“The athlete that dwells in each of us is more than an abstract ideal,” said George Leonard, the philosopher of human potential and Aikido master. “It is a living presence that can change the way we live and feel.”
I love this quote because it is true. Everyone can benefit immensely from cultivating a regular physical practice. Physical means using your body. Practice means something undertaken for its own sake. Examples include running, cycling, swimming, lifting weights, vigorous walking, gardening, martial arts, rowing, yoga, and climbing. There are many more I’m leaving out.
The indisputable and measurable benefits of physical practices include enhanced physical health, mental health, and creativity. Beyond that, such activities bring about deep confidence that comes with getting to know yourself from the inside out, the transcendence of peak experiences, and the joy of using your body as it evolved to be used. Regular physical practice isn’t just for elite athletes. It’s for everyone.
I am a professional writer and physical activity is an integral part of my job. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a job for which it shouldn’t be. It’s not about getting fit for Instagram. It’s about getting fit for life.
Over the last year, I’ve shifted my own physical practice from endurance sports, which had been my focus for over a decade, to strength training. The transition has been great; in no small part because it’s helped me to view physical practice with beginner’s eyes. Here are some of the things I’ve re-realized, which can be applied to just about anything.
The more you treat each rep independently, as its own workout, the better. This takes a lot of focus at first, but eventually it becomes second nature. Not only does your experience of training improve, but so, too, does your performance. Whatever happened on the last rep doesn’t matter. Whatever may happen on the next rep doesn’t matter. Only this rep matters.
Leave your smartphone behind and the quality goes up. Long before everyone was talking about deep-work or flow states, the philosopher Robert Pirsig described a special kind of quality in which an actor is so focused and present for his or her act that they become hard to separate, the actor and the act become one. Inner-being shapes outer doing and outer doing shapes inner-being. This kind of quality can be a beautiful—if not spiritual—experience. You know what gets in the way of it? Your smartphone. Don’t turn it on vibrate. Don’t turn it on silent. Don’t turn it off. Just leave it behind altogether. Whatever anxiety you may feel at first you’ll make up for 10 times over in quality just a few minutes later.
Training with a small group is huge. There’s the accountability factor. There’s the support factor. There’s the ability to give and receive help factor. And then there’s the most important factor of all: training with other people, so long as they aren’t assholes, makes things more fun (more on that in a bit).
Sleep and nutrition aren’t accessory. They are the practice. These things are not supports. They are part and parcel of a sound physical practice. You don’t have to be perfect but you need to be consistently good enough. Sleep 7 to 9 hours every night. Avoid heavily processed foods. Unfortunately, there is no truth to the concept of the 4-hour body. Much more accurate is the 24-hour body.
Have fun. I recently chatted with the author Ryan Holiday about his love of running and swimming. When asked if he ever competes, he replied, “I get enough of that elsewhere. I’m not trying to win at my hobby.” I love this. Unless you’re a pro-athlete (and perhaps even if you are), relax a little! One of the foremost things that gets in the way of all the benefits of physical practice is becoming too caught up in outcomes. Remember, practice means for its own sake. It’s good to set goals, but only insofar as they guide the process. All of the good stuff is found in the process. Have fun! Laugh! Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.