One Mental Trick to Get Me to Exercise

I hate working out.

There…I said it.  Always have.  Always will.  There is something about the idea of “working out” that simply doesn’t “work” for me.  I have never been able to stick to any type of exercise program.  Gym memberships are a waste of my money.  I visited the “free” gym at the office building where I used to work on plenty of occasions, but no habits were formed.   And of course, there’s the sad elliptical machine hanging out at home wondering why no one makes eye contact with it anymore when we walk past.  For some reason, nothing sticks.  Sure, I go through the usual spikes of motivation where “this time it will be different” and I’m going to find a way to stick to a work-out routine.  Over the years, my wife got to the point where she would simply laugh (snort, scoff, snicker…) when I would tell her I was setting my alarm clock early to work out.  But she knew what I was unwilling to admit to myself… when it comes to me and working out – NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

So what’s changed?  Well, a lot has changed for me recently.  And I owe it all to one of my best friends.  For the sake of this post, we’ll call him “Mark”.  (To quote Dragnet, “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”)  To understand how Mark has changed my views and how one conversation has led me to completely change my thinking, it’s necessary to take a look at Mark’s story.

Excuse me, Doctor…What?!

Mark and I have been friends since college. (Those of you keeping score, I just turned 40, so we’re talking about 20 years here.) I can honestly say he is one of (if not THE) most exceptional human beings I have ever met. He’s one of those individuals who innately understands the principals of The Slight Edge without ever having read the book. Exceptionally bright, Mark graduated at the top of our class and then went on to Harvard Law School.  A gifted athlete, he is always in impeccable shape.  He’s also one of the kindest and most genuine human beings you’ll ever meet. (Yes, I know I’m gushing about my friend here – but I think it’s important to set the stage that Mark really is a great guy who seemed to have it all figured out.)  After law school and a judicial clerkship, he’s gone on to a successful career and has risen through the ranks to become a partner at his law firm all before the age of 40!

While leading what in many ways appears to be a charmed life (hard work and dedication with a great attitude will often lead to what from the outside appears to be “luck”), life wasn’t without it’s issues.  For as long as I’ve known him, Mark always had some kind of minor medical ailment going on. Whether it was back pain and needing to constantly see his chiropractor, shin splints, sinus infections, etc.  Mark just always seemed to be having some kind of ISSUE with his body.  He grew to accept this and just thought that was just part of the human experience – always some level of discomfort or pain or something that needed readjusting or realignment.  And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought that maybe there was a hypochondriac hidden away in there somewhere.

And so Mark went about his life – experiencing great levels of success but always battling his body at the same time.   To a typical onlooker, you would have no idea there was anything going on.  You may notice that he fidgets a little bit and has a hard time sitting still.  But, like me, you would simply assume it’s due to all of his energy and excitement and not realize that in fact it is because he is quite literally in constant pain.

Finally, within the last couple of years, things began to get worse.  The little pains grew stronger.  The tricks he had taught himself over the years to feel better were no longer working.  This was not normal…something was really WRONG, but he had no idea what.  He started seeing doctors and specialists of all kinds.  He had test after test after test run, but still no answers.  He had more than one doctor tell him that he was fine and that it was all in his head!

Finally, after more than a year of searching and countless doctor visits all over the country, one doctor, after puzzling over Mark’s case for quite some time, asked him a very odd question…

Doctor: “Mark, have you ever been bitten by a tick?”
Mark: “Excuse me doctor…What?!”
Doctor: “When you were a kid, do you ever remember being bitten by a tick?”
Mark: “Well sure.  I grew up on a farm. You bet I’ve been bitten by a tick!”

With that answer, the doctor’s eyes began to fill up with tears and he had to excuse himself from the room.  Not knowing what was going on, Mark simply had to wait in the examination room for the doctor to compose himself and come back in.

Doctor: “Mark, we’ll need to run some tests.  But I think you have Lyme disease.

