In January 2017, I made a list of six things that needed to happen if I was going to turn my life around. I was frustrated with my then-current work-life situation, and kept falling into the same bad patterns but couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle. So I wrote down the things that I knew I needed to do to have a better life, and labeled each one as a rule to live by. Every couple of days I would take out the list and read it. In the 12 months that followed, I quit my old job, started my own private practice, and changed my life for the better.
I have always been interested in fitness and nutrition for as far back as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong…as a kid, I definitely ate my share of junk food (and then some) and probably sat around way too much, but I also enjoyed riding my bike for miles, swimming, running, and jumping all over the place, and generally staying active most of the time. Formal sports were never my thing; as a kid, sports bored me out of my mind (and they still do!), but I did discover exercise sometime in junior high school and was hooked from then on.
As a teenager, I had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t). I would do endless sets of push-ups and sit-ups in my room, and would venture down to the basement where my dad had an old set of rusty weights and do curls and shoulder presses and some type of back exercises. Sometimes a friend would come over and we would listen to some angry rock music and see who could do the most of whatever exercise we picked. Far from following a balanced workout program, all I knew is that the more it hurt or the harder it was, the better I felt afterwards. I’m not just talking about physical feelings here…even at a young age I realized the benefits were much deeper than that.
Physical exercise is necessary for your overall well-being. This is a strong statement but it’s true…people NEED to exercise in one way or another to fully reach their potential. By doing hard things regularly, your mind and body learn what you are capable of doing. Personality traits like grit or resilience aren’t just something that some people are born with…these traits can be sharpened or even created from regular application of challenging exercise to your life. The good thing is that the definition of hard work varies from person-to-person: My all-out-to-the-death workout is probably just someone else’s warmup…but it doesn’t matter. Hard work is all relative to what you are capable of doing. So, how do you know you’re working hard enough then? If you’re breathing heavy, sweating, and thinking about quitting than you’re probably working hard enough. If you’re not sure, work harder until you are sure!
I’m going to go back a few years in time to show how long it took me to realize the basic fact that taking care of your body is actually a big deal: In college and medical school, given the mostly stable and predictable schedule, I was able to work out pretty regularly. Sure, it took some extra planning such as packing gym clothes and something to eat, but it was easy to find the time to squeeze in a good workout most days of the week. Even in residency and fellowship, with a more unpredictable and crazy schedule, there was still enough structure to find time to do something physical about three days per week. Sure I was tired and would have liked to sleep more, but unless I was so tired I couldn’t function, that hour of exercise was always worth it.
As expected, things changed once I finished my formal training and started working a real job! My hours were less predictable, I was more tired than I was in fellowship, and we were saving money to buy a house. For the first few years I worked out at home, using some basic equipment and a pull up bar in the garage of our tiny rented house. I would squeeze in a quick workout on nights or weekends…whenever I could. Since I didn’t know when I’d get the time again, each workout was probably way too long and would leave me sore for 3-4 days afterwards (not a great strategy in retrospect!) After having two children and moving a few years later, I went through a few periods where I just couldn’t find the time to exercise, and was eating whatever junk I could get my hands on just to not feel hungry for that immediate moment. While I didn’t really gain any weight, I lost the small amount of muscle I had and felt weak and stiff, fragile both mentally and physically.
I thought this was just a short-term phase, like a one- or two-year stretch I would just have to endure before getting back to a stable schedule where I could throw exercise and other healthy habits back into my life. I mean, you’re not supposed to feel rested when you’re just starting out in your career, and who really has time to exercise anyway right? Every once in a while I’d find the time to have a quick workout but was frustrated to find that things I was easily able to do a year prior were impossible tasks…I could barely do two pullups, and was so stiff that most exercises were just painful and a set-up for an injury. I realized that it’s true when people say “if you don’t use it, you lose it!”
I also realized that I was headed down the path that most people end up taking in young adulthood: With all the best intentions we put ourselves third to raise a family and built a career. However, if we are not careful this path will also make us feel “used up” and when it comes time to make healthy choices for ourselves we will fail. “I’m starving, I’ll just eat whatever…I’m so wiped out, there is no way I’m working out today…Work was horrible today, I’m definitely having a big glass of wine or two tonight!” Before you know it, this is your life and you can’t remember the last time you felt well-rested, strong, or healthy.
After constantly feeling like I didn’t have time to exercise or eat right because I was too tired or spent, one day I literally looked in the mirror and had an epiphany: I feel this way because I’m not eating right or exercising!
Once I realized this, the question became ‘how could I design my life to squeeze in an hour every day to do what I needed to do to feel and be healthy again?’ Most days this hour would be used to exercise, but could also be used to read that book I’ve been meaning to read, or write that blog post I’ve been meaning to write…whatever makes me feel human again. Wait a minute, there are only 24 hours in a day…where would I find the time?
We actually all have plenty of time, if we do the important things first! Since I wanted to find time to work out etc, I just woke up earlier and did it first thing in the morning. Get up around 5AM (or earlier) and you will have plenty of time to workout at home or go to the gym before work. When you get tired at night, go to bed. Don’t mindlessly watch 2 hours of TV, or scroll around on Facebook all night. Just go to bed as early as you can because you have to get up at 5AM to get to the gym tomorrow! Don’t think–just do, and repeat daily. Let me know how you feel after a few months of doing this!
Benefits of staying active into adulthood, middle-age, and beyond: You can still enjoy life and do stuff! You will feel great or at least not horrible. You will be able to fit into your clothes without sucking everything in. You will lead your children by example and healthy habits will just be their default mode after a while. You will be able to enjoy your children more as they grow up because you can do things with them instead of just watching them from a chair on the sidelines of life somewhere.
When in doubt, do hard things and you will be rewarded. Taking care of yourself is not optional, it is necessary!