This post is Part 4, the last of a 4-part series on The Habit Of Exercise. A cheat-sheet and stripped-down version of what I’ve done to develop a robust habit is provided at the bottom.
Keep It Skill-Oriented
Activities that don’t require much skill, or repetitive activities that you do so often while tuning out present a risk to consistency because they can easily become boring, and you can become complacent. Low-complexity activities are low-skill activities, which are low-engagement activities. I will not attempt to list examples of those kind, because certainly something I may mistakenly view as ‘low-complexity’ can be enormously complex to one who deeply understands it. Complexity is partly defined by your own perception – if you think you’ve learned all there is to learn and mastered all there is to master, then your activity has become ‘low-complexity’ to your brain and it will suffer the consequences of that perception.
Low-complexity activities require external rewards (negative or positive) or may delay reward to keep you going. But complex, skill-oriented activities have built-in reward systems when you enter into flow state as you do them. Remember that complex activities that draw you into the moment, keep your attention occupied with rich sensory information, and require you to maintain fine control over technique in order to adapt to a changing environment are what lead to more enjoyable experiences. More enjoyable experiences will feed your motivation to keep doing the activity.
If you’ve reached a plateau and become content, bordering on bored, you should consider bumping up your expectations and standards. Study others who are just a bit better than you and consider ways to improve skill in that activity in order to keep your mind occupied with something positive and productive, related to that activity, in each session.
Even something as ‘simple’ as walking can be done mindfully, with increasing technical excellence. Physical and mental skill can be improved on every walk (for example, look up Walking Meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh).
Strength and conditioning work is not for mindless meat-heads either. These activities should be done after receiving expert guidance on how to do it properly, then practiced with full attention on technique in order to keep your body safe. A potentially mindless weightlifting routine can and should be turned into a carefully mindful art form.
Keep A Menu Handy
At different times, places, and circumstances, we may have to switch our activities. Here are the activities on my menu, each one promoting some aspect of my physical and mental well-being, and they all support one another. On any given day, no matter what’s going on, I could pick up one of these and be doing something productive.
- Flexibility and Mobility Exercises
- Conditioning and Strength Work
- Sitting or Laying Down or Standing Meditation
- Cleaning and organizing things around my house (or someone else’s – watch out!)
I may have more or less skill or strength for any one of these – there are millions of people that are smarter, faster, stronger than me. Being a master or expecting to reach high competency is not the point. I am not competing with others in this way. The menu of activities that resonate with me provides a wide variety of things I can do to remain positive and productive in a given moment. I find a way to develop something that matters. These touch different dimensions of my well-being. Like a diverse, long-term investment, pennies add up into dollars and compounding interest is powerful. Think of consistency of exercise, in any form on your menu, like weekly deposits into your health investment account. Every day, every week counts and reinforced your longevity. The more you have in there, the more you can afford to make temporary withdrawals upon it (because of those normal setbacks in life) and bounce back afterward.
Keep A Journal
I’ve been keeping a personal journal since 1984. I’ve used many different kinds of paper, notebooks, and electronic apps over the years. Early on, as I got more involved in triathlon in college it was, by then, natural to record my training as well, though I found it appealing to keep a separate journal for that. Calendars were my first recording sheet and I still have them in my box of memories.
At times, my recording of training might have been as simple as writing, “Ran 45 minutes, on trails by home.” Years ago, it might have been tiny words scribbled in the tiny daily square of a small packet calendar. Or it may be a single line, up to a couple paragraphs typed into an Evernote, which is what I have been doing for the last three years – one long note for the entire year, with the newest entry at the top.
I’ve been tempted to use a spreadsheet so I could run some statistics too, as some friends like to do, but I realized I had more than enough data to track in other areas of life so I had to let some amount of geekiness go.
But keeping a record, however simple, over the months and then the years provides a strong sense of continuity. It reinforces my identity as one who trains as a lifestyle, as one who gets back up and keeps going even when circumstances change. It brings back memories of seasons of time, and things I’ve experienced. Though it is separate from my personal journal, my training record is no doubt a valuable companion to it.
Here is the cheat-sheet for the features that have built my exercise habit:
- Love the activity – if you don’t really like it, it won’t last
- It must be good for your body long-term
- In needs to be fairly convenient
- Do it mostly with others, or alone, depending on which motivates you more
- You need variety of activities to cover all the movement needs of the body
- You need variation within each activity
- Be adaptable and creative with changing circumstances and inconveniences
- Be consistent – do something, anything, every day
- Break a big activity into smaller components (that require less time)
- Let activities shift with the seasons
- Choose complex, skill-oriented activities
- Keep a menu of alternative activities at hand
- Keep a journal to record your activity, day to day
If I were forced to condense all these down to three things to be successful:
- Tap into the intrinsic reward found in the act of doing the activity
- The activity must refresh and strengthen your body long-term, not wear it down
- Be adaptable, flexible, creative to work around changing circumstances – and keep going no matter what