One day in 2013, my buddy Monterio and I were lifting weights at the gym.
During this particular workout, Monterio and I had low energy and weren’t lifting as much as usual. So - like normal guys - we blamed the poor showing on “getting old.”
“Man, my back is sore!” Monterio complained after finishing an underwhelming set of bench press.
“I hear you,” I responded after completing my own lackluster set. “My body has been stiff all day!”
“You know our bodies fall apart at 26,” my 24-year-old lifting partner suggested as he re-racked the weights.
“What!? I just turned 31!” I replied. "That means I’m waaaay past my prime?”
“Yeah bro. It’s all downhill from here.”
Monterio and I "up in da club" in 2013.
Those were not the words I wanted to hear. As someone who found motivation by being "fit," I didn’t like that my biological clock was already ticking and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
For the next few years, every time my body had a minor setback, I remembered Monterio's ominous words.
Knee hurting after a run? “There you go - old age!”
Legs stiff from sitting all day? “I’m turning into my dad!”
Neck sore from sleeping wrong? “You’re falling apart!”
Despite these minor setbacks, I stayed focused on living healthy. Beyond lifting weights, I continued to soak up information about physical activity and clean dieting. New ideas turned into mini-experiments to see what worked. While some ideas were quickly discarded, other suggestions produced positive results. The concepts that stuck around would turn into my healthy lifestyle philosophy - a set of principles that guide my everyday decisions.
I recently turned the big 4-0. While I’m not happy about the increase in white hairs and unflattering wrinkles (can we please start filtering school pictures?), I'm happy to share that my friend’s prediction of my physical downfall was overblown. Not only does my body feel great, I would argue that my physique is as good as ever.
My experience has led to the following realization:
Body aging is inevitable.
Body decay is optional.
Today we find ourselves facing an unprecedented healthcare crisis.
Despite living in a world with more exercise programs, weight-loss products, and dieting options than ever before, more than two-thirds of all Americans are obese. As society continues to normalize sedentary behavior and promote unhealthy eating, we live in a culture that encourages weight gain.
To be clear, there's much more to physical fitness than looking good in a swimsuit.
Consider that 70 percent of premature deaths - heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and other illnesses - are caused by factors within our control. But rather than address the root cause of these concerns with exercise and dieting, most adults turn to medication as the solution to their health issues. Americans spend nearly $200 billion dollars annually on obesity-related mediation, which translates to overweight couples paying almost $4,000 more in healthcare costs per year as compared to their normal-weight peers.
“What you're saying makes sense," you may be thinking. "But at the end of the day, I'm just too exhausted to work out or worry about my diet."
While adding exercise and dieting to an already-busy day may sound exhausting, that’s looking at it backwards. We are not tired because we exercise too much ... we are tired because we don't exercise enough. Countless studies have shown that regular exercise and healthy eating increases energy and reduces fatigue. In fact, any work time that is "lost" due to working out or eating a healthy lunch is more than compensated for thanks to an increase in workplace productivity.
Unfortunately, unwritten "rules" in the educational workplace do us no favors. Consider the way educators treat lunch. In many school districts, uninterrupted lunch breaks are abnormal. Rather than take 30 minutes to recharge their batteries, studies suggest approximately 50% of teachers are expected to supervise students while eating lunch. Furthermore, nearly 20% of educators skip lunch altogether.
School leaders also experience the lunch break dilemma. Administrators who take a lunch are often viewed as selfish or lazy. "You're taking ... a lunch break?" teammates question, as if their colleague is committing an unspeakable crime. This "I'm-not-doing-my-job-if-I-take-a-lunch" mentality results in many school leaders skipping lunch out of guilt. And for those who do eat, many do so while supervising the cafeteria or checking email.
Besides eating lunch, working out is often looked down upon in our profession. Despite recent advancements in promoting healthy lifestyles, schools still house a harmful undercurrent that discourages making time for self-care. "How do you have time to work out?" teammates question the "fit" teacher on the team, as if she is not committed to her job. "Between grading and planning, I don't have any extra time."
The same goes for school leaders. When telling others that I work out every morning from 6:45am - 7:30am, I often get confused looks and backhanded compliments: "Man, I wish I had time to exercise," some leaders will say. "But I need to be at work. My people expect me to be there."
Similar to how society encourages weight gain and normalizes sedentary behavior, so too does the unspoken culture in the educational workplace.
At this point, some readers are rolling their eyes.
“You’ve obviously been in great shape your whole life. You don’t know what I’m going through.”
Those who read Learning Curve understand that I have experienced my fair share of physical and emotional ailments.
As a college student, I went from an in-shape, 180-pound high school senior to an out-of-shape, 220-pound college senior. Thanks to late-night Papa John's and all-you-can-drink jungle juice (is this still a thing?), I was headed down the wrong path.
Furthermore, as was previously discussed (see page …), in my mid-twenties I developed severe anxiety issues related to panic attacks. Not understanding what was happening and too embarrassed to say anything, I lived with these symptoms for years without telling anyone or going to a doctor for help.
Finally, in my thirties I developed ulcerative colitis. Similar to Crohn's disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases, ulcerative colitis is an ailment that impacts one percent of Americans and causes inflammation and sores - called ulcers - in the lining of the rectum and colon.
With each setback, I had every reason to fall off the wagon and let my body "go." But thanks to understanding the long-term implications of healthy living, I overcame these bumps in the road.
“Oh, cry me a river! Please don't try to convince me to diet or exercise. I'm doing just fine. Plus, my wife says she likes my dad bod."
