“Do I have a six-pack, dad?” My son is now at the age where kids are starting to compare each others’ physiques and he’s built very much like I am. He’s got a six-pack somewhere in there, but it’s going to take him a long time to work up to seeing it and I explained that if he does want to be in that sort of shape one day, it’ll likely happen during his teenage years (where I shot up and lost most of my gut before regaining it) and that for our endomorphic body type, it’s typically a sign of a highly restrictive diet, and what really matters is being physically fit enough to enjoy rewarding activities like rock climbing, cycling, and swimming.
When I look back at my childhood I remember loathing “PE” (physical education or “gym class”) and wonder how productive it is today. As I learn how to transform my body, I marvel at how much of it amounts to having the right attitude about progressively increasing effort and delaying gratification. It’s a tough mental commitment that you can’t allow yourself to back out of, but you can’t force yourself into a corner either. First you impose some strenuous activity on yourself, keep it up long enough to see some results, and then keep mixing things up, making them more difficult, allowing yourself to recover. You can’t just fire on all cylinders and “push yourself” out of the gate relentlessly and expect it to last. There is no end point where you’ve done enough and can stop, but you can’t doggedly work yourself to death either. Often that “work yourself to death” mentality goes hand in hand with envisioning some sort of stopping point where you’ve reached a goal so you work unsustainably hard expecting you can stop at some point. But no, this is a constant process of continuing improvement.
Delayed gratification doesn’t come easily to children, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I had an “all or nothing” attitude about basic tasks like performing an over-hand pull-up and I suspect that kids with physical limitations and this attitude are shrugged off and ignored, because it’s difficult to devote time to helping them make progress. Either you can do it, or you can’t–oh well. If you’re fat, you’re stuck that way. Maybe you can get stronger and overcome that fatness, but it’s a very unpleasant process, so why bother? You’ll probably whine a lot and be annoying in the process. Eh.
Childhood obesity is one of ten “wicked problems” in healthcare and I’d like to play a part of tackling it. To do this we must reach the kids who don’t see physical activity as inherently rewarding enough to subject themselves to it regularly. Apps like Pokemon Go are a great start to encouraging physical activity, but they are not the solution to the childhood obesity problem. For those of us who self-medicate with food, we need to learn to appreciate intense exercise for its own sake, and while I believe everyone should learn to appreciate walking and should find ways to encourage themselves to walk (Pokemon Go, listening to audiobooks, whatever), I think it’s just as important that we develop an appreciation for breaking and maintaining a sweat for a prolonged period of time. This is where you push your body to increase your production of endorphins and dopamine, where you really activate the fat burning process, and stimulate your muscles to grow. Walking is excellent and critical and if you do nothing else, walk. But, there’s so much more to participate in out there, and team sports are not the end-all, be-all.
I was never a fan of team sports for various reasons — I was introverted, out of shape at an early age, and intimidated by the prospect of letting others down. To this day I don’t really get excited about team activities but have learned to enjoy many of the sort of activities you can master individually, like swimming, cycling, and climbing. Before I saw the value in these things as “mastery activities” I learned to appreciate getting slightly better over time at things like throwing darts, shooting pool, and playing music. I’ve also learned to enjoy these activities in the presence of at least one other like-minded person who can cheer me on, bring up my game and keep me motivated. I suspect that people with this inclination are just easier to push to the side and ignore. A group of kids who are motivated to play sports need coaching and resources, but you don’t necessarily have to constantly explain to them why what they’re doing is worth the effort. Incidentally, the line of thinking that team sports are a substitute for physical education has its skeptics for good reason. Many naturally athletic people lose interest in fitness once they hit a wall in college or earlier, and may not appreciate being healthy for its own sake, or may push themselves in ways that serve a singular purpose without keeping the most important prize (your overall health) in mind (visualize a high school wrestler wearing a “weight cutting” suit and running laps while dehydrated to “make weight” before a meet).
But when it comes to kids who show little athletic potential, there’s a tendency to tell them, without using these words, over time: “you’ll probably be successful in other ways, shy, and permanently out of shape. That’s you!” In college and earlier this way of thinking also can hurt athletically inclined kids — “you aren’t good at academia, but hey, you have an infinitesimal chance of being good at this sport on the level that might become a career some day, so that’s good enough, you’re keeping us all entertained.” But every child should be given the opportunity to reach their maximum potential in multiple areas, and the better you take care of yourself physically, the more clear and focused your mental energies will be. The more well-rounded you are in your physical activities, the more quickly you will bounce back from setbacks that may discourage you while performing one of your favorite activities, like a runner who sprains their ankle and gives up on exercising when there are so many other options to partake in while the healing process does its work. Likewise for the “meathead” — every gym has a mix of individuals of varying abilities, but the most impressive “meatheads” are the ones who put a lot of thought and diligence into their pursuits. They know that weightlifting isn’t the end-all be-all to fitness and that it’s important not to overdo things just to prove yourself to others. They develop mental discipline to keep their bodies in check. They don’t just split up their workouts into separate body parts because they want to “blast their triceps” or whatever, but because they want to allow different parts of the body to adequately recover before stressing them again.
