Friday, February 20, 2015

Fitness is...

The Good Life

What is it, where can you find it, and how do you live it?

Let me begin by admitting that “the good life” probably means something slightly different to everyone.  I can’t possibly presume to know what is most important to each and every one of you, let alone unlock the secrets to achieving those things in a single article.  But what I can do is strip away the garbage heap of myths, stereotypes, and misnomers the vast majority of us fall victim to while striving for this promise land.  If I have to generalize a bit in the process of doing so, please forgive me. 

Let’s start with the “What”…  What is the good life?  When most people think of the good life, they envision retirement.  Golf, a book by the pool, the overall absence of work.  They imagine a life when they will finally have the money, time, and resources to travel the world or spend more afternoons with their kids and grandkids. I think for most, the good life is some form of a utopian vacation. 

Myth #1: The good life is location/activity dependent.  Actually, these are irrelevant.  Your happiest moments can occur in the home, on vacation, or at work.  They can happen while reading a book, running on an abandoned trail, or watching your favorite TV show with your spouse.  If you think back to some of your favorite memories, you’ll probably realize that there aren’t many consistencies when it comes to location, activity, or even the people you are with.  The only constant is your state of mind.  If you’re stressed or distracted, the most incredible location on earth will appear plain and even irritating.  If you’re relaxed and tuned in, everything is beautiful.  This state of mind is the critical marker.  Putting yourself in it more often is the secret to living happier and better.

Second, where is the good life?  Or, to put it better, when?  At one time or another, most of us have been sold the idea that the good life is something we have to wait for.  “You gotta pay your dues,” they say.  That’s why kids are put on a track for retirement at age 12, when they’re told their grades in middle school will determine their placement in a quality private or prep school, which will then determine their chances of getting accepted to a fine university, which will then allow them to pursue a quality masters degree, which will then open up doors for a PhD or professional position, where they can finally start paying off their student loans, re-establish their credit, and begin saving for a house, after which they can start having kids and start putting away money for their college tuitions, and so on.  Meanwhile the life they want to live is on layaway until all these other responsibilities are handled. 

Myth #2: The good life happens in the future.  Two problems here:  Number one, this implies that the bulk of your life is meant to be spent preparing for something that isn’t guaranteed.  That’s a pretty big gamble if you ask me, especially if you’re offering your health and sanity as part of the buy in.  Number two, if you think you’re going to spend your whole life as a worker bee, then all of a sudden flip the switch and turn into a character from Jimmy Buffet song, you’re crazy.  Building a happy state of mind, like everything else, takes practice. You have to teach yourself to be relaxed, grateful, accepting, and, most important, present.  These behaviors must be honed over years until they’re habits.  That means if you ever want to live the good life, you need to start now. 

Finally, the “How”… How do you live it?  The default answer to this question is to work less and play more, but that doesn’t always work.  Follow my logic here:  We take time off work to take more vacations, do more date nights, and visit more colleges with our kids.  We do all the things we think we’re supposed to do to enjoy life to the fullest, while at the same time trying to ignore the reality that all of this costs money, money that we really don’t have enough of.  Eventually, the bills pile up and we go back to work to try and buttress our bank account with enough income to stay comfortable, taking time away from the vacations, the dates, and the kids. Which means we’re back at square one.  The harsh reality is, unless you are in the top 1 percent of the population, you probably can’t afford to purchase the good life.  The good news is you really shouldn’t have to.

Myth #3: The good life is expensive.  It’s not.  We already established that location and activity are not the most relevant factors at play here, so stop trying to equate the good life with pina coladas in Belize. In reality, living the good life requires nothing but tuning in and appreciating the basic joys around you. The hand picked flowers your mother used to gather for you, the Cheerio necklace your daughter made in kindergarten, the annual Thanksgiving day football game you used to play with your buddies… these things cost nothing, yet they’re probably among your most cherished memories.  Start focusing on the things in your life that retain value beyond dollars and you’ll see that wealth doesn’t create anything, it merely magnifies that which was already there.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles preventing us from overcoming these myths.  First, we are chronic, hoarding, consumers.  We define ourselves by our possessions and our ability to further possess, so it’s easy for a travel, jewelry, or car company to convince us that living the good life requires time-shares, diamond earrings, and a Mercedes Benz.  Since we are obsessed with the idea of preparing for the future, it’s also no small wonder that we are willing to mortgage our health and sanity in the short term to attain these things.  

The second problem I see is that we’ve forgotten how to enjoy simple things.  Despite the allure of beachfront sunsets, the pillars of your life shouldn’t be big, bold, and Instagram worthy.  They need to be basic, humble, and grounding.  Our future-lust has us bypassing countless opportunities to appreciate our lives as they currently stand because we’re either too busy to notice or we assume there’s something better coming down the pike.  This is presumptuous at best and lazy at worst. 

The difficult part is that change is tough, and habits learned over a lifetime are hard to break.  If I’ve learned one thing about people in my years as a competitive athlete and coach it’s this: they are who they are until they want to be different.  If they’re the type of person that’s too preoccupied to take a lunch break, they’re probably the same person that’s too preoccupied to pick their kid up from school, and they’ll still be too preoccupied to enjoy the fruits of their labor in retirement.

Bottom line, you have to choose change.  But where do you start?

Spoiler alert: Here’s where I make my pitch for fitness. 

First, committing to a healthy lifestyle forces you to acknowledge that you have at least some measure of control over your daily life.  Every piece of food you eat, every weight you lift, every time you skip a training session: those decisions directly impact your fitness.  This realization will transform the way you look at every day with respect to your body.  Where workweeks used to be something you had to struggle through, now they mean 5 solid days of getting to the gym.  Where you used to be “it can wait til next week” guy, now you are “take advantage of every opportunity” guy.  And that type of mindset doesn’t compartmentalize, it will overlay everything you do.  Suddenly every lunch break is a recharge and you’re jumping at the opportunity to pick your kid up from school.  The daily nature of training forces you to tune in your life to everything that’s happening now.

Further, the work ethic needed to push past limitations and physically improve the human body is truly humbling.  You can’t fake it.  Every measure of progress is earned through an accumulation of hard efforts.  Sticking to a diet takes will power, sacrifice, and restraint.  Getting up at 6 in the morning to train takes discipline.  You won’t succeed at either unless you’re fully committed to the idea that this is what you want to do.  That philosophy becomes part of you when you train every day, and it will lead you to start appreciating the simpler elements in your life.  Don’t get me wrong… you’ll still have an appetite for the finer things; they’ll just cease to be the definition of success. 

Finally, and probably most importantly, the balance found in a strong, healthy body breeds happiness.  From the physical capacity to move without pain, to the confidence you get from a positive self-image, to the endorphins you get following exercise, fitness truly is the foundation of the good life.  The more often you find yourself exhausted and proud, the healthier your mental state will be, and the more likely you’ll be satisfied with who you really are. 

So… what is the good life, where do you find it, and how do you live it?  Better start looking inward, because it’s happening now and it ain’t slowing down.