If you haven’t trained much at all in the last twenty years, or ever, starting a fitness program can be really daunting. It’s worth remembering, though, if health and longevity are important to you, you don’t need to rush it. Be patient. It’s the training itself that’s good for you; not some imagined result, it’s the process that improves your health, and also the process that can tax it, so there’s no need to hurry. If you’re working appropriately to where you are right now, today, in the context of your life, this is helpful.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not losing weight, when you’re exercising you’re still stimulating insulin sensitivity in your skeletal muscle. You’re still stimulating circulation to the brain, and all your vessels. You’re still exercising and improving the health of your heart and lungs. This idea that exercise “isn’t working” is a ruse. All exercise works, at something. What is it that you’re training? That’s what you’ll become good at.
(Trigger warning: themes relating to violation and rape culture)
There’s no need to give yourself anxiety about the gym; there are already enough people doing that part for you. Relax and trust that as your fitness improves, so too will your coordination, your ability to work hard, your body awareness, your sense for subtle movement patterns, your feeling for efficient leverage and harmonious joint function, and your comfort within – and knowledge of – your own body. Too often we think of one benefit only. All these things develop with time and practice, and if you’re only thinking about how you need to be made better, these benefits – you will miss them all.
If you’re not able to work hard now, and you don’t feel disciplined or tough now, don’t worry – these skills will build with time and consistency. Some things simply cannot be rushed, but when you look back you can perceive what you’ve achieved, and your own progress will be your own. It’s internal, it’s personal. It’s often not visible, and often difficult to measure in other ways too. But it’s real, and it’s yours.
And one day, when you’re challenging yourself just for fun, when you’re lifting something heavy, or cycling, or practicing a mundane skill that previously you were not capable of doing, you’ll have a moment to pause, and you’ll realise that within the realm of your physical skills, you made the impossible possible. And if nobody else knows, or can ever tell, it’s actually the more special for it, because it’s always, only yours.
And the truth is – nothing happens quickly. Progress is slow. Incredibly slow. A martial arts master once said you measure your progress every day only by the thickness of a piece of paper. It takes many years to write a book.
Do not clutch to false promises and fantasies. Work at what you want to work at. Growth and development take time.
People in fitness talk a lot about mental toughness these days, and there’s an argument for it, but it’s a short-term thing, or maybe applicable only to certain individuals of a certain temperament. Should we all be forced to have the same temperament? In the military, it’s valuable, and in modern fitness, we have a way of adopting practices that have filtered down from military training methods, and bodybuilding, and various elite sports. But we cannot expect these approaches to be suitable for civilians or beginner trainees; they are appropriate to certain populations, for certain reasons, for a certain period of time. But they might not serve you well for life, and they can become a liability.
In the army, mental toughness will serve you. It will maximise your chance of dragging an injured comrade over the top of that hill, while you yourself are injured, before people start shooting at you. This is clearly a valuable, life-preserving skill. But when the threat of death is not immediate, and you fear more the threat of decay over the long term, towards the end of a lifetime, does this attitude of mental toughness translate? Will training in this hard-line fashion serve you when you aren’t preparing yourself for warfare, but instead are trying to take care of your body and mind for life? And when you’re forcing your way through joint pain or dysfunction, isn’t there a better way to take care of your body?
The thing I don’t see many people talking about these days, in relation to discipline and mental toughness is this: too often it seems to come across as, well – an internal manifestation of rape culture. The way it is sold: you’re consciously ignoring physical and emotional signs of pain, distress and trauma, and you’re teaching yourself that you’re wrong for feeling distress, and for feeling traumatised by traumatic situations, because all that stuff holds back your potential.
When you experience pain and anxiety, and you’re telling yourself to harden up and take it, what you’re actually doing is transgressing your own boundaries and therefore teaching yourself that you’re not trustworthy. Slowly, you teach yourself that your ability to say “no” and protect your boundaries is a weakness, when it’s actually one of your greatest strengths, an uncommon and valuable skill, and so over time you become less skilled at defending your own boundaries, you become more easily exploited, and this thing that’s supposed to make you capable and autonomous, on another level you start to struggle to protect yourself against adversity.
You can “mentally tough” yourself through training for a period of time, years even, but one day you’ll most likely discover that it’s stopped working. You’re battered up, injured, insecure and fatigued all the time, you feel like a failure, and there comes a point that you can’t “tough” your way out of. Despite doing all the right things, your body stops working for you, in the way that it should. Then you need to learn the value of being soft, of emptiness, of fluidity and an intuitive, non-judgemental attitude, of care and kindness.
And you can rebuild. Do not pervert your self-discipline. It is supposed to protect you from harm, from exploitation.
Mental toughness can be a very valuable skill to have, so that you can apply it as needed, but as a constant thread, a default position for negotiating the long-term hardships of life? I don’t buy it. It does not trump understanding and respect. It will, in time, burn you out. Athletes who constantly engage their flight or fight response in training experience adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels start to climb, it’s not fun.
And so you reach a choice where these two options for progressing your training and development: self-dominance or self-understanding – the former starts to pale in value.
Good training will teach you both self-discipline, which as stated is a skill, not a character trait, and self-knowledge. And when you understand yourself, and you possess a degree of insight into your character and situation, you can judge when to apply discipline and mental toughness, and when to prioritise something else – when to ease off, when to live your life, when to invest in relaxation.
And the thing is, it’s self-knowledge. I don’t mean to buy into my own propaganda too much. Nobody can tell you what you’re going to learn about yourself. All you can do is try to eliminate prejudice and unhelpful preconception, and learn the truth. Your experiences are unique to you. This is why masters of martial arts – they’re all thoroughly impressive and immaculately skilled, and they are all so damn different from one another.
Wisdom is knowing – among other things – how to apply and best utilise your self-knowledge and discipline, in a way that serves you, rather than in a way that inhibits you.
Discipline will, for example, get you to the gym, it’ll make you turn up to your class or dojo. Self-knowledge, respect and intuition will help you to understand how to train appropriately to your temperament, your programming, your goals, your physical and emotional condition both today and over time, and other variables too numerous to capture in this article.
There is an interaction between will and wisdom. Discipline is tempered with understanding and compassion.
In fitness, we frequently talk about only one side of the coin: being mentally tough, being strong and disciplined, being able to persevere. But weightlifters know that you don’t grow stronger in the gym – you develop your skills there, but your training provides the stimulus only, and your muscles grow stronger and recover in between workouts, while you feed and rest yourself. We talk about the yang side, if you will – the training, the force, but not so much the yin side.
The other side is important too: knowing when to stop, how to care for yourself, when to rest – this is the side of wisdom, compassion, understanding, softness, restraint and forgiveness.
There is balance in all good things.
Training, for me, is either about development or fun, it’s about work or freedom. Like all things, it’s easy to be too yang, or too yin about it. It seems we are prone to extremes these days. If you’re going to be disciplined about your training, be disciplined about your recovery too. There is a time for hardness, a time for softness, a time for force and a time for compassion. Learn how to interpret your needs without judgement. There are no wrong methods, only useful or useless methods for you.