Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is Suffering Ever a Useful Strategy?

Probably, but first some brief back story to serve as an illustration.

I turned 40 in August. And like many with big birthdays I decided to make some resolutions and included among them was weight lifting. I'd been fair to middling at aerobic activities all my life, but had never really focused much on resistance training. The thing is, as far as health and aging goes, resistance training's probably king, and so....

Anyhow, since August, aside from a brief back injury, I've been working out nearly daily. I've been alternating weights with something aerobic and Monday, Monday was weights day.

I truly didn't want to go. Now there have been days here and there where I haven't fully felt like exercising, but Monday was by far the worst. I was dreading exercising. I was tired, and the last thing I wanted to do was my weights.

I procrastinated for near 10 minutes in my office and finally, grudgingly, headed back to my gym.

My routine our fitness director Kelly has me on right now is a pyramid. I've got 2 groupings of 5 exercises and I'm supposed to run through each of the exercises 3 times in succession.

By the end of the first set of the first two exercises in the first grouping I was already trying to rationalize either stopping altogether, or dropping it down to just 2 sets of each rather than 3.


I sucked it up and did it all.

And I'm not going to blow smoke and tell you I was so glad when I was done, that I felt great and alive. I actually felt pretty miserable.

The reason I pushed through? Not because one day of exercise really matters in the grand scheme of things, but rather because I didn't have any good reason not to do it and I knew that if I gave myself permission for no particularly good reason to shirk my exercise, it'd be that much easier to give myself permission the next time.

Of course sometimes there are great reasons not to follow through with various best intentions, plans and resolutions, but when there's no good reason, and it's just you vs. you, I recommend not giving yourself that proverbial inch.

But wait, didn't I just post yesterday that suffering was a bad idea?

Yup, but there's a difference. If every single time I headed to the gym I loathed it, well that'd be a clear cut sign that I'd better find myself another way to exercise. That'd be excessive, non-sustainable suffering. On the other hand, if I generally enjoy it, and here and there I don't feel like it, well that's a clear cut sign I'd better stay on top of myself, as follow through and consistency are how habits are gained (or broken).

And it doesn't apply just to exercise, it's life in general. Our human nature can easily get the best of us, if we let it.

So whatever you're trying to accomplish, sometimes, for your greater good, it might be worth suffering through a rough day, as habits? Well they're the things that persist through thick and thin, but at their beginnings, sometimes you need to really muscle through the thins.

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  1. Anonymous7:20 am

    That pretty well describes my run yesterday. Some days just feel like a slog, but I find that the more consistent I am, the fewer of those days I have and more days feel truly good.

  2. I think it's all about perspective. An acquaintance of mine recently hurt her back while sledding with her daughter and will need several weeks to recover. The two of discussed how health and mobility should not be taken for granted and how for us, the ability to exercise is a gift. On those days when you just don't feel like exercising, it helps to remind yourself of this!

  3. Interesting post. It applies not just to exercise but also to writing. I'm a writer/editor who coaches other writers and I can tell you that persuading people to write five days per week is TOUGH. It's never going to be fun every day. But, as you say, if you hate it so much that it's always torture, then the suffering is not worth it. If you have the occasional bad day, however, it's better to push through it so you don't break your habit.

  4. It can be tough, but this past Summer I was injured (not exercise related) and couldn't exercise seriously for nearly 2 months. I found myself missing it after about a week. It took quite a while to get back to my earlier levels, but knowing what it was like to be unable to exercise has given me more respect for it and I find motivation is easier to come by.

    I found that neither exercise or dieting helped me when I was losing weight and the same is true - perhaps more so - for the maintenance phase. I have a good friend who coaches me remotely on exercise though text messages we send back and forth. I report what I have done and she gives me encouragement and sets goals. This has become centrally important for me. I'm finding the maintenance phase more difficult than the weight loss portion and her help and self motivation and regular monitoring is the only thing that keeps me where I am. I wrote up a pick on what has worked for me here:

  5. Anonymous2:36 pm

    Just focus on the endorphin rush you get from a workout. I go to a 6AM high intensity class a few times a week. That plus a coffee afterwords=bounce around all day!! It's highly addictive

  6. Anonymous2:59 pm

    You just beautfully summed up my lunchtime run.

    Didn't want go to, too windy, too sunny, too slushy.

    Went anyway and was unhappy the whole time. 5 km's later my legs hurt and I feel tired but mentally I'm a happy camper. I didn't give into my excuses!

    When these moods hit me, I change into my running clothes as fast as possible hoping my ability to change and get outside is faster than my mind!

  7. I so needed this today, I crashed yesterday and ate cookies all day long it was not a wise decision. But I also know that today there cannot be any cookies. For the follow through and consistence habit is what I want. Will I probably have a cookie day again, yeah probably but it won't be for another year or so.

  8. When I hang around your and Dr. Sharma's blogs, I have to admit that I often debate points where I think there's a need for balance or raise issues where I think something important was missed, but fail to speak up when I agree with a post.

    But maybe I should change that. I've found exactly the same thing to be true when it comes to regular activity, and it's really hard to explain to people. As someone with a HAES (health at every size) philosophy, I usually stick to the positive: "If you find an activity you enjoy and do it regularly, then you'll feel fitter and it will probably have a positive impact on your medical numbers, too." And we talk a lot about taking joy in movement and about how good it feels. We say "always listen to your body!"

    But the fact is, sometimes I exercise even when I'm not in the mood or have a mild cold. Sometimes it doesn't feel good at first, but it does once I get going. Sometimes it all around kind of sucks but I do it because I've set a minimum number of hours a week (or whatever) and want to meet that goal. Sometimes I do it more for how it's going to make me feel overall then for how it feels to do it in the moment. Of course I do take time off and I do listen to my body - I don't push injuries too much and I tailor my intensity and what, specifically, I choose to do to how I feel. But it's not always pure joy and there is some discipline involved.

    When I was a studying music seriously, I knew how much practice was needed to stay in reasonably good shape for playing and how much was needed to play a two hour concert in top form. The amount of activity needed to keep my body in a condition I find tolerable vs. how much is needed to keep me feeling really fit is similar.

    Taking care of our bodies is a practice, and I think you really captured that here.