For the past 20 years, my most rigorous exercise has been carrying my laptop around the world. Still, when I went to the doctor for a checkup (finally), I was surprised and dismayed by my blood pressure.
Over the years doctors have been saying, “you’re on the high end of normal, one of these days you’re going to have to deal with this.” In my fantasy, “one of these days” was not coming any time soon.
Since then, I’ve managed to exercise 30 of the last 34 days. It’s not so awful doing it, but thinking about it has been frustrating. Especially at the beginning, I felt trapped and powerless. I’m thinking of exercise as a punishment – how much time will I have to serve before I can go back to living how I want?
So while I’ve been successful at initiating some of the right actions, I haven’t fully addressed the emotional challenge. By force of will I can make myself exercise. I can say, “exercise or die. Let’s go,” and I get on Nordic Track. But internally it’s a battle, and that means I’m making myself a victim instead of a warrior, and it’s not a sustainable model.
At 3 and a half, my son can surely relate. He is somewhat indignant that he can’t do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to – and he makes it unpleasant for those of us who attempt to direct him otherwise.
It’s like the same thing in my head. On the one hand I know all these benefits of exercising. I like the feeling afterwards, I like sleeping better, I like having more energy. I don’t like not being able to do whatever I want, whenever I want – so I throw these little tantrums.
Just like with Max’s tantrums, it was a great relief for me to realize I could just ignore mine. I could just say, “Go ahead and pout - I’m doing it anyway!” and get skiing. But also like trying to ignore Max’s tantrums, this is an energy drain.
When I am in the “exercise or die” mode, I am saying, “I don’t have a choice.” I’m coloring the experience with resentment and frustration. Not only does this make it less pleasant, it also makes it less sustainable.
Emotions are signals. At the most basic level, pleasant emotions mean “do this more,” and unpleasant feelings mean, “do this less.” If exercise is loaded with “yuck,” then even if I intellectually know I should, I won’t actually want to.
So how do I shift from yuck to yea? How do I go from “exercise or die” to “exercise and live!”?
I’m using several strategies:
• Questioning the underlying assumptions
• Accessing useful feelings
• Focusing on the larger purpose
Questioning the Underlying Assumptions
Questioning the underlying assumption is about challenging my own thinking and feeling. I’ve “gone up the ladder of inference” to come to a conclusion that exercise is yucky. According to a cognitive therapeutic model, this belief is creating an emotional reaction. While the EQ perspective is that thoughts and feelings create each other, it’s still quite useful to me to examine these beliefs and the feelings connected with them.
So I can ask myself questions. For example, “What would I have to give up in order to feel that exercise is fun?” I’d have to give up 20 years of practice saying it’s yucky. I’d have to admit my mom might have been right all these years. I’d have to give up believing that taking care of my physical self is vain and superficial.
I’ve developed certain patterns and feelings about exercise (for example, “When I think I don’t have a choice, I feel resentful and run away.”). Understanding gives me a baseline for making a change, and it gives me important data about my reactions. When I get into one of my patterns I can recognize it and redirect it rather than being driven by it. It’s also helpful to know what I need to rechoose -- for example, knowing these kinds of reactions has led me to get additional support that will, I hope, help make the change stick.
Accessing Useful Feelings
Accessing useful feelings is about using my emotions intentionally. We all have multiple feelings at any time. Even in the midst of feeling frustrated when I tell myself I have to exercise, I also feel proud that I’m sticking to this. By shifting my attention to the pride, to the satisfaction, to the celebration, I re-color this experience as something positive, creating an attractive experience. It’s easy to do this, it just takes continuous reinforcement.
So this morning when I had done one kilometer on the Nordic Track and was starting to feel grumpy, I shifted my attention to the accomplishment. I literally felt a burst of pride washing over me. This intentional use of feelings reinforces the change I’m trying to make.
Focusing on the Larger Purpose
Finally, focusing on the larger purpose makes both of the first two manageable. I want to be healthy because I love my family and want to be “alive and kicking” when (if) grandkids come along. I want to be healthy because I have important work I’m trying to do in the world – and it takes a lot of energy to do it! As my friend Liz says, this body is the vehicle for “doing the work” in my family and career, and while I’m riding here, I better take care of it! Why? Not because I “have to,” but because I care deeply about where I’m trying to go.
If I really mean it, if these larger purposes are deeply meaningful, then they will energize and drive me. Bringing meaning to the mundane, this awareness shifts my feeling and my thinking and transforms my behavior. It also changes the way I experience the daily activity. Instead of toil, exercise is about serving what’s best and most important in my life.
I’m pleased to say that since I began this article, I am feeling more positive and engaged in being healthy. It continues to be difficult to stay out of the old patterns, and it’s definitely an effort to exercise, but I’m fairly happy with the process.
It’s also good to see Six Seconds’ model at work in my life. Our “Know Yourself, Choose Yourself, Give Yourself” model is about applying emotional intelligence to help people get better results in their lives and work.
Questioning the Underlying Assumptions is part of “Know Yourself” -- increasing awareness of feelings and patterns.
Accessing Useful Feelings is key to “Choose Yourself” -- reevaluating and intentionally directing daily feelings, thoughts, and actions.
Focusing on the Larger Purpose is the cornerstone of “Give Yourself” -- living intentionally and consciously to bring out the best we each have to offer.
So I encourage you to look at these three pillars as you consider a change in your own work or life -- and if you’re working to get healthy, I hope you’ll tell me how you’re managing the emotional side!