Becoming fit, staying fit, while staying happy

This is a short narrative about my up-and-down fitness journey, how it has affected my happiness, and how I have tried to manage it.

I was quite the athlete as a kid and as a young man. I swam a lot, played ice hockey until I was 17 and then fenced sabre competitively into my early thirties. In high school, I ran cross-country competitively, while playing soccer, baseball and touch-football for fun.

I never won much at these sports (except for fencing) for a couple of reasons:

  1. I couldn’t devote enough time to really be competitive because I was a serious student and also involved in student clubs.
  2. I just didn’t care enough about competing to drive single-minded devotion to a sport.

To be frank, I have never competed with anyone in any domain: sports, career, money, renown or achievement. I only compete with myself. I rarely broadcast my achievements, other than to inform. I never expect to be celebrated for them. I did them for myself, because I wanted to.

Fitness has always been on my mind.

After spending my youth and early twenties very fit, I let myself go while writing my PhD dissertation and when I became a tenure-track professor at McMaster University. Stress, long hours and fragmented time meant that I wasn’t able to organize my life enough to get fit again.

This bothered me. A lot.

I made a couple of attempts. In 2009, I got super fit during my research leave and then lost it again when I became director of the MCM program, becoming overweight and dropping to poor cardio and strength.

In 2015, when I was working as a consultant in Ottawa on partial leave from McMaster, I sort of got fit again, but then lost it when I took on an incredibly stressful (but very rewarding) role for almost all of 2017.

During the pandemic, I made a concerted effort and got seriously fit and strong. Then I lost it again after working on the 2021 election, which was a depressing affair – so much negativity and hatred.

A month ago, I recommitted to getting fit and strong, but in a sustainable fashion.

I have calendarized a daily regimen of trail-walking, gentle weight-lifting, cardio (treadmill and Oculus Quest) and swimming (if I can get a spot at the municipal pool – it’s so busy!).

I also find that I must use a calorie-counting app like myfitnesspal or else I just eat too much. I am a bit of a vegan epicurean — I love food. So I have to monitor it, closely. Or else I just eat too much. Especially savoury, crunchy stuff like chips (so I have started making my own chips in the microwave).

It’s paying off. I am getting back to my target weight, my strength is improving. I feel better, not eating as much and packing what I do eat with lots of nutrition. I use Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen checklist – he even has a free app for that.

It is amazing:

  • When I’m fit, I’m happy.
  • When I eat well, I’m happy.
  • When I’m strong, I’m happy.

So why is it so hard to stick to the regimen?

I think it is similar to what I was talking about in my blog post on the 7 things that I do to keep writing – it’s all in my head and in my heart. I do well with fitness when I am feeling good.

The advantage is that doing well with fitness makes me feel good. It’s a way to pull myself out of a down moment. So, I have to remember that fitness is not a chore — rather, it’s a remedy, a balm for any malaise I might be going through.

In the end, this has a lot to do with awareness and intention. I find that I have to intentionally say to myself – “I’m going to feel good after I do some gentle weightlifting. I look forward to this!” Rather than saying to myself: “I have to do some lifting.” Positive self-talk works.

I guess this is all part of trying sort out one’s life achieve some order and balance.

I’m trying. Wish me luck.

I wish you all the best, too, on your journey.

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