What motivates us to exercise? (Stay with me. This isn’t ultimately about exercise.)
I can answer that question easily for myself: I like how I feel after doing it. I know it’s good for me and I have a strong sense of self-defense. I’ve done it all my life, so there’s very little resistance from the little voice in my head. And because I keep it up, I don’t cycle in and out of shape, which is painful for non-exercisers when it’s time to cycle back in. I consider exercise a personal ethos.
Fine. Good for me. But lots of people don’t share the ethos. They understand they should exercise and that it’s important to health and lifespan. But they don’t exercise regularly because they aren’t adequately motivated.
Heart attacks often provide sufficient motivation, but only after a life-threatening event that might have been caused, at least in part, by the lack of exercise.
I’ve lately been thinking that perhaps the story and the picture have to change.
The story, for those without the ethos, is usually an unpleasant one around pain and humiliation. Or lack of time. Or intense dislike of gyms. Exercise is an abstraction. Yes, it’s good for us. Yes, the healthy people do it. But “it” is an it. A force with undesirable connotations attached to it.
The picture in the head of the non-exerciser is probably one of today. A guilty face in the mirror. A less-than-ideal abdomen. And the anger-making images of buff gym goers, who induce feelings of lowliness.
I have an idea. Don’t think of exercise or health or other people. Think of you in the future and what you want to be able to do. Simple functional things. Carry groceries. Rise from a toilet without using your hands. Lift young grandchildren. Hit a golf ball farther than 100 yards. Use stairs without thinking about it. Shovel snow. Walk up a hill. Walk for an hour in the woods. Work in a garden. Bend down to look at something below your knees. Get in and out of a bathtub.
Now imagine, as the body inevitably declines with age, not being able to do any of those basic functions and what the implications will be. Travel becomes difficult. Toileting becomes difficult. You might have to live on one floor. Grandchildren will have to remain on the floor. Hills will be Everests. Shoveling and gardening and other basic maintenance that can be pleasantly meditative in older years will have to be hired out. Can’t-do will increasingly be the default, which (ask anyone who can’t do something) shrinks your world. The more can’t-dos, the smaller the world.
It’s probably not exaggerating to say that many older people move into single-floor condominiums in towers because they failed for years to do regular basic exercises for a few minutes a day. That’s good for condo developers (they are, in fact, banking on unexercised seniors) yet it is a sad surrender for those who need not be afraid of something as commonplace as stairs. My 90-year-old mother and her 97-year-old sister do stairs multiple times every day. One reason they can do them is because they do them.
Finally, the picture. Don’t picture today. Picture the future. The future you. Choose from a range of realistic images. For men: Redford, Eastwood, Douglas. For women: Streep, Mirren, Dench. None are intimidating. None are muscle men or glamor queens any longer. All are highly functional at older ages. These are people who, even while still working, have taken care of themselves. It’s paying off when they need it most.
The opportunity for us, in the years when we no longer have the excuse of being too busy, is to allot some of our newfound time to regular physical self-care — in the name of what we want to be able to do 10 years from now and 10 years from then.
After I wrote the above post, I came across a 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review (online) entitled, “You Need To Practice Being Your Future Self.” My point exactly. HBR articles are usually about work. And what I find uncanny, is that work advice is often the same advice one might give to a prospective retiree. I see it all time. I think that’s because retirement, at least what I like to call the “new retirement” is about a different kind of productivity and new stage of growth and — not as much of a stretch as you might think — personal entrepreneurialism. The same skills are needed (adaptability to change, exploration of new ideas, self-reliance, growth mindset, etc.). Here are the three paragraphs that jumped out at me from the article:
If you want to be productive, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be? Another question is: Where do I want to go? Chances are that the answers to these questions represent growth in some direction. And while you can’t spend all your time pursuing those objectives, you definitely won’t get there if you don’t spend any of your time pursuing them.
If you want to be a writer, you have to spend time writing. If you want to be a sales manager, you can’t just sell — you have to develop your management skill. If you want to start a new company, or launch a new product, or lead a new group, you have to spend time planning and building your skills and experience.
Here’s the key: You need to spend time on the future even when there are more important things to do in the present and even when there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words — and this is the hard part — if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.
That sound advice also applies to preparation for the years after work.
If you want to be successfully retired, it pays to spend time planning and building your skills and experience.
The first question to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be?
Then: Where do I want to go?
And back to my thesis: What do I want to be able to do?
That first question — Who do I want to be? — is the big one.
I can’t resist the temptation to post this picture of the actor Patrick Stewart (from his Instagram account). It was taken on a beach in Jamaica three years ago when he was 75. I remember reading somewhere that he attributes at least some of his fitness at an advanced age to doing pushups every day. (Tropical cocktails appear to do no harm.) I realize Stewart’s remarkable physique is beyond the functional and decidedly into the aesthetic. Once we are confident we can handle stairs and lift groceries, this might be the final frontier.