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 Sesame Chicken 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 I could 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 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 ya!
Endless research speaks to the positive correlation between physical fitness and job performance.
The Harvard Business Review reports, “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.”
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 incredibly demanding. At the end of the school day, we find ourselves mentally and physically exhausted. When we are exhausted, our will power goes away. And when will power goes away, we no longer feel like going to the gym or choosing the healthy dinner option.
As if stress isn't enough, time is also an issue. When the school day ends, many educators have responsibilities beyond the classroom. Many take home work to complete. Some have coaching or supervisory responsibilities to perform. Most have spouses and families to support.
When educators say they are too exhausted or don't have the time to for physical wellness, I get it.
But here's the deal: A life of inactivity and unhealthy diet choices will eventually take its toll. Of all the preventable factors of premature death, lack of exercise and poor diet are the number one cause.
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 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.
Let's set the record straight: I am not a physical fitness expert.
Plenty of others have spent their lives researching this topic. So please do not take what is written in the following pages as gospel. However, after 15 years of studying, testing, and refining my exercise and dieting regimen, I'm excited to share a few principles I've learned.
The following pages contain several several key ideas about physical fitness. These summaries pair personal beliefs with research I've collected from five of my favorite personal wellness books. Those books are as follows:
The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss
Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
Eat Smarter by Shawn Stevenson
Not a Diet Book by James Smith
Thinner This Year by Chris Crowley and Jennifer Sacheck
Keep in mind there are thousands of books on working out, dieting, and everything in-between. Selecting a fitness book at Barnes & Noble is like picking a paint color at Sherwin Williams - completely overwhelming. The reason I chose these books was not only because of their reputation, but also because their focus best matched my physical fitness goals.
Although these books discuss advanced concepts, they house universal truths about fitness and dieting anyone can implement. Similar to the rest of this book, I encourage you to select aspects that best fit your particular situation.
Use it or Lose It: If you get one takeaway from this section let it be the following: Exercise is the single, greatest key to keeping your body from completely falling apart as you get older. Unfortunately, way too many people never embrace an active lifestyle. Around age 32, the default signal in our body flips over to decay. Every year - for the rest of our life - we get weaker, our metabolism slows, and our body becomes less coordinated. As depressing as it sounds, there is nothing we can do to reverse the effects of aging. But what we can do is significantly slow down the aging process ... by staying physically active.
Balanced Diet: A well-balanced diet provides important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to keep the body and mind strong and healthy. Eating well also helps ward off numerous diseases and health complications, as well as help maintain a healthy body weight, provide energy, allow better sleep, and improve brain function. To get the proper nutrition from your diet, consume the majority of your daily calories by eating the following: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins (e.g., chicken, fish, turkey), nuts, and legumes (e.g., beans, peas, peanuts).
Lifting Weights: Any type of physical activity is better than nothing. However, the very best way to lose weight (and look great) is with strength training. Do not get overwhelmed with the thousands of weight lifting programs - simply choose a viable, research-based weight program and stick with it. The beautiful thing about lifting weights (and physical activity in general) is not only are calories burned while working out, calories continue to burn at a high rate after exercise. Furthermore, calories burned post-workout are often those stubborn fat calories that don't seem to go away. Talk about a win-win!
Calorie Deficit: Every time we look, a new fad diet is sweeping the country. Atkins, South Beach, Vegan, Keto, Paleo, Mediterranean - there are too many to choose from! Here is what you need to know: Every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years has concluded if you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. Looking for a place to start? The best formula to use is the aforementioned Harris-Benedict Formula. Simply calculate your target number, eat fewer calories than your number, and start exercising. You're guaranteed to lose weight.
Protein: Not only is protein proven to enhance muscle mass and strength, it also reduces appetite and hunger levels. One of the best things about protein is that around 30% of the calories consumed in protein are broken down purely by digestion - meaning you burn calories faster by eating high protein foods. Some of the best foods for protein are chicken, pork, fish, beef, beans, yogurt, milk, cheese, nuts, and eggs. While opinions vary on how much protein to consume each day, shoot for .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Finally, always eat a high protein snack within an hour of exercise.
Carbs: Carbs have gotten a bad rap for many years. However, to eliminate carbs all together is not a good idea. Your friends or colleagues who lost tremendous weight with a low-carb diet didn't lose it because of the lower carbs; they lost it because they consumed fewer calories. Be careful to eat good carbs like whole grain rice, wheat, oats, vegetables and fruit and avoid bad carbs like cereal, chips, pop, crackers, and pizza. Similar to protein, carb consumption after exercise is found to increase fat burning and triggers improvement in strength and body composition.
Water: There's no hard science on how much water each of us needs, but what we do know is that most people aren't drinking enough. To get an idea of how much water you need each day, aim for drinking .5 ounces of water per pound of body weight. One of the biggest benefits to drinking water is weight loss. Consuming water increases your metabolism through a process called “water induced thermogenesis." By drinking 15 to 20 ounces of water within a couple minutes, you burn around 25 calories. Repeat four times a day and not only have you met your water goal, you've burned an additional 100 calories.
Eating the Same Meals: Rather than sort through the hundreds of thousands of meal plans, zero-in on the meals that work for your diet and eat those same foods consistently. Not only will this take some of the guesswork out of dieting, you’ll be much less likely to accidentally overeat. If the thought of cycling the same meals sounds boring, just give it a try. You might be surprised how easy it is when you're eating foods you like and your body is feeling better. Furthermore, if you examine your current diet, you'll likely discover you're already eating a lot of the same foods regularly.
Cheat Meals: Eating healthy can lead to mental issues around dieting. Therefore, it is important to build in diet breaks. A cheat meal is when you have one opportunity each week to splurge on all your favorite foods. By giving yourself permission to eat pizza, french fries, donuts, cookies, ice cream, and all of your guilty pleasures, you get those cravings out of your system so you can focus on eating healthy for the remainder of the week. Afraid you might "blow" your diet after a single instance of overeating? The most fat you can gain from a cheat meal - no matter how much you eat - is just a few ounces.
My Meal Plan: Do you recall the (very old) SlimFast commercials that said, "A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and a sensible dinner?" Although I don't drink SlimFast shakes, there is a lot of truth to this approach. I try to eat very clean meals for breakfast and lunch. Meals include any combination of fruit, vegetables, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, lean meat, rice, nuts ... as long as I stay under 1200 calories. With a daily goal of 2200 calories, having 1000 left for dinner provides great flexibility. While this is a very quick summary of my eating habits, understand I am always thinking calories in versus calories out.
What Gets Measured: So how do you measure the results of your fitness journey? Most people would say to keep track of weight and body fat. However, both are imperfect because weight fluctuates throughout the day and body fat is hard to accurately measure. Instead, take weekly progress photos to document your improvement. I realize taking workout pics seems conceited, but eventually you'll get used to it. Create a folder of progress photos on your phone. Once you have several months of photos you can quickly swipe through pictures and see your progress. You will find great motivation in seeing your results!
A lot of people unconsciously believe they will get-old-and-die.
Assuming they will get old and die soon after, they don't take personal wellness seriously.
That is a deeply mistaken idea and a dangerous plan for life.
In fact, continued advances in the medical field mean they will probably get-old-and-live.
You can get "let your body go" - if you like - but you are not likely to die.
In fact, you are likely to live in that body for a very long time.
How do you want to live during retirement?
Do you want to spend time with grandchildren, travel with your spouse, and start new hobbies?
Or, do you want to move with a walker, be hooked up to oxygen, and spend most of life in bed?