We know good health when we see it. In the natural world, we recognize it in a thriving wetland or in the choicest ripe Creole tomato at the market (or—if we’re lucky—on the vine). In people, we recognize good health in those individuals who shine as examples of living one’s personal best: They stride into our offices or up the sidewalk toward us with energy and vigor; they smile and light up our places of business or worship or play. In short, they are inspiring in their exemplary fitness and in their glowing health.
I see them in the mornings, when I get up early enough to walk or jog in one of the city’s parks before the day’s work begins—those regular walkers and joggers and bicycle riders for whom sunrise exercise has become as automatic as breathing—those champions of health or at least of healthy striving. They wear a variety of expressions. Their pillow-creased brows and sleepy eyes betray grogginess, firmly-pressed lips speak silent volumes on determination and discipline, or wide smiles evince unflappable, bounding glee. But no matter what their morning countenances might reveal, no matter their gender or age or the color of their skin—nor, really, the shape of the skin they’re in—they all share in common one thing: they’re all striving to be their healthiest selves, and they’re doing it because they know their worth and value as human beings. They wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Make eye contact with these early-morning risers, and you’ll see a glint of knowing—that shared, secret language of self-esteem—a look that tells you, “I work hard for health because I’m worth it.”
For the rest of us—those of us who struggle with our motivation and our discipline, who find it hard to follow through on even the most ardent healthy resolutions and intentions—the presence of these earnest exercisers in our lives begs a nagging question. When we find ourselves struggling to keep up our health and fitness routines, and when struggling turns to downright slipping, what is it that sets us apart from them, those for whom healthy and fit are just ordinary ways of being?
I’m going to posit that for many of us, the problem may lie in the fact that we’re trying to change our bodies before we ever truly change our minds. So many of us jump into action before we even bother to consider what we’re doing. We pack our calendars with zealous workout regimens we never stick to. We purchase entire workout wardrobes we never wear and athletic equipment that we never use. We sign up for gym memberships, Pilates packages, and online diet groups without ever stopping to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing, what it all means, and what our desired results are worth to us. And we know where all the misspent effort gets us—right back in too-tight jeans.
Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger extolled, “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he’s aiming for, no wind is the right wind.” If we want to navigate our way to ideal health and fitness without once again getting blown right back off course, we must first carefully consider where we’re headed and why. We must chart our courses with conscious attention and care. In moving towards our healthiest ways of being and in welcoming healthy change, we must first make changes in our minds. Only then will we truly change our bodies and our lives.
Here then, is a step-by-step suggested guide for beginning to change the way our bodies work by first working with our minds. As the younger generation returns to school this season for another year of learning, I’m giving you some grown-up homework of your own.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR BODY BY CHANGING YOUR MIND
1. Think it. Give yourself the following interview. Be honest in your answers. If it helps you, write them down. It may also help you to talk about it with a friend or perhaps with a group of friends with similar concerns. You can have them give you the interview aloud (as you also interview them), so you can hear yourself giving voice to your health and fitness goals.
- What does “health” mean to you? What does “fitness” mean?
- Why do you want to be healthier and more fit?
- What is your health and fitness worth to you?
- What are some specific ways in which you’d like to feel healthier and more fit?
- What obstacles or unfinished business may be holding you back from becoming the healthiest, fittest version of yourself?
- Who or what purpose is served by your not being the healthiest, fittest self you can be? Has holding yourself back from change been serving you in some way?
- Examine your successes with health and fitness efforts in the past. Name a specific instance of success (or several instances). What has motivated you and helped you to succeed then? How did success feel?
- Examine your failures with health and fitness efforts in the past. Now, forgive yourself your past inaction along with all your actions and choices that might not have been the best for your health. Focus on acting and choosing in the healthiest way possible today and from this day forward.
- What important lessons can you learn from your current state of health that you can draw on through the rest of your life?
- How will you be better served by becoming your healthiest self? How will your life be changed for the better?
- Are you ready to experience excellent health and physical fitness? Are you willing to let this new joy into your life?
You must prepare yourself, decide that you are both ready and willing to let positive change happen to you. Make room in your life for a new you.
2. See it. Try this visualization exercize. Reserve a few minutes all by yourself in a comfortable chair, preferably with another empty chair nearby. Settle in and slowly focus on that empty chair until you can see yourself at some point in the future seated there. Don’t close your eyes and imagine this self in your head; see this you in six months, or five years, or ten, and—here’s the most important part—see the healthiest, fittest version of yourself then. Not the you that your current state of not-your-best-health might become, but instead, the healthiest version of yourself you could ever be— you, in the best shape and health imaginable. Sit with that version of yourself and get to know him or her. What does this person look like? How does she carry herself? What kind of energy does he project? What is she wearing? If it’s helpful, write down a detailed description of the person you see. The closer you look, the sooner you two will become one.
3. Feel it. Another day, after you have visualized this new, healthy you and you have started your new fitness drive, take a few moments to sit down again and feel what it’s like to be healthy. Close your eyes this time, take three breaths, and smile deeply as your breathing settles. Now, scan your body, from your head to your feet. What are you doing now that you recently could not do? How are you enjoying this newfound health and fitness? How great are you feeling? How much better will you feel as you continue? Again, if it helps you, write it all down.
4. Know it. Know that once you commit yourself to a new course of action, once you decide the change is already happening, it is as good as done. Know, now, deep inside you that you are healthy, you feel good, and—most of all—know that you are worth it.