I've never enjoyed exercise. Or any kind of physical exertion, to be honest. Give me a mental or creative challenge and I can keep blissfully busy for hours, but running on the treadmill or even hiking through the forest has just never been my thing. And while I hardly sit around on my behind all day (with raising and homeschooling my very energetic 9 and 11 year olds, I'll never have that luxury), practically none of the activities I ever chose to fill my days do much to get the heart rate going. Yet, at the same time, I've seen the research. I know that to have the healthy, active future I see for myself, my body needs to get moving - every day. So, I struggle to find the time and motivation to make a change, most days alternating somewhere between self-defeat and outright denial.
The fact is that education is often not enough to change our most deeply ingrained habits. Unless we've deliberately been keeping our heads in the sand, most of us know the kinds of things that will bring us the healthiest, happiest lives: eating more fruits and veggies and less processed foods, burning more calories than we consume, finding productive ways to handle stress, getting enough sleep, taking time to pursue personal hobbies and interests, giving back to our communities, learning something new every once in a while, and - yes - regular