Moving our flesh-prisons
Part 3 of Reprogramming your brain, body and life.
Exercise. Dreaded, dreaded exercise. As a Standard Nerd, it won’t come as a surprise that I have never been, how you say, mobile, much in life. I had always dreaded PE class at school, my friends and I formed a social basketball team as a joke, and my hobbies were all sedentary. Suffice it to say that this is a post for my kind of people. If you’re already doing regular exercise, you’re probably doing better than I am.
While I’m nowhere close to being an athlete, I have made substantial progress towards moving around more. I started attending judo once a week and awkwardly move my limbs around at the gym about three times a week. It’s a pretty low bar, but it’s my bar, and I’m pretty happy with the fact that I’m doing anything at all.
In this post we’re going to:
- Avoid bad proxy measures,
- Find what excites you,
- Lower your expectations,
- Just Fucking Do It, and
- Make exercise work around your life, not the other way around.
It’s kind of hard to talk about exercise in a non-problematic way. In our society, there is this obsession over weight (and body image) as a proxy measure for actual health. So before we get into the practical things that have helped me exercise more, I want to start by declaring that there will be zero body-shaming here. Things like weight and body image are shitty measures for health, and we need to realise that sooner rather than later.
Weight is meaningless
When I was 12 or 13, I started thinking about my body image and weight, like any teen girl. I made some offhand remarks about it, and my dad immediately sat me down and said,
“Weight is meaningless. Weight doesn’t matter. What matters is your health: how strong you are. If you can fight off colds. If you can recover quickly from injury.”
And in that moment, it all made sense.
I should note that my specific case is definitely one of privilege. Because my body fell into the realm of what society deemed “acceptable” (which, to be clear, is dumb as shit), it was much easier for me to forget about things like weight and body image.
But I also think this is a healthy and important approach: to divorce the idea of health from non-direct measures like weight or shape or size. You’ll have your own body shape, and that will have very little to do with your health. Your weight will fluctuate — and that’s normal! It’s health that matters: general fitness, endurance, happiness, immunity, and recovery.
Weight is seriously a bad measure for how well you’re exercising. While exercise has what seems like a never-ending list of health benefits for the body and brain, it has very little effect on weight. I understand that it’s easier for some to ignore these proxy measures because of Society™️ (crowd boos), but I hope that at least the knowledge that exercise and weight have little to zero causal effect helps.
When I was in late teens, my nana was diagnosed with diabetes. I then learned that Asian populations are at a much higher risk for developing type II diabetes, and Asian women especially have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. The solution for both was, of course, plain old exercise.
At the same time, I started learning about all the ridiculous benefits of exercise for the brain. It improves executive function, allows us to concentrate longer, boosts memory, and that’s just the start of it.
But I’ll be honest with you: none of these facts motivated me. They were convincing in theory, but boring and tough. Like kale. What eventually did motivate me to exercise more, was judo.
Those who know me well will know that I am a perpetual try-hard. Which means whenever I encounter something new, I will try very, very hard until I master it. This is good in some ways (for things like school), neutral in some (I’m very good at foosball), and very bad in some others (I have a level 87 Runescape account, don’t look at me).
Aiming for the vague goal of “health” only made me feel bad about how unhealthy I was. Find something that challenges and excites you. It might be a new sport, a new skill, a race of some kind, competitive extreme ironing, whatever. As long as it requires aerobic movement, and keeps your interest, it will work. Dancing is another great one (and you will look so fly!).
Embarking on a new hobby that requires aerobic exercise is a great proxy goal for health. I found myself thinking non-stop about what I needed to do at the gym to make my body better at mastering judo. And because I’m actually not very good at it (and it is a skill that could take a lifetime to master), I’ll have motivation to exercise for years to come.
Set the bar low… low… lower…
Set goals that are comically easy.
When you achieve them (and you will), increase the next goal ever so slightly. This is like when you start a to-do list with a bunch of tasks that you’ve already done so you can immediate cross them off. It feels good to complete something. By achieving a goal quickly, you give yourself that little dopamine hit that motivates your brain to complete the next goal. We talked about how these little dopamine spikes cement bad habits in the previous post about focus, but here we can use it to lock in good habits, early. Just make sure to make the next goal only slightly harder—make it too hard, and you might break the habit before you’ve even started.
