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 today!” Monterio complained after finishing an underwhelming set of bench press.
“I hear you,” I responded after finishing my own lackluster set. “My neck has been stiff all day!”
“You know our bodies fall apart at 26,” my 24-year-old lifting partner suggested as he started to re-rack 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 in 2013. AKA “two old men”
Those were not the words I wanted to hear. As someone who found motivation in 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!”
Shoulder 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 healthy dieting. New ideas turned into mini-experiments to see what worked for me. 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 create filters for 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.
This 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, physical fitness is much more than simply "looking good."
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, Americans turn to medication as the answer to their health issues. Americans spend nearly $200 billion dollars annually on obesity-related mediation, which translates to overweight couples paying nearly $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 what to eat."
While adding exercise and dieting into an already-busy day may sound exhausting, that’s looking at it backwards. We are not tired at the end of the day 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, productivity gains at work drastically outweigh any time that is “lost” when working hours are reduced to make time for exercise or eating lunch.
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, nearly 15% of educators skip lunch due to work demands. Another study suggests that nearly 50% of teachers report eating lunch while supervising students.
School leaders also experience the lunch dilemma. Those who take lunch are often viewed as selfish or greedy. "You actually have time for lunch?" school leaders question when hearing a peer has the audacity to take a food break. This "I'm-not-doing-my-job-if-I-take-lunch" mentality results in many school administrators skipping lunch. And for those who do eat, many do so while supervising the cafeteria or checking emails.
Similar to the way educators treat lunch, taking time to work out is often looked down on in our profession. Despite recent advancements in promoting healthy lifestyles, schools still house a harmful undercurrent that frowns upon 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 I work out every morning from 6:45am - 7:30am, I often get confused looks and backhanded compliments. "Man, I wish I could exercise at that time," some leaders will say. "But I need to be at work. There's just waaay too much to do."
Similar to how society normalizes sedentary behavior and encourages weight gain, so does the unspoken culture in the educational workplace.
At this point, some readers may be 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. Don't believe me? Just ask my first-year teacher crush who said it looked like I had a “tire wrapped around my stomach” (another story for another time).
Furthermore, in my mid- and upper-twenties, I developed severe issues with anxiety and 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 a disease 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).
Earlier I mentioned my healthy lifestyle philosophy - a set of principles that guide my everyday decisions. These principles are the result of continuous research, experimentation, and refinement to see what works in my individual situation.
In Learning Curve I laid out ten research-based principles to help readers meet their fitness and diet goals. In the paragraphs below, I revisit these concepts, while also highlighting other ideas to consider. Please understand that we all have different bodies and physical fitness goals. While I believe many of these ideas are universal, what works for me may not necessarily work for you.
Less is More: Exercise is the single, greatest key to keeping your body from completely falling apart as you get older. 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 30-45 minutes per day is all you need to be in great shape - just enough time for the busiest of school leaders.
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. But what does matter is that your heart-rate is raised for a sustained period of time. My typical workout is 20 minutes of cardio (usually a treadmill, elliptical, or stair-stepper) and 20 minutes of lifting weights or doing body strength exercises. 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.
Feel the Burn: Why is heart rate so 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. So not only do active people reap the many benefits of exercise, they also get the added bonus of losing 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 ... but is key to getting the six-pack abs you've always dreamt of.
Walk: I used to hate on walking. "Walking is for my grandma!" I thought to myself as I hopped on the treadmill and cranked it up to 9.0 MPH. However - over time - I have grown to love walking. Not only is walking 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 productive - and enjoyable - 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 get in shape. 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, I use the Harris-Benedict equation to determine my target daily calorie count to meet my fitness goals.
Avoid Grazing: Teachers lounges and school offices are notorious for being stocked with goodies. From baked goods to potluck leftovers, less-than-desirable 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 this happens every other day, that's an extra 36,000 extra calories per year. Given that a pound of fat is roughly 3,500 calories, this totals 10 extra pounds of fat. Sheeeesh (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 was on 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 smashed a supreme pizza 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. You can eat almost anything once in a while and get away with it. What you cannot do is eat bad stuff all the time. Whereas many people worry they've "blown" their diets after a single instance of overeating, the most long-term weight you can gain from a single cheat meal is only a few ounces.
Measure Progress: Before cell phone cameras, I relied on the scale as the sole indicator of my progress. However, there are several factors - such as daily weight fluctuations - that complicate scale measurements. So once selfies became an acceptable "thing" in the early 2010's, I now believe progress photos are ideal for measuring progress. I know ... taking underwear pics in the mirror when you are in your 40's, 50's, and 60's seems a little conceited. But it's a great way to measure progress. People who get in a habit of taking weekly photos find great motivation in seeing their progress.
Give it Time: We live in the Age of Impatience. People want four-hour workweeks, six-minute abs, and 30-second meals. I hate to break it to you, but don't believe those IG fitness models who claim you 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 start to notice. But once you start hearing "you have really slimmed down" or "wow, you look amazing" you will discover enormous motivation by hearing these compliments.
Beautiful things happen when you commit to a fit lifestyle and refuse to let your body decay.
Just imagine living a few extra decades - and staying ultra-healthy as you do so.
Whereas others will be forced to live in homes and lay in beds due to their sedentary lifestyles, you have bought yourself thirty more years to travel with your spouse, spend time with your grandchildren, and complete your lifelong dreams.
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.