Here is a list of some of the things I didn’t do because they might cut into my freedom to work out, or things that I did do, but then fretted that they required sitting still for too long:
- singing in a choir
- evening classes
- trivia nights
- regular church attendance
- traveling and volunteering in the Brazilian rainforest
(On the flip side, I do also remember wondering whether the daily routine in Brazil would offer an acceptable slate of snacking opportunities.) Over the past twenty years, exercise has become a pleasant and deceptive procrastination device: something that could feel productive and even necessary, while also serving as a reasonable – even admirable! – excuse for avoiding real work. I look back now at just I wonder how many classes not taken, workshops not attended, things not learned, people not met, connections not made because those things might have interfered with precious exercise time. More to the current point, what could/would/might I accomplish in a day if I didn’t spend so much of it organizing around physical activity?
Yes, we all know that making physical activity a part of your daily routine is great and important (“the closest thing we have to a miracle drug,” I recently read about cardio exercise). I am fortunate that I have long practiced the physical activity habit; I enjoy moderate exercise and its benefits, to the point that days or stretches when I don’t have time to work out annoy me. But as I’ve thought about what I wanted to accomplish in this next phase of my life, during this time of “career pivot,” I’ve became aware of the degree to which my self-imposed “need” to get my heart rate up gets in the way. I realized that I wanted to actually get anything done I was going to have to demote exercise from central importance in my life, my routine, and my value system.
The approach that has defined my entire adult life was to aim exercise every day. Assuming that some days I just wouldn’t be able to, that would still give me probably 4-5 days a week of exercise. It had never occurred to me to intentionally limit my amount of exercise. After all, it seemed virtuous: something not only that should be done, but that needed to be. I remember my old friend Kris saying that he took weekends off from working out, and I just couldn’t imagine. How could you pass up taking advantage of all that free open time for a good workout?
What I didn’t recognize was that in trying to be diligent about “making time” to exercise, it had become all-controlling. I constructed every day with the hope that I would be able to fit in exercise. If I couldn’t, I could live with it, but it fell short. A day without exercise had, by its nature, to be a less-than-ideal day.
I decided to experiment with departing from this program, actually going so far as to disallow exercise every third day. Within the first five days I noticed a shift in my mentality. If I started a day knowing that I would not exercise – because it was not an option – it changed that whole feeling of having fallen short. I felt less busy, less crunched, 1) for the obvious reason that I actually had more time by virtue of not spending it exercising, but 2) because I did not perceive the day as a failure or a “problem” because I couldn’t “fit in” exercise.
I began to feel the loosening of the compulsion. Would it be ok to exercise only every other day? To take two days off? Yes, yes it would.
Also shockingly, although I perceive and receive deeply the benefits of physical activity – body less stiff, appetite more satisfying, mind clearer, anxiety and crankiness at bay – I also found that I could be productive without it. I was not some fuzzy-headed stiff mess barely dragging myself out of bed. In fact, I had one of the more prolific writing weeks of my life, including building out my website. It was almost as if my body had been waiting for me to stop moving for a few minutes to give all the stuff stored up inside time to come out.
I haven’t decided what my approach will be moving forward. After this experiment I came down with a yucky head cold, and now I am antsy to get back to regular routine of movement. But I’m inspired to continue to play with the balance, to make it ok to let go a little bit, so that every few days feels like enough, and so that, at least for this moment in time, writing becomes the unbreachable commitment instead.