“I don’t want a dog, because I know I’ll be the one walking it.”
Like me, the gentleman who said this was sitting in his camping chair, watching our kids play soccer on a crisp fall day.
I’d brought my French bulldog to the game, who obviously loved this guy. My dog was jumping up at him, unabashedly licking him, pawing at him, giving him puppy kisses. My dog has no shame, and the guy was loving it and welcoming more.
It dawned on me how crazy his statement was, about not wanting a dog, because it was so obvious he wanted to take my dog home with him. He said as much. Not wanting to be the one to walk the dog was the exact same excuse I’d made for the past five or so years as my kids lobbied for a dog.
As reported by Forbes, Americans now sit more than any time in history and it’s literally killing us. According to the Mayo Clinic, analysis of 13 studies concluded that “sitting time and activity levels found in those who sat for more than 8 hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks posed by obesity and smoking.”
It finally occurred to me at some point along the way that my dog knew something about exercise that I didn’t. Walking him, at the exact moments I least want to, might be the whole point.
If you don’t want a dog, I’m not here to sell you on Fido. But I believe you’ll benefit from these concepts that our canine friends seem to have figured out.
1. My Dog Knows That Movement is Medicine
I think people like me and my soccer-spectating cohort put off moving our bodies during a typical day primarily because we think we need to do a full-blown “workout” every time. We approach fitness with this “all or nothing” mentality. We obsess over eating clean, training dirty, no-pain, no-gain.
It might have something to do with our whole approach to life. Americans tend to see everything as work. Working out, even walking the dog is “work.” We have a work ethic, but we don’t necessarily love our work.
My dog doesn’t ascribe to historic legacies, cultural issues or silly class posturing. To him, movement is medicine. He knows that exercise brings him health, happiness, and the pure joy of moving with ease.
But my dog doesn’t just jump right into a full-blown run. First, he stretches out his front legs. Then, his hind legs. He shakes himself off. Only then is he ready to walk. After some movement, he might be ready to chase a squirrel. Or maybe not. It’s his choice. He follows what gives him joy.
2. My Dog Doesn’t Care About the “Guidelines”
When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, I think a lot of us got the wrong idea. We heard that we need to be fitting in 2.5 hours of physical activity per week. This stressed us out because — more work. We assume cardio, i.e. painful, boring exercise on a track or in a gym, is the only way.
Do you enjoy the activity you’ve chosen as “exercise,” or is it a total slog?
While some love to run or spin, it’s not the solution for most of us. Making yourself do something you despise is actually a recipe for disaster, and we each only have a limited amount of willpower.
When all I did was run for exercise, there were times I knew I should be running, but I was resisting it.
I’d lift weights for a week, then “fall off the wagon.”
I’d sabotage my regime, and in so doing, reinforce these negative beliefs I had about myself.
“I’m so lazy.”
“I’ll never be fit.”
This was before I understood the power of joyful movement. I was following strict regimens but never really enjoying anything I did.
When I decided to embrace movement and find things that my body enjoyed doing, that’s when I developed a more loving relationship with my body, and with exercise.
I started doing yoga, which I truly love.
My dog was like, “you just figured that out?”
I even started enjoying walking him more. Even when I didn’t really want to.
3. My Dog Focuses on the Feeling
Gallup reports that Americans who spend more time working out typically feel better about their appearance. Note that the study says they feel better about their appearance. They don’t necessarily look better, because how could you even measure that? It’s too subjective.
For a while, my fitness goals were only there because achieving them was about how I looked to others. I had this belief that achieving a specific dress size or number on a scale would make me look successful, normal, acceptable, attractive. But my goals had nothing to do with who I really wanted to be and how I wanted to feel, on the inside.
So once I accomplished my goals, the goals were no longer there to motivate me. I got the praise and recognition, and moments later I’d have to start on the next goal never feeling truly gratified by my accomplishments. It was an endless cycle of fits and starts, one that I was no longer enjoying.
When I became a yoga instructor, I started meeting more “fitness types,” and I realized how common this way of thinking can be. I learned that bodybuilders, the ones who train to compete based on looks, often have some of the most unhealthy diet and exercise regimens out there. It’s a series of fits and starts to get them to where they need to be for a competition. But it’s not sustainable.
The yogic philosophies of non-judgment and self-acceptance encouraged me to appreciate the journey to wellness as the whole point. It wasn’t about a goal or a destination. It was about who I was becoming, and how I felt, along the way.
So what if you can’t touch your toes? Your journey is about expressing gratitude for your beautiful body exactly where it is today.
There are people out there who, from the outside, they appear to have perfect fitness and a beautiful body. But they’re a mess inside.
Then there are folks like Lizzie Velasquez who have an unshakably positive attitude. No matter what happens on their journey, they seem to have an internal joy that keeps them going. That’s because these folks know that they’re not fully in control of the outcome. But they can control who they become along the way.
You see, the thing we’re after when we go for that “perfect body” or fitness goal isn’t really about how we look on the outside, because that’s totally subjective. It’s about how we want to feel on the inside.
My dog wants a walk because he wants to feel good. He’s not worried about his looks.
4. My Dog Knows That Comparisons Are a Waste of Time
Okay, my dog didn’t actually know this. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t waste his time comparing himself to other dogs.