Unfortunately, this is the mindset that plagues many adults. In our 30's, 40's, and 50's, the sedentary lifestyle may not result in noticeable side effects. But in the long run, very few people can overcome a lifetime of inactivity. Consider this quote from Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge:
“A lot of people unconsciously assume that they will get old and die: one phase, and certainly one seamless concept. That when they get old, they will die soon after. That is a deeply mistaken idea and a dangerous plan for your life. In fact, you will probably get old and live. You can get decrepit, but you are not likely to die; you are likely to live like that for a long, long time.”
Me in 2018 (off the wagon) vs. Me in 2022 (on the wagon).
Below are ten principles that outline my healthy lifestyle philosophy. Please understand that we all have different bodies and physical fitness goals. While many of these ideas have universal application, you will want to experiment to find the combination of ideas that work best for you.
Less is More: Understand that exercise is the single, greatest key to keeping your body from completely falling apart. But how much time is needed? When I was younger, I used to think anything less than a 60-minute workout was a waste. However, I discovered that spending hours at the gym led to frequent injuries and lingering soreness. Not good when you're in your 20's! Now I believe that 30 to 45 minutes per day is all you need to be in great shape.
Workout Plan: There are thousands of ideas on what makes the "ideal" workout. Whether you go for a hike at a nearby park - or attend a spin class at your local gym - doesn't necessarily matter. What does matter is that your heart-rate is elevated for a sustained period of time. My typical workout is 20 minutes of cardio and 20 minutes of lifting weights. My lifting is normally done using supersets - performing multiple exercises back-to-back with short rests in between ... perfect for keeping the heart rate going. More on this in the following chapter.
Feel the Burn: Raising your heart rate is important because high-intensity workouts lead to significant caloric burn throughout the rest of the day. Known as the afterburn effect, research shows that vigorous exercise increases metabolism and burns calories for up to 24 hours … meaning people who exercise actually lose weight during the day. Want better news? The calories shed during afterburn are often those stubborn fat calories in our midsections (men) and butt/thighs (women). Talk about a win-win!
Engage Your Core: Your body's core is made up of your lower back to your abs and everything in between. Because they are at the center of every movement, we must keep these muscles strong and limber. Engaging your core - squeezing your core muscles into a tightened position while still breathing normally - is one of the most underrated practices for an optimal workout. While remembering to "flex" your core while exercising can be difficult, forming this habit not only limits nagging back injuries, it is the secret sauce for getting six-pack abs.
Walk: I used to hate walking. "Walking is for my grandma!" I thought while hopping on the treadmill and cranking it up to 9.0 MPH. However - over time – my thinking has changed. Not only is it easy on your joints, walking is a great way to promote creative thought; some of my best ideas have come while walking. While it's not going to burn calories like running or other high-intensity cardio, many great thinkers and leaders have found walking to be their most enjoyable - and productive - daily routine.
Calories: When I was younger, I tried many "fad diets." From Atkins (severely limiting carbohydrate intake) to Slow Carb (choosing from a limited list of foods) to the Egg Diet (my personal creation - would not recommend), I've tried everything to drop weight and lose fat. However, I've since learned that every controlled weight loss study has essentially concluded the following: if you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. Understanding this simple rule and focusing on a target daily calorie count has helped me meet my fitness goals. More on this in the following chapter.
Avoid Grazing: Teachers lounges and school offices are notorious for being stocked with goodies. From baked goods to potluck leftovers, unhealthy food is always available. While limiting snacks - a cookie here and a handful of chips there - is a great start, understand that calories add up over time. Say you grab a small snack (200 calories worth) each day. In isolation, these calories are negligible. But when snacking happens every other day, that's an extra 36,000 calories per year. Given that a pound of fat is roughly 3,500 calories, this totals 10 extra pounds of fat. Sheeeesh (said in a high-pitched voice, obviously).
Scenes like these are found in teachers' lounges all across the country.
Be Careful: In my late 20's, I followed a super-strict diet where I ate "clean" all the time. However, one night I was going crazy thinking about food so I went to Little Caesars and crushed a supreme deep dish and an order of Crazy Bread. An hour later, I felt so bad about “all the weight I gained" that I went for a 60-minute run. Warning: Trying to have a perfect diet at all times is a ticket to the mental ward. Whereas you should avoid eating bad stuff all the time, you can certainly let loose every so often and be fine. In fact, research shows that the most long-term weight gained from a single cheat meal is only a few ounces.
Measure Progress: Before cell phone cameras, I relied on the scale to track my body composition progress. However, several factors – such as daily weight fluctuations and scale inaccuracies - complicated those measurements. Now I believe that mirror selfies (yes, you read that right) are best for measuring progress. I know ... taking underwear pics of yourself when you are in your 40's, 50's, and 60's seems a little childish. However, I've found that flipping through several months’ worth of progress photos provides me with the motivation to continue my fitness journey.
Give it Time: We live in the Age of Impatience. People want twenty-hour workweeks, six-minute abs, and thirty-second meals. I hate to break it to you, but don't believe those IG fitness models who claim you can get Hugh Jackman's arms or Carrie Underwood's legs in a week. Transforming your body is extremely rewarding, but it’s a slow process. Trade the dream of overnight success for slow, measured growth. It's going to be a grind before people take notice. But once you start hearing “wow, you look amazing” and “geez, you have really slimmed down” you will realize the hard work is paying off.
Beautiful things happen when you commit to a healthy lifestyle and refuse to let your body decay.
Just imagine living a few extra decades - and staying ultra-fit as well.
Whereas others are confined to assisted living beds due to a lifetime of sedentary behavior, you will be traveling with your spouse, spending time with grandchildren, and living your best life.
If you liked this article, you'll love my book Learning Curve!
Learning Curve is 360 pages and PACKED with useful ideas on leadership, education, and personal growth.