So let’s get back to gym class, and the sort of damage it does do many of us despite its good intentions. A formative experience is something that typically happens early in life when you haven’t quite developed a solid self-concept: a total view of yourself, your capabilities, and how you fit into the greater world. We all change and transform in little bits throughout life, but many of our characteristics “solidify” as the result of formative events that shaped our identity like a sculpture while that identity was at its most soft and malleable. “Early in life” can mean a lot of things: typically we refer to the first few years of childhood as “the formative years,” but we have formative experiences throughout our education, when we first enter the workforce, during our first long-term relationships, and so on. Earlier formative experiences feed into subsequent experiences, ultimately resulting in the character and personality we have in the present moment. Mindfulness is one of the tools we have to tap into that formative history, to remind ourselves that we aren’t “stuck” in a specific shape just because it’s the way we’ve always seen ourselves.
Many of us have experienced unpleasant formative events that may have shaped an overall negative view of health, well-being, and physical fitness. This baggage can accumulate and manifest itself in various thought patterns, some of which are described below:
- Physically fit people teased me in school and made me feel bad, therefore physically fit people are holier-than-thou and shallow and I don’t want to be like them. They either just naturally are in good shape, or they spend all of their free time just to feel better than everyone else.
- Exercising is uncomfortable and I’m just not good at it, so it’s not worth doing. Every time I’ve tried, it was painful (cramping in the sides/abdomen is a common one) or boring, so if I do find myself exercising (riding a bike, walking, etc) I have no desire to push myself into that uncomfortable zone. Now that I’m older and more out of shape, it’s even more unpleasant in totally new ways (knee pain, delayed muscle pain, etc).
- Many of the people I knew in school who were fit could get away with eating whatever they want, so there’s no point in me trying to control what I eat or how active I am, because those people are just genetically lucky.
There are kernels of truth behind each experience but they ultimately disempower us by leading us to compare ourselves and situations to others, rather than seeing the value of being “healthier than I was yesterday” without caring about how easily this may come to other people. They allow us to construct boogeymen of people we don’t want to “become.” “I don’t want to be like that!” But “that” is a construction combining “good” and “bad” attributes that we can run away from. Many of those daunting people from our past today are “skinny-fat,” the aging process has caught up with them, and they haven’t developed the habits to take care of themselves. But that’s their problem to deal with, not some sort of cosmic justice or retribution.
And then there are deeper experiences they have nothing specifically to do with health and fitness when they occur, but drastically hamper our motivation and ability to set goals. When you dig deep enough, you’ll find many people struggle with this internal narrative:
Life is a hard slog with little reward other than a paycheck and relaxing at the end of a hard day. I see no point in eating a certain way or exercising because it’s unrewarding, while relaxing is truly rewarding.
What we fail to see living with this mindset is that the “hard slog” is infinitely more pleasant when we take care of ourselves. We don’t always have enough time to take sufficient care of ourselves: to get enough sleep, to prepare good meals, to exercise. But when we do invest this time in ourselves, we make it more possible to enjoy living for its own sake. Before we can appreciate this reward we must have a taste for it, and unfortunately physical education seems to leave many of us with a bad taste in our mouths instead of the sweet satisfaction that a grown adult who has struggled for decades may experience after a long, strenuous bike ride or hike, only made possible with months of gradual training and preparation.
This weekend I went out for a bike ride with my family that involved some pretty serious hill climbs. The kids were relaxing watching TV and wanted to put on a movie, but I encouraged them to “break up the day” with some strenuous physical activity and a trip to downtown Arvada, where we could grab lunch and capture a few Pokemon.
I could tell that my son was just about at his absolute limit because during one hill he called it a “living hell.” This was less than five blocks into the trip. He wasn’t miserable for the entire ride, but these hills were a bit of a brutal warm-up. When dealing with people of varying abilities it’s important that we communicate to them that we believe the challenge we’ve put forth is something worth achieving, and something they can achieve. There’s nothing worse than being “smoked” by someone far beyond your performance level as they mock you to keep up, not seriously thinking you can do it.
Instead of giving him a hard time and telling him “life is difficult, get used to it!” I encouraged him to breathe deeply, rest at every block (“it’s a sign of strength that you can stop on a hill, take a break, and keep going”), drink water, sit in the shade, take all of the time in the world, and to walk his bike as much as needed (which I would do with him — we saved this for some of the tough stretches home). His attitude was completely positive and turned around as soon as we got to the downhill portion of the ride. We ate a nice lunch, hung out in Old Town Arvada, and then made the trek back home. I was sure to check in with him frequently, to make sure that this truly wasn’t a hellish experience for him but something he would appreciate later. On the way back we were a lot slower, walked up some of the more painful hills, stopped at a gas station to grab some Gatorade, and had a very relaxing evening. In this way I hope to give my son a physical education that he won’t forget, and will pass down to his own children.