Sure enough, the tests came back positive.  The reason the doctor had to excuse himself was that he was overcome with emotion at the realization that Mark had been living with un-diagnosed Lyme disease for MORE THAN 30 YEARS!

I have to confess, I still know very little about Lyme disease.  From the CDC’s website:

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. ….If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system….

(Disclaimer: I am NOT a doctor.  What follows is my understanding based on conversations with Mark and is not meant to reflect actual medical knowledge.)

If caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics.  However, no one really understands the long term effects especially when left un-diagnosed for this long.  Brain scans have shown that not only have Mark’s joints, muscles and heart been under attack, his BRAIN has too.  After studying his brain scans, one neurologist looked quizzically at Mark and said, “I honestly have no idea how you’re even functioning right now!” Let that soak in for a second.  A BRAIN DOCTOR looked at his BRAIN and couldn’t understand how the seemingly normal functioning person sitting in front of him had a brain that looked THAT BAD in his head!

Long story short – as Mark’s joints and muscles were attacked and neurological pathways were broken down, his body would compensate – forging ahead with new pathways and new ways to use muscles and joints in an effort to function.  But these new pathways weren’t always the most ideal or efficient – hence a lot of the joint and muscle pain.

So what lies ahead for Mark is a two-pronged attack.  First, he must fight back the disease and get it into remission.  Simultaneously, he must try to retrain his body both physically and mentally to function correctly again in an effort to undo the damage that has already been done.

I’m doing it so I’ll be able to walk when I’m 80!

Beyond the shock, horror, and heartbreak I feel for my friend, this has actually had a very practical impact on me.

Shortly after I started my self-imposed sabbatical, Mark arrived for a visit with me and my family (I’m pretty sure my son thinks he is the coolest guy on the planet by the way!).  While my wife was at work and my son was at school, Mark and I spent time reviewing his Physical Therapy regiment.  He relayed the story above and informed me how he is basically having to relearn how to properly do everything CORRECTLY that most of us simply take for granted.  Things like WALKING.  

As we reviewed his PT routine, I decided to ask him about how he was always motivated to work out.

Me: “Mark,  as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been in great shape and have worked out a ton. I, on the other hand, have never been able to stick with any kind of work out routine.  What advice or tips can you give me so I can finally stick to a workout routine?”
Mark: “Work out?!  F&*$ working out! I used to be one of those meat-heads always at the gym. It’s pointless and don’t waste your time trying to work out!”

I was understandably taken aback by this response.  But he went on to clarify:

Mark: “Look. The focus should not be on bulking up, or building muscle, or even on losing weight or getting thinner.  The reason why you’ve never stuck to a program is that those motivations come and go and in many cases they aren’t even good for you.  What you, me, and everyone else should be focused on is ‘How do I get my body to continue to function properly and last me another 40, 50, or even 60 years!?’ I’m not doing my physical therapy to look good or stay in shape.  I’m doing it so I’ll be able to WALK when I’m 80!  
But here’s the best part…  If you view exercising NOT as working out in order to accomplish vanity-driven short-term goals, but as PHYSICAL THERAPY to ensure you still have a strong, flexible body deep into old-age, then those short-term goals will take care of themselves!  You’ll still build muscle, you’ll still lose weight and get trim.  You’ll get the best of both worlds!”

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is (in my opinion) EXACTLY what the Slight Edge approach should be to exercising.  Don’t “work out”, focus on your “Physical Therapy” and the long-term, compound effect of ensuring your muscles, joints, and bones all continue working together for the rest of your life.

I don’t work out.  I do Physical Therapy.

It’s been a couple months now since Mark’s visit and that epiphany. And I still don’t work out.  BUT, I do focus on my physical therapy.  I’ve even started calling it “Physical Therapy”.  And still my wife laughs.  But it’s no longer that laugh of “yeah right, like that’ll ever stick.” Now it’s more of a laugh that says”You’re weird.  So you think calling your workout’s ‘physical therapy’ will actually trick you into doing it?”

Yep…I sure do. And check back in when I’m 80.