimes or immediately after work, so my colleagues will see me bring in my gym bag in the morning, or see me leave work in my training clothes. Why is this significant? Because this demonstrates to people a number of traits, and implies a few others: 1) That I’m organized – I can integrate exercise into my day 2) That I’m disciplined – I can put in hard work to achieve a goal and 3) That I understand and practice work life balance – I can get the job done and perform self care. Now, whether or not these things are true, when we see people who are competent on the job and successful at mastering their physical health, we ASSUME these things about them.
Exercise taps on the door of your potential. It reminds you of, and equips you to fulfill your life’s purpose. It is both small AND significant, noble AND self-involved, both lower order pleasurable AND of higher order fulfillment.
Has exercise improved your life? What has the effect been on your work and career? I’d love to find out.