When I was on active duty in the Marines, exercise was a way of life and a big part of our jobs. We had “PT,” or physical training at least once or twice a week with the platoon, once every other week with the Company, and about once per quarter with the Battalion. We were also expected to conduct “Personal PT,” or to exercise on our own for another three times a week to stay in peak condition. I have to admit that I rarely did personal PT, and when I did, it was usually not something I enjoyed. As an NCO, I had to conduct PT one-on-one with troops who needed extra help to pass the physical fitness test (PFT) or whose PT standards were slipping, but otherwise, I relied on the resilience of youth to see me through the regular PT sessions we had.
Once I left the Marines, I left behind exercise. It was a conscious rebellion; I wanted nothing to do with exercise ever again. This lasted almost 20 years as evidenced by my refusing to do any form of exercise during my first year in my new healthy lifestyle where I lost 110 lbs. I abstained from exercise not only because I wanted to see how much weight I could lose without any exercise, but because I truly disliked it. The Marine Corps had killed any enjoyment I possibly could have gotten out of exercise. It’s not because the Marine Corps doesn’t do fitness right (it does), but because past boot camp, I was never really fit, and my exercise sessions were filled with soreness and a lot of effort. There was the occasional fun run where we ran as a large group around the base, and we actually enjoyed ourselves, but those were few and far in between for me. As a whole, I didn’t enjoy exercise or fitness.
After leaving the Marines, I thought that exercise was what a person did to counter-act caloric intake or what a person did to get all muscled-up (aka ripped, jacked, swoll, etc). I felt like exercise was a punishment for eating unhealthy or too much food. In other words, every association I had with exercise was negative. That made it hard for me to ever get into a good routine, to make any lasting habits of an exercise routine, or to realize any real benefit from exercise. I did actually try for the sake of improving my fitness and (mistakenly) to try to lose weight, but no plan or routine ever stuck.
After losing 110 lbs, I began to see the need for exercise. I had lost a lot of weight, but I still looked soft. I wanted to look healthy, and I came to realize that the only way to accomplish that goal was to exercise. I actively thought about how I had succeeded with the weight loss and also thought about how I had repeatedly failed to sustain an exercise regimen. I came the the following conclusion: mindset was the key. I was able to stick to my new lifestyle (diet) through a very positive mindset and believing in the process. With exercise, I had always done the exact opposite and the results were exactly the opposite of the results from my diet. A lightbulb went off in my head.
In the Marines, we used to say, “Fake it ’til you make it,” whenever we had to do something we were uncomfortable with. Leading PT for the first time? Act confident even when you aren’t, and eventually, you will be. Need to teach classes to the platoon and you’re nervous about coming off as scared? Pretend to be confident, and eventually, you will be. I decided that I would fake excitement for exercise until it became a reality. I reasoned with myself that if a positive attitude could have such a positive impact on my weight loss and overall health, perhaps it could carry over to my fitness.
Every day, when I awoke, I would start telling myself, “I get to workout today,” or “I get to run today.” I framed it as a gift because I know so many people who want to run or exercise but cannot. As a veteran, I know more than my fair share of men and women who are no longer with us that would likely rather be runnning or working out. I began to think of the many veterans who are physically disabled due to their service who would do anything to have one more run. I began to see myself as fortunate, and my ability to exercise as a gift. Even though I felt it was cringey at first to say, “I get to run today,” a strange thing happened; I began to believe it. The reasons behind the mantra became very real and evident to me, and instead of being an abstract statement, I began to see the faces of the many people I know who can’t run anymore. I began to think about people I knew and missed.
I took it a step further, and sometimes on runs, when things got tough or I felt like it was too hot to be running or that maybe I was too worn out, I would think of someone in particular who was no longer with us, and dedicate my run to them. It was a different person every time, but I felt like they were watching me, and since I dedicated my effort on that run to them, I was not going to let them down. It would lead me to pushing harder and pushing through the barrier.
Now, it’s become second nature to me. Every day that I wake up, I tell myself, “I get to exercise today,” and it makes me smile. At my age, my body still lets me exericse. I am still able to get out there, to lift weights, to do pull-ups, push-ups, and then run 3+ miles without pain afterwards, and that’s truly a gift. It wasn’t something that was given to me or that I inherited; I had to work for it, and in another sense, that’s what makes it truly valuable.
I have a 4 mile ruck (road march) coming up in three weeks, and if it’s like any of the other rucks I’ve done in the past few years, it’ll start with a shuffle, which is a sort of run you do with a 48+ lbs rucksack on your back while wearing a helmet and carrying a rifle. It’s not easy, but you do it to give yourself as much benefit to complete the ruck within the allotted time (under 17 minutes/mile). That sounds slow, but trust me; with all that weight on your back, on your head, and carrying a rifle while in full uniform wearing combat boots, it’s not that easy. But, strangely enough, typically about a mile into each ruck, there’s a moment when it hits me: I get to do this. There are so many people I know who would give anything to be in my boots, doing what I’m doing, discomfort and all. That makes me fortunate. And then it happens: I smile and I pick up the pace and shuffle some more.
Your mindset is the single most important thing as it pertains to your success in health and fitness as it is in any facet of your life. You’ve heard the saying, “You reap what you sow.” The same holds true for attitude. If you believe you’re going to fail, or that you have no chance for succeeding, the likelihood of success is greatly diminished. Sure, overconfidence is also a bad thing, but confidence is not. A positive mindset can never hurt you. Believe that you can do it, trust in the process, harness your motivations, and no matter what, remember that your ability to exercise is a gift that countless others would give anything for. Don’t squander it.