There are four pillars of fitness in Mid Age Man’s world view: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental wellbeing, and attention to your self.
It’s this last part, the most difficult to explain, that I want to discuss.
You can call it your self, your inner voice, your being, your soul. The little bit of you that is reading this now. The only part that, when it comes down to it, we really know is alive.
Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.
Actually I like the French version more, Je pense, donc je suis, which is what René Descartes originally wrote. It’s a lot simpler. He then made it fancy and Latin to appeal to more people, which it really does not!
Excuse me as I break into philosophy, much like someone might break into song.
Everything else outside our heads could be an illusion. People are color-blind, so we don’t know we’re all looking at the same world. People sometimes sense phantom limbs, so we don’t really know that our body is there in the way we understand it.
Even when we look at a book, say, we are really getting an image of a book created by light bouncing off it and entering our eyes where the rods and cones of our photoreceptors translate it into electric signals to send to our optic nerves, which send that to our brain. Presumably you could “fake” the signals, or get the wrong ones, and see something entirely else.
No, the only part of the world that we really know exists for sure is the little voice inside of us that, if you’re anything like me, has a running non-stop conversation with itself all day long about thousands of things. It won’t shut up! Shut up! See, it won’t. I can’t turn it off, as much as I want to sometimes.
And it is this little person that lives deep within us that we do not nurture.
We do not pay enough attention to the self.
This is related to but not the same thing as taking care of yourself. Taking care of yourself could involve simple exercise and eating well. And that is a very important base for a healthy life.
But we also need to tend to our inner selves, both our mental wellbeing and the part of us that reaches for more than just this physical world. Perhaps because many of us have seen our belief in religion fade, we can sometimes function with a bit of an internal void inside of us, with nothing to let our soul breathe. We do not nurture our mental beings or our selves nearly as much as we worry about our body shape or how we physically feel.
Body and mind. Body and soul. We link them all the time in language. Do you really link them in actual life?
Concentrating on your movement and your physical presence is actually one way to hone your mind. Yoga and tai chi practitioners have known this for centuries. But you can apply this concept to any exercise, any little movement.
I recently developed an interest in mindfulness. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s an approach to life that essentially takes many of the concepts of Buddhism and strips them down to the bare bones, without the religious overtones (unless you want them!).
It’s a mindset, a way to work your way through the world with a positive, optimistic outlook. It is so, so simple and yet our lives are so often so far away from this ideal – we fill our days and cram our heads with all manner of life stuff that gets right in the way of our happiness.
A lot of mindfulness is common sense. The idea is to get you to pay attention to what is going on in your life right now, to truly live in the moment, to really be present. By concentrating on exactly what it is happening to you, you live life fully instead of sleepwalking through it.
For instance, while walking, you can count your steps. Or, while taking each stride, you can say “I have arrived.” This reminds you that, no matter where you are walking, you are always there, where you are. Your life has brought you to this point. Now, make the most of it.
When you are driving, you can mentally stop for a second (Don’t stop the car! That’s dangerous!) and think, “Man, I am driving a piece of metal that is going really pretty fast, faster than anybody ever could before cars were invented.” Think about that for a second. It’s actually quite amazing. Then enjoy the drive.
It is really important to pay attention to what you eat. And I don’t just mean making sure that the food is healthy, although that’s important. We should pay attention to what the actual stuff is.
Pause when you’re eating, and think about where the food came from, how it got there, what exactly goes into it. Some people try to eat a few bites by switching the utensils to their non-dominant hand. If you eat mindfully and slowly, truly appreciating the food, you will avoid overeating, and you will truly enjoy your meal, which you should. It’s a fundamental pleasure in life. We shortchange ourselves by grabbing a sandwich on the run or eating lunch at our desk, just cramming the food in like it’s fuel going into a fire.
Exercise is an excellent way to truly live life in the present. You are doing something, moving your body (which despite what the philosophers say probably does actually exist), being active, using your brain to fuse with your brawn. You can fire up that little being inside your skull and get it to operate each of your limbs, your torso, your spine, your skeleton, tendons, joints and muscles.
When I go to the gym, if I’m on my own and not working with a client, I’ll treat it like a touch of meditation. I often close my eyes on a machine and concentrate on the muscle or muscle groups that are working. I try to truly feel what’s happening to my body. Although I’m active and even sometimes straining hard, physically, the process is incredibly peaceful. It’s a little mental break from whatever else I get to fret about the rest of the day.
Worry, by the way, is counteractive. It doesn’t do us anything.
If you’re lying there at night, stressed about all that you have going on, the money, the job, the kids, the colleagues, the schedule, your folks, your health and any other manner of things, stop. You have two choices: get up and do something about it; or get some rest.
Rest is probably best – your body needs to rebuild, and your brain needs to weed out all the new synapses it has grown so it can keep the ones it needs (one of the key functions of sleep). But you can also act and take on the challenges that are bothering you, slowly and one-by-one. In any case, lying there worrying isn’t fixing anything. Why worry? It is a negative emotion that doesn’t do you any good.
Now, a little adrenalin never hurt. We should get excited about an event where we have to perform, whatever that performance may involve. A big game, your marriage proposal, that PowerPoint presentation to the accounts-payable team, all these things should give us a jolt of excitement. Yes, even the PowerPoint. It’s natural and how our bodies were built.
But I don’t think our homo sapiens ancestors lay there worrying about how many followers they had on Instagram, or whether they should bet on Bristol Rovers winning over the weekend. They didn’t lie in their caves fretting about their credit-card debt.
If they were hungry, they got up and did something about it. If they were cold, they put on another deerskin. If something was bothering them, they tried to fix it.
Try to fix it well.
I believe that whatever you have to do, you should also do it to the best of your ability. If you have to do the dishes, or you have to clean the public toilets, a job you really don’t want to do, you might as well still do it really well. Try to do the best job you or anyone else has ever done when cleaning a public toilet. And if you tried your best, well that’s all you can do.
Take the same worry-free, all-excellence approach to your exercise. Yes, we have all made a colossal string of errors in our lives. Maybe we have not taken care of ourselves like we should. We have bits sticking out that shouldn’t be, parts of our bodies that are painful, and maybe our performance isn’t quite what we expect when we picture ourselves performing, which in my case normally envisions a 20-year-old Alex sprinting up Table Mountain with a 28-inch waist.
Forget all that. Now is the time to tackle the physical imperfections and deficiencies that we have created for ourselves. Take it bit by bit, and you’ll get there. You really will.
And while you are exercising towards that goal, enjoy the feeling of your body moving. Think about dogs running. They are truly living in the moment. They don’t care about anything else. They just think “Run!” And my god, do they have a good time doing it.
Exercise as best you can now, do a really good job at it, the best you can, and you will work towards your fitness goals. Enjoy it! You are lucky to be able to move like that. And you can feel good that you are doing something that improves you. That thinking is a reward for the self, to feel like you’re working well, letting your body do what it was built to do.
By concentrating on exactly what you are actually doing when you exercise, you can also free your mind and at the same time concentrate your mind. Let all those other worries drop away. Think about what you are doing, right at that point. Think about what you are doing right now, as you read this, then get pumped up and excited to go and give your body the exercise reward it needs. Then think about that.
And when you do that, wherever you are in fact, remember that your self is alive. We are lucky. We are living. We don’t get another chance at it.
We have arrived.