Working out on vacation: Part Three
After writing part one and part two, I've been sitting on part three of my How to Work Out on Vacation blogs because it has a much deeper starting point. We already talked about the reasons to keep up some exercise while you're traveling, and we talked about ways to make exercise viable while you're traveling, but this last part is harder. It's on how to make it enjoyable enough that you actually want to do it while you're away. And, in reality, this third part is not just for travelers, but for anyone who's trying to improve their fitness consistency. It's always a challenge to do something you don't want to do or feel like you're not good at.
So the big question that has been haunting health professionals for centuries and which I will answer brilliantly in mere paragraphs in a shitty blog is: how does one learn to love exercising?
The answer is to learn to love learning.
Health advice is infuriating. All the messaging is different, usually according to what the advice-giver likes doing themselves. Do cardio first. Do strength first. You have to lift heavy. You're going to get hurt lifting heavy. Juices aren't vegetables. Juices are vegetables. Fiber is most important. Protein is most important. Carbs are most important. Fat is most important. If I were writing based on what I personally like doing the most, it would be about macaroni and cheese and The Bachelorette. (Would subscribe if anyone starts writing this important blog.)
Genuine enjoyment is the ideal starting platform.
Most of the world feels guilty that they can't seem to manage a healthier lifestyle. I've got a future post planned about the role of guilt in health, but that's later. For now, let's determine that:
-Guilt because of obligation (you may not want to get up at 3am for your crying baby, but the thought of not doing it is worse) is different from:
-Guilt because of what other people think you should do (Switching from renting to buying is an important investment, Mia), which is different from:
-Guilt because of what you think you should do. (Am I supposed to be a manager after this many years in this company?)
There are roles for all of these ideas in health, as there are in life. But when it comes to how one learns to love exercising, I don't think guilt is the ideal starting platform. Works for some people, but not for most.
I think genuine enjoyment is the ideal starting platform.
Gee, great brainiac deductive reasoning there, Mia. Are you saying that if you have fun...you'll love doing an activity? What a mind-blowingly novel idea.
But actually, though. And we're about to take a hard left into your psyche.
First of all, we know that even without any discernible physical changes, self-esteem improves as soon as you start exercising regularly. The prouder you are of yourself for finishing a workout, the more fun you will think it was. For some of you, that might be all you need to know: start working out and trust the process. For the other 99% of people who are thinking that's the least believable thing you've ever heard, stay with me.
In a very murky world of fitness, physiology, and psychology, there is one thing that has become super clear. With all the media, all the social media posts, and all the WODs, most people are still missing two key pieces of information about themselves.
1) Little to no concept of their true current physical abilities. Sometimes people come in to see me and they're like Wait 'til you see me doing sport things, it's like that gif of a fat cat trying to fit into the computer box.
I promise, you are so much more capable than this cat.
2) Little to no concept of how much more physical ability is available to them. I used to train a woman who had rarely ever run in her life but wanted to, so I asked her to try a mile at a pace which felt challenging to her. She did a 6:20 mile. She had no idea that she had that kind of endurance. (Disclaimer: this test is not safe for everyone! I had already determined she was fit enough to handle it.)
Your ultimate capability is something you can never totally find out, which is part of the fun. Simone Biles is already the greatest gymnast of all time who does tricks other gymnasts can't even imagine and about five days ago she said, "I'm excited to see how good I can get." Soooooo, yeah. Be more like Simone.
Taken together, these two impressions can easily create or uphold a self-perception in which fitness has no place. If you don't think you can do anything, and you don't think you can get much better, there's very little incentive to try. When we can't see ourselves succeeding in an activity, we tend stay as far away from that activity as possible. This is probably why I never bothered showing up to my Chemistry final exam in college.
But fortunately, you're wrong about not being good at exercise, and science backs me up on this. There are two ways of knowing that you succeeded in a physical activity. The first asks: Did you win or not? The second asks: Did you learn something or not?
A person asking the first question holds a fixed view of sport achievement. She sees that achievement is based on final standings. This is a typical child's view of sport, given their well-documented inabilities to understand delayed gratification. And in a bigger picture than winning or losing one match, children also generally tend to think of sport as being something you're good at, or something you're not good at. Kids start to distance themselves from physical eduction as soon as they become more aware of their perceived failures compared to their classmates.
This self-distancing can carry all the way through to adulthood. I cannot count the number of adults who have told me that they retain horrific gym class memories and that's why they haven't exercised in twenty years. The idea of not being good becomes all-consuming, far beyond the bench press. A person who holds onto a rigid view of sport success tends to take fewer risks when it comes to trying new things, and not just in the gym.
When the guiding principle is "I'm good at this thing or I'm not," we tend to avoid any serious challenge surrounding it. The idea of failure is so black and white. "If I'm not good at this thing, I will have failed at it." I see it all the time at the gym. If you set out to try lifting, and then the lifting gets too hard, you see yourself as having failed at all exercise. If you wanted to work out five times a week and only did two, you've failed at all exercise. This is way harsh. It's like being self-governed in Alice in Wonderland. If you start a run and have to stop before completing your intended two miles, the Queen of Hearts comes bombing in with a flamingo screaming, "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!"
Maybe if you don't finish a run, you don't have to go home and consider a list of everything you've ever failed at in life. Maybe you can just go home and...try again another time.
The potential to be bad at something makes most of us go full turtle. We avoid challenges in order to protect our fragile self-esteem (and to keep our heads attached to our bodies). I mean, you can't get anywhere when you're all tucked into your shell, but at least you're protected, right?
