The other day someone said to me, „I admire you for your self-discipline.”
I looked at that sentence, and my first impulse was to laugh my head of. I am in no way self-disciplined, I thought, this is really funny.
Then I remembered that the same thing happened a few times in the past few months, first when people noticed that I had lost weight, and then when I started talking about how much I love exercising, and that I want to do more of it. So that was odd. (By the way the exercise and the weight loss are in no way related to each other. No, really.)
And then I realized that those people only knew me as the woman who loses weight and exercises six times a week. Not as the woman who has to learn every new habit four times and then can never be sure that it will stick.
The thing is that I have been trying to become a person who has a grip on her life, who is tidy, and has healthy habits ever since I turned eight. That was when I realized that not everybody is constantly losing keys, and mittens, and umbrellas, and so I set out to learn how to become a person who doesn’t lose things.
At that point I thought if I willed it strong enough I would succeed. Well, after decades of trying that approach I can say that it doesn’t work at all. Willpower is a finite resource and wishing and willing doesn’t help you over the days where you just don’t care if you reach your longtime goals.
Still, I never gave up. (First time I decided to become more athletic was when I was ten. I ran every night for about a week, hated every second, and stopped because of the first day of snow. I never tried again but decided that running just wasn’t for me. Well, until about ten years ago.)
I started reading time-management books in my teens, and have read tons of self-help for decades as well. Some things helped, others didn’t.
Still, deep in my heart I’ve always wished that some day I would wake up and be this different person, this improved version of myself. The one who would fold her clothes every night, brushed her teeth twice a day, had a nice a tidy room, didn’t lose things, and generally did things right.
And then I turned older and found that that will never happen. On the contrary it seems that I am someone for whom learning how to floss might take up to ten years. Which is ridiculous for such a small habit but there you are.
Of course I could give up and say, „Well, I guess I’m just not that person. It takes all kinds.“ But I still think that a reasonably healthy adult should be able to change things about herself that drive her crazy.
I have learned a lot about myself along the way. Which things are hard. And which aren’t. And that I do better with rules than with deciding everything on the spot. (I’m not the only one.) For example ever since I found out that I am fructose-intolerant and that my body doesn’t really like to digest sugar at all I made a rule that when I go to a potluck thing I will only eat whatever I prepared myself. That rule is interestingly easy to follow because every time I break it I feel lousy afterwards. So all it takes to follow the rule is to remind myself of how I felt the last time I didn’t follow it.
Now about exercise. I trick myself into it. In the beginning my only goal was to move in some way for ten minutes a day. Walking to the grocery store counted, doing yoga counted, everything counted.
Then I set a goal of starting to run again. Then I changed everything completely up because I was so motivated from reading „Younger Next Year“ that I strived to exercise 6 times a week for at least 45 minutes.
The thing is that most weeks I don’t. I always think I do but when I actually write it down it’s more like four or five times a week. But that’s not failure. That’s still a lot of exercise and much better than sitting on my butt all the time.
So I’m usually doing strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I made my son join me in that because he doesn’t move enough as well, and having strong muscles is very cool. Now I really have to do it because I need to be a good example.
Which leaves the running that I try to do three other days a week. (Or ideally every day but I’m not there yet.) Now running is enjoyable because I get to listen to podcasts while I do it. Or to music. Running or walking are the only times I listen to podcasts and I like listening to podcasts. So the thought of, „There is this new podcast episode, this will be fun.“ is often what gets me into my running shoes.
But the foremost reason why I exercise so much is this:
When I exercise I don’t hurt.
I have had chronic back pain, knee pain, and hip pain every since I was 15. I used to sit just so, and bend just so because I always hurt.
These days I’m 48 and as long as I exercise I don’t hurt at all. Not the least little bit.
As soon as I stop exercising – like right now because I have a bad cold – the pain comes back. As I’m typing this my knees hurt, and my back a little, and my right hip.
See, no self-discipline needed.
I just try, and fail, and try, and fail, and get better at things, and then worse, and then better again. But the one thing I never do is give up. I want to be a person who exercises six times a week, and so I will do everything I can to make that happen.
I trick myself, sometimes I bribe myself, I give myself gold stars – whatever works. But I never ever beat myself up. I treat my change of habits more like an experiment, and think about what worked, and what didn’t, and what I can tweak to make it better.
And then it turns out that exercising makes me really, really happy.
Who would have thought?