An academic study in the journal Health Psychology showed that people who thought they were less active than their peers had a greater chance of dying younger — even if their actual activity levels were the same! To me, this illustrates the extreme toxicity of comparing yourself to others.
When we compare how much exercise we get with what the people around us are doing, we don’t give ourselves credit for all of the other activity we do in a typical day— like cleaning the house, work-related activity, walking to the store, playing with your kids and on and on.
Also, I’ve found that when discussing exercise, people tend to either inflate or deflate their numbers. “I did an average amount of exercise this week,” isn’t exactly a scintillating conversation topic, so we complain about either how sedentary we are, or how sore we are from that last workout. We go to extremes.
Not to mention the scientific studies concluding that social media often makes us feel horrible about ourselves. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on the role of social media in young people’s lives, showing that Instagram and Snapchat had the most detrimental effect due to their focus on an image.
My brother works with troubled youth, and if you ask him, he will confirm that social media is contributing to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.
So let’s take a page from my dog’s book, and not compare our bodies to unattainable, heavily photoshopped images.
5. My Dog Values His Mental Health
My body — and my dog’s body— are uniquely adapted to move. When we move, we’re literally moving energy throughout our bodies. We feel better. Exercise has been called out as the best anti-depressant on the planet.
Exercise can also make you more efficient at work because it fuels creativity, too. According to research by Wendy Suzuki, Neuroscientist, and author of the book Happy Brain, Happy Life, working out has a number of mental health benefits. Working out can benefit creativity and memory because it actually encourages the growth of new brain cells.
Brendon Burchard’s book High-Performance Habits details quantitative studies showing the highest performers actually value their own well-being more than any other demographic measured. Instead of focusing on work, work, work they take time for health, relationships, and mindfulness.
Understanding that good health is essential to high performance might just help you enjoy making time for it.
Compared to their peers, Burchard’s study found that high performers:
- Are less stressed
- Are healthier
- Are more likely to exercise
- Report higher levels of happiness
- Report having more positive relationships
His study suggests that high performers have the ability to not only take care of business but care for themselves.
I don’t know when my dog gets his best ideas, but for me it’s during my most-beloved physical activities. I personally love skiing and yoga. So instead of seeing exercise as an interruption to my workday, I now see it as the fuel I need to do my best work.
6. My Dog Enjoys Exercise
There’s this myth that you have to do cardio, it has to be in the gym, it has to be on the same machine for 45 minutes, and it has to hurt.
Research suggests exercising outdoors can be more enjoyable and result in feelings of revitalization, lower stress, less confusion, and a decrease in feelings of anger and depression.
The truth is, you don’t have to be dripping sweat to get a good workout. My dog enjoys chasing a stick, a ball, a squirrel or two, then he’s done. If he doesn’t get this activity, he’ll end up chasing his tail.
In Europe, people are active. They enjoy walking and playing sports. They rely less on their cars.
I believe part of this has to do with attitudes about the whole point of life being more for enjoyment than for work.
Craig Storti, the author of “Communicating Across Cultures,” says that Europeans consider the typical American workload an inefficient use of time. Their belief is that we should finish our work in the allotted time. Anything else is wasteful and detracts from well-being.
I say, thank you very much for giving me my life back, Mr. Storti!
If you really want to find ways to enjoy movement, read the story I wrote on play:
The Opposite of Play is Not Work
Play is on the decline in our society. Making a concerted effort to bring back healthy play is crucial to our future.
7. Exercise is a Habit for My Dog
Okay, there’s the painful part. Anytime you want to create a new habit, it takes effort. According to Psychology Today, long-term behavior change is one of the hardest things we’ll ever do. The brain automatically wants to go back to the familiar, so in the beginning, your new habit feels uncomfortable. You don’t want to walk the dog in the rain, do yoga when you don’t feel like it or get up early to work out.
This is where I remind myself that on the other side of that discomfort or doing something I don’t want to do is health, energy and exactly what I do want. And if you want something you’ve never had before, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done before.
So start small. Do some light stretching in the morning. Do five situps before lunch. Walk the dog when you get home from work. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re moving.
Thankfully, exercise is a habit, too. Once you start doing it, you realize how great it feels. It’ll be hard to stop.
Your Spirit Animal
Even if you don’t have a dog, you need to move. So when you think of exercise, think of a dog, or any animal that helps you visualize yourself moving.
Animals move to find food, to find a mate, to upgrade their habitat when conditions change, or to escape predators. For most, the ability to move is essential for an animal’s survival.
Humans are also uniquely adapted for movement. We move to work, to play, to celebrate. Every single system in the body relies on us moving, including our mental health, muscles, joints, hearts, lungs, hormones, mood, digestive health, metabolism and blood pressure.
As I realize all of this about my dog, and myself, I also realize the person I want to be loves being outdoors. She doesn’t stay plugged into her computer when she could be out breathing fresh air and enjoying a beautiful morning walk. She doesn’t sit at her laptop working another hour when the kids want to play outside.
She moves because she loves feeling good, and she loves it when her body supports her in this effort. She’s not fighting against her body or trying to make herself look a certain way. It’s about those oh-so-good-feelings that come with movement.
It started as a partnership with my dog. It’s now a partnership with my body.