Growing up, I was taught there are two aspects to physical fitness: regular exercise and a healthy diet.
I was fortunate to have parents who reinforced this learning at home. They ensured I was active in sports year-round and did a solid job promoting and modeling sound eating habits.
Upon graduating from high school and moving to college I discovered exercise and diet were suddenly optional. For the first time in my life, I had complete control over what I did with my time and what foods I ate. This freedom felt awesome! I replaced working out with going out and fruits and vegetables with General Tso's and Papa Johns.
The end result? I went from an in-shape, 180-pound high school senior to an out of shape, 220-pound college senior.
Immediately following college graduation, I saw a few pictures of myself shirtless at the pool. I did a double-take upon seeing the prints (recall this was before everyone had digital cameras). I didn’t recognize myself! Embarrassed, I quickly put the photos aside.
Over the next several weeks I couldn’t shake the thought of those pool pictures. “Do I really look like that?” I couldn’t believe the unsightly change my body had undergone over the past four years.
Those pictures were a turning point in my life. Fed up with four years of unhealthy decisions, I committed to living a healthier life. This started with daily exercise. The combination of lifting weights, playing tennis, and long-distance running resulted in favorable outcomes. My body looked healthier and I felt better which led to increased self-confidence and motivation.
Dieting was a little slower to come around. While I was making gains with exercise, my progress eventually reached a plateau. Some of the stubborn college weight (especially in my mid-section) wouldn't go away. I realized while I was doing well with exercise, I was neglecting the second aspect of physical fitness - a healthy diet.
I started reading everything about healthy eating and asked advice from others who were familiar with nutrition and meal planning. Eventually I stumbled upon the idea of a calorie deficit which states it's impossible to lose weight if you eat more calories than you burn (more on this later).
Armed with this new information, I began a calorie deficit diet. Using the Harris-Benedict Formula, I calculated the number of calories burned each day. Once I knew this number, I kept track of my calories making sure not to go over my daily limit.
The progress was incredible. In a few short months the combination of daily workouts and a calorie deficit diet brought me all the way back to my high school weight of 180 pounds! Not only did I like the way I looked, my energy and self-confidence were at all-time highs.
Welcome back physical fitness - I hardly knew you!
Endless research speaks to the positive correlation between physical fitness and job performance.
In terms of exercise and job performance, the Harvard Business Review reports, “Studies indicate that our mental firepower is directly linked to our physical regimen. And nowhere are the implications more relevant than to our performance at work. Cognitive benefits are as follows: Improved concentration, sharper memory, safer learning, prolonged mental stamina, Enhanced creativity, and Lower stress.”
As for the connection between a healthy diet and job performance, according to the Chartered Management Institute, “Eating well can have a profound effect on our productivity in the workplace. The advantages of eating well are increased energy and alertness, a healthy immune system which reduces absenteeism, improved sleep which leads to greater concentration, and improved mental health.”
Given the connection between physical fitness and job performance, why do so many educators neglect exercise and healthy dieting?
One word comes to mind: Stress
According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of teachers report experiencing "high, daily stress.” Furthermore, according to the National Institute of Stress 40% of teachers indicate they have no time for leisure activity.
Without question, education is an incredibly challenging and demanding job. At the end of the school day we find ourselves mentally and physically drained. When we are exhausted, our will power goes away. And when will power is depleted we no longer feel like going to the gym or choosing the healthy dinner option.
I will always remember the extreme fatigue I felt while student teaching. Although two-a-day high school football practices were tough, this level of tired was on a whole new level. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was come Friday evening. Whereas my friends were all going to the bars, I chose to stay home and watch TV or sleep. Keep in mind I was 21 years old!
As if stress isn't enough, time is also an issue. When the school day ends, many educators have responsibilities beyond the classroom. Most teachers take work home to complete during the evening. Others have coaching or supervisory responsibilities throughout the week. Beyond work, many educators have kids and families to care for when returning home.
When educators say they are too exhausted or don't have the time for physical fitness, I get it.
But here's the deal: A life of inactivity and unhealthy diet choices will eventually catch up with you. Of all of the preventable factors causing premature mortality, lack of exercise and poor diet are the number one cause of death.
You can run but you can't hide. (Although running would be a good start...)
Many educators can't wait for retirement. They have a twinkle in their eye as they discuss all of the wonderful things they plan on doing in their free time. Spending time with grandchildren, traveling with spouses, and starting new hobbies are all common goals for life's encore.
However, the sad reality is many educators retire from the profession exhausted, broken down, and sick. While pouring their heart and soul into helping students, employees often ignore helping themselves.
In a selfless profession, self-care is often neglected.
Many schools realize this dilemma. As a result, district leaders are making efforts to teach their staff about work-life balance. Many districts have started employee wellness programs, while others have fostered partnerships with local gyms.
In our district we often remind staff members happy teachers equal happy kids. To promote this mindset, we offer special employee discounts at a community gym, provide staff wellbeing seminars, give away free vacation time to employees, and encourage employees to use personal time as "mental health" days.
I model a healthy lifestyle to our staff by making exercise and dieting a personal priority. As a building administrator and now a district superintendent I have always prioritized working out. Often, I will go for runs outdoors, utilize the high school weight room, or workout at the local gym. By modeling that it's ok to take a break from work and take care of yourself, my hope is others feel empowered to take similar steps.
Around age thirty-two, the default signal in your body flips from regeneration to decay.
Every year - for the rest of your life - your muscles weaken, you lose coordination, and you become more prone to sickness and injury.
You have two options:
Let your body rot ... or do something about it.