When it comes to health and fitness, most people have a basic understanding of what they should do: Have a balanced and nourishing diet, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. The key isn’t finding the magic diet or exercise that solves all our problems, it’s having the mental fortitude to stick with those healthy choices day after day. That sense of dogged determination is one of the things that makes us resilient: able to cope with adversity and push through challenges in the pursuit of opportunities.
I don’t mean to trivialize how hard it can be to adopt a new health habit or get back on the horse once we’ve fallen off it. I’ve had my own struggles, for sure. But our odds of staying on track go up dramatically when we tend to the causes, feel successful, and are persistent.
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Tend to the Causes
There’s an old apple tree in our backyard that I’ve pruned and watered over the years —but I’ve never been able to make it give me an apple. In much the same way, there are so many things in life for which all we can do is tend to the causes, but we cannot force the results.
Our health and fitness journeys are great opportunities to practice this. We are bombarded with countless messages from early childhood onward about how we’re supposed to look. Few can realistically meet these standards—but we internalize them anyway, looking in the mirror and comparing ourselves to something that could only exist with the benefit of a hefty dose of photoshop.
We may not be able to look like the person in the magazine; much of our appearance is outside of our control. But we can look like the healthiest, happiest version of ourselves, and we can control what we do each day in pursuit of that.
Today, try to shift the focus from the results of your efforts to the many causes you can influence—such as what you buy at the market and put in your mouth, or how often you stand up from your chair and walk around a bit, or how many minutes a week you elevate your heart rate.
From microscopic regulatory processes within individual cells all the way up to our loftiest aspirations, living is inherently goal-directed. Experiences of meeting your goals feel good and lower stress, while reassuring you that you’re making progress and helping to build positive motivation. On the other hand, internal alarms go off when we don’t meet goals, and dopamine activity drops in the brain. This feels bad and heightens anxiety, tension, and drivenness.
Our fitness journeys give us many opportunities to feel successful, but most of us over-focus on distant goals and tend to lose sight of the many smaller goals we meet each day. Even when we do notice them, we often let the opportunity to feel truly accomplished slide right by like water through a sieve. This is a natural recipe for disappointment and lethargy; it’s a lot easier to fall off the horse when we feel like it’s not going anywhere.
To counter this:
- Be mindful of succeeding at small outcomes, such as completing a single exercise or making a healthy dietary choice.
- Notice progress toward big outcomes, such as being able to run for a little longer or being able to move heavy objects more easily.
- Recognize when you continue to fulfill ongoing process goals, such as being compassionate to yourself while working toward your fitness goals.
Different versions of this fable appear in many cultures: Once upon a time, some frogs fell into a bucket full of cream. The sides were steep, none of the frogs could escape, and one by one they gave up and drowned. But one frog kept swimming, working its little legs methodically to stay afloat. And slowly, ever so slowly, it churned the cream into solid butter.
We tend to glorify the big, dramatic moments in life, but it’s usually the small, sustained efforts over time that make the most difference. So, commit to doing one thing each day in pursuit of your goals. It can be as small as making the healthier choice between two foods, doing a single set of exercises, or even just going outside and getting a little extra fresh air.
This may not seem like much, but it’s much easier to take the second step once you’ve committed to the first one. Each step may be short, but as the hours and months and years add up, it feels good to realize that you are covering a great distance.
People often put off getting back on the horse. It’s so easy to say, “I’ll start again tomorrow.” But the tomorrows keep adding up, and the years go by. Then something comes along—an injury, serious illness, or major stressor—that lands hard on a weakened constitution, like a tree branch falling on a house hollowed out by termites. It’s motivating, not morbid, to realize that we’re all running out of runway, that it’s time to change something that could add quality years to your life.
If there’s something you know you should do but you’re not doing it, pause and imagine how good it would feel to make that change. Consider the consequences for what you feel like on a typical day . . . for yourself in a year or ten or twenty . . . for how long and how well you want to live. If doubts come up about whether you’ll stick with the change, simply bring your attention back to a rich experience of the rewards of doing it.
Keep watering the tree, and most likely it will bear you good fruit.
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