Every time I’ve tried to start a workout routine that had the next 6 weeks planned, I never got past the first day. So don’t plan out 6 weeks, or even 1 week of workouts. Just say, today, I’m going to do 30 minutes of x. Only after you’ve completed that, do you then start thinking about what you might want to do tomorrow. Starting is the hardest thing, so make your first goal as easy and as doable as possible.
Often when I go to the gym, my only goal is to work up a sweat. It’s a pretty low bar, but it means I have less of an excuse to skip when I’m bound by time restrictions. Oh, the gym is closing in 40 minutes? Doesn’t matter, just go on the bike for 10 minutes, work up a sweat, and you’re done. It’s not much, but something is infinitely better than nothing.
Just 👏🏼 Fucking 👏🏼 Do 👏🏼 It 👏🏼
I’ve never been a fan of vague slogans, but this kind of attitude really works. Concentrate on how proud of yourself you will feel afterwards. Keep your focus on that. Don’t even think about actually doing the thing.
There’s research that says that when you focus on the end goal (e.g., how great you feel after a successful workout), it actually makes your perception of how hard the task is easier. Every week before it’s time to go to judo, my brain tries non-stop to come up with excuses not to go. It’s raining, it’s cold, I’m tired, I feel sick, I’ve got so much to do… whatever. But the way I’ve managed to get myself to training every week is to focus on how I feel afterwards. I remember what it’s like to do the walk home from training. I imagine myself doing that walk. Because no matter how I felt walking to the dojo, I’ve always felt incredible walking back. Proud of myself for working on something that’s hard and new and not naturally good at. Excited to learn the new moves and wisdoms from my instructors. Amped to practice it in my own time and pumped to try it out next time.
If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to go to training, or the gym, or outside for a run, think of how it feels walking back. Completing the thing you did. Focus on that, and Just Fucking Do it.
Also, as we’ve talked about before, the more you exercise your willpower, the easier it will become.
Be a good scientist: experiment
I don’t about you, but I’m definitely one of those people who loves to plan. It’s a way that I procrastinate actually doing stuff: I plan the things that I’m supposed to be doing, instead of doing them. And I plan much too far in advance, without trying anything out first. I’ll have a day-by-day workout routine planned for the next six months, only to complete the first day and never pick it up again.
What eventually worked for me, was almost not planning at all. The only things that were planned were a loose time and location (e.g. lunchtimes, at the gym). The contents of what I actually did with myself were completely dependent on how I felt that day.
This flexibility was great because I meant I could experiment with different exercises. My rule was, as long as I was working up a sweat, it was good. My thinking would then run along the lines of, “I haven’t done this in a while, maybe I’ll do it today,” or, “I really need to get better at squatting, maybe I’ll do that today.” Or even, “I have no idea what this machine does, let’s try it out.”
Experiment with the times that you do your exercise too. I’ve tried after work and lunchtimes, and have found that lunchtimes work better for me (less actual time exercising, but more frequently, which I value more). Next up I want to experiment with going before work (wish me luck!).
Exercise is kind of a drag to think about, which is why it’s best to kind of not think about it.
- Think about things that are interesting or exciting or nice for you instead (that just so happen to require exercise).
- Set your goals as low as you possibly can. And only increase them by small amounts, frequently.
- Keep focused on how great you will feel afterwards and JFDI.
- Be flexible and experiment. Let your curiosity guide you.
- Weight is a shitty measure for how well your exercise is going. Don’t bother with stepping on any scales. Perhaps start a mini-journal about how you’re feeling afterwards instead.
Whoo! You’ve made it! I tried my best to make this post shorter and yet here we are. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope this makes the idea of regular exercise more approachable and less daunting. Remember: little bits of exercise every other day is better than an intense hour-long workout on January 3rd every year. Be kind to yourself. Feel good about yourself. You got this!
Well, that’s the end of my ridiculous long, chatty ramble about all the things that I’ve been doing to try and improve my life, even by just a little. I hope you found tidbits in here that are helpful to you! If you did find it helpful, give that clap button a crisp hi-five, or better yet message me! I would love to hear your version of how you’ve tackled things.
All the best 👋🏼
Acknowledgements. This series started out as one long, rambly journal entry (and kind of still is), and has been whipped into shape by the generous feedback from my beautiful friends. Thanks especially to Greg, Tom, and Nat for taking their time to read over the walls and walls of text. I know how busy you all are and I appreciate your time so very much. ❤