Right. But we'd all like you to get somewhere. If we only looked at physical abilities as "I'm good at this or I'm not," most of us would miss all of our opportunities. Imagine how many people would enter a 5k race if it were only people who thought they could win. Twenty out of ten thousand? Maybe fifty? The other 9,950 people would never even go to to the line. Because as much as helicopter psycho parents would like to believe it, not everyone is a genius. (Especially not their shitty kid.) Not everyone gets an A, not everyone wins the race, not everyone is talented. According to the Did I Win? philosophy, only the 1% ought to participate in any given activity, while everyone else can just fuck off.
Maybe you can just...try again another time.
This is a bad philosophy, and fortunately, those 9,950 agree. They're still lining up because no one's got time for this kind of fragility. But there are good questions to ask about this. If they're not expecting to win, if they're not even expecting to do particularly well, if they know that they're gonna land in the bottom 10% of runners, why are they there? What's their motivation, if it isn't winning? If being really good at something isn't the goal, what on earth could be the point?
We said that an alternative view of sports is asking yourself whether you learned something from the experience. This second vision of success in any physical activity is the more malleable, adult version. It defines achievement as something which can be worked on, something which can be improved with effort. Even within competitive sport, it removes social comparison as the only barometer of success. Instead of looking at how you directly equate with someone else, it looks at how you directly equate with yourself in the past. Personalized learning, more than almost anything else, is what will keep motivating a flexible thinker. From this point of view, you can fail at winning but succeed at learning. If you increased in learning, you succeeded.
If this sounds like a new-age-y thought process made up to make shitty runners feel better about coming in 8,000th place, you're way behind the times. Students who are taught this personalized learning concept are more interested in the task, more motivated to improve at it, and end up with higher perceived task competence and aspirations. We're generally awesome at competing against ourselves; not so awesome at competing against other people. As soon as someone is better, most of us walk away. Why are we so wimpy?
Some of it comes from a loss of imagination. One idea in adult learning is that curiosity is a requirement for adult motivation. The older and more experienced we get, the more confident we become about what we are and are not into. This understanding comes with a price. We get locked in. For example, I'm super confident that I'm not into Furries. But who knows? I've never Furried. Maybe I shouldn't close my mind to the idea of yiffing a rabbit. Then I could be all Now you're just some bunny that I used to know.
Oh god. Sorry.
In a way less creepy example, maybe you shouldn't close your mind to the idea that you might yet become an athlete. This diminishing curiosity about the world leads to adults being less and less interested in trying new things. If you've ever thrown up your hands in agitation over your parents wanting to travel to the same location and eat at the same restaurants for years on end, you're seeing this in action. Pretty much everyone seems to do better when they focus on how they're doing at a task, and not how anyone else is doing. Even in schizophrenics, a group known for having difficulty connecting with external rewards, personalized learning improves outcomes.
So maybe you got through this and you're like Hey this is bullshit I want to WIN. Well, fine. That's OK too. There's plenty of room to sauté your intrinsic learning with some spicy extrinsic sriracha. If tangible rewards help drive you to make changes, by all means spoil yourself with shopping, praise, social media posts, and victories. Just don't wrap too much of your self-esteem around something that comes from anywhere but inside your body. Relying on other entities for your self-confidence does not, and cannot work. Some research is even suggesting self-esteem as more of a habit, rather than an independently-operating mood. So even when outside forces affect one's self-esteem (a bad grade, or a disapproving boss), those with an internal habit of cheering for themselves seem to naturally maintain higher levels of self-confidence. In other words, your self-esteem will be just fine as soon as you don't rest your entire self-worth on whether you completed the two miles or not.
Hey, you DO internally cheer for yourself, right? Self-talk can be an important mediator when someone else says something shitty about you. When someone comes at you, don't let them dictate your image forever. Only you are in charge of that, and you're probably a great human if you've read this far. So keep telling yourself that.
I consider exercise to be a constant source of new skills, no matter how experienced you are. You can forever learn about your body, how it moves, and what it wants. It's in learning for fun that we find, well, fun.
One of many problems with only thinking of exercise as a way to stay thin is that there really isn't anything fun about that. Being fueled by self-loathing and as a means to manage self-loathing isn't my idea of a great Saturday morning on vacation. But being curious about what I might be able to do that day? Training with the hope that I can work on something new? Taking exercise in a foreign location as an experience of the local area? All of this sounds like a great part of vacation.
Vanity doesn't hold up to close scrutiny.
So as the first line of attack towards workout consistency, spend some time asking yourself why you're doing it at all. You always want to have a why. It isn't to be thin. Vanity doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. Ask yourself why and find the real reason. The closer you can get to thinking of all aspects of health as a learning experience, the closer you'll get to the fun of it. It's a great way to find out what your body likes and doesn't like, a method of learning new skills, be it boxing or braising. Stay away from the hotel gyms unless you have no choice, or stay somewhere near a good gym and buy some day passes.
By far my personal preference is to go outside and figure out an outdoor workout so that I can enjoy looking around a new place. Jogging past the Versace mansion in Miami. Clambering up the patio walls to hang from the ceiling boards in Key West. Wind sprints across the sand and directly into a full-on ocean dive in Myrtle Beach. You think that dive wasn't fun at the end of every single sprint? Hell yeah it was, and it was something I never get to do at home in Boston because our ocean holds steady at a brisk temperature of absolute zero. Box jumps while watching the drunk tourists on the Riverwalk in New Orleans is a whole different kind of learning experience, but it still counts. It all counts. Whatever you can get done, get it done. And then take that enjoyment straight into the rest of your lazy, lounging, cabs-are-here vacation.