In the movies, the passage of time is sometimes shown with an hourglass, where the steady flow of sand signals moments that come and then are gone, gone, gone. What if we turned that image on its head and thought of time not as lost moments, but as a stream of opportunities to build something meaningful? If you are looking to do anything fitness related—such as getting stronger, getting leaner, or managing stress—a long-term outlook can be your best friend. Think of it as an investment in you.
If you like the idea of seeing time as a positive, please read on, or feel free to skip to the end for suggested steps to get time on your side.
Fitness goals can generally be pursued in one of two ways.
- Follow a specific plan for some defined period of time.
- Develop ongoing rituals and routines (i.e., habits) that support said goals.
Each approach has its place and can be incredibly valuable. If your goal is getting ready for a figure or powerlifting competition, a twelve week training program is just the thing. Far too often, however, short-term plans get all the love, probably because we want quick results. This is natural, but in a lifetime of hopefully eight or nine plus decades, what is the rush? And even if a short-term plan is desirable, doesn’t the long term deserve some of our attention too?
With a little patience, we can build amazing results that trump any eight week plan.
Plan, but Not Too Much
Now, let’s be honest – planning can be fun. It’s also interesting and necessary, if we want to get anything done. We do have to be careful not to use planning to delay the pain that always comes with taking action. I’m reminded of Bill Bryson’s book – A Walk in the Woods – about hiking the Appalachian Trail. The trail spans from Georgia to Maine, and hiking it all the way (“through hiking”) is a major bucket list item. People spend time, money, and significant effort getting all the nifty gear – the right shoes, the backpacks, little pots, fire starters, tents, sleeping bags, freeze dried snacks. They get to the trail and hike a few hours, or maybe a few days, but then stop and go home. The planning was sexier than the doing.
There’s a cost to too much planning or to waiting until the right plan comes along. Every time we delay a good choice, it’s a missed opportunity to build something of real value. Every time we eat good food, move our bodies, or navigate a tough situation well, it leaves a tiny imprint on us. We may not be able to see or feel its effects right away, but it is an investment in ourselves. I believe it’s absolutely real.
I’ve seen some of my own investment returns this year, which has been difficult. A divorce, major changes at work, an injury, and just the everyday flow of life made it really hard to stay on track. I didn’t eat as well and didn’t work out as often. Yoga went out the window. But on the bright side, I was able to maintain my fitness due to the many investments I’d made in the years prior. Sure, I gained a few pounds, lost a little strength and mobility, lost some muscle. Mostly, though, I was able to able to keep what I had built up. Past choices stayed with me.
It was actually interesting to see how little effort it took to maintain probably 85% of the progress I had made over the past five years or so.
I’ve also see the effects of good investments in my own family. My dad and his sister, Aunt Mary Lou, are my family’s rock stars. Dad just turned 90; Aunt Mary Lou is 97. They are both active, sharp, and just as fun as they’ve always been. Here they are at my cousin’s wedding about two years ago:
It’s not just good genes, and it’s not a coincidence. Dad and Aunt Mary Lou have mastered the art of living well. Their “secret” is that there is no secret – they eat sensibly, exercise, and have a good mindset. They have done this repeatedly for many years, and as a result, they move, think, and interact socially like someone decades younger. It’s truly impressive to see in action.
I don’t mean to suggest this is easy. Not at all. In fact, I think the reality of modern life is that the deck is kinda stacked against us. That’s a major reason I created Fit Energies – to speak up and say we have a right to be healthy and happy.
What’s in it for You?
A long-term perspective helps you in many ways.
It helps you stay realistic. If you are thinking in terms of years and not weeks or months, you will naturally move towards practices and behaviors you can live with in the long term. It’s one thing to say you won’t eat any chocolate for eight weeks; it’s quite another to say you’ll never eat chocolate again. Looking at the horizon forces you to be realistic and figure out a reasonable path.
It puts the focus on habits. This is the ultimate goal – solidify good practices so that they become automatic, effortless, and dare I say, enjoyable. When times get tough, your rituals and routines will ground you and serve as shelter from the storm.
It’s fun to mix things up. If your entire focus has always been trying to do something for a short-term goal, why not try something different? My stubborn area has always been my legs, and I spent many years intending to “finally get in shape” by dieting and exercising cellulite out of my life. I had a big a-ha moment when I learned that bodybuilders may spend years developing their physique. If a top figure competitor improved her look over several years, why was I expecting a total makeover in eight weeks?
It sets a good example. If you are constantly starting and stopping diet and exercise programs, you send a message to others around you that quick fixes are the way to go. I much prefer my daughter to see me working on good habits, so that she can do the same.
It’s your fitness investment that you can call on when you need it. This is the best thing. Once you achieve a certain level of fitness, it stays with you even when you need to back off because life gets in the way. I have had an entire year of being off due to life circumstances, and with a fairly minimal time investment, I’ve been able to maintain most of my fitness.
Soooo, all of that is well and good, but what are we to DO with this information? I love feeling inspired but always want to focus on specific tools and tactics I can actually use. Here are four action steps to consider:
- Examine your perspective: when you think about what you want, fitness-wise, do you give at least some thought to the long term? For example, if your goal is getting leaner, would you be ok if it took a few years? If not, why? Consider taking a break from short-term fitness plans to adopt an investment kind of mindset, which naturally drives you to sustainable practices.
- Practice taking action: Look for opportunities to maximize good choices and use them to practice making sound investments. At any given moment, ask yourself a simple question:
What is the single best step I can take right now, in this very moment, to eat, move, or navigate in a way that builds my health?
It could be lots of things—choosing protein and veggies over an unbalanced meal; taking a walk or getting to the gym, even if it’s just for 30 minutes; choosing to look at a problem as a puzzle instead of an assault; taking five minutes to meditate. If not now, when?
- Track your progress: It’s said that we measure what we treasure, so it’s a good idea to find a way to track your progress. Consider keeping a journal or perhaps filling a jar with small beads to track your progress. Every time you make a sound investment in yourself, put another bead in the jar. See where you are at the end of the week or month.
- Learn to develop good habits: this is the ultimate goal – solidify good practices so that they become automatic and effortless. When your focus is the long term, your “program” is really about nurturing the rituals and routines that you want to have in your life. Do you have the knowledge you need to develop good habits? Are you able to use that knowledge effectively? If you’d like to read up on this, a great start is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
There’s so much talk about living in “the present moment” that its true power can escape us. Don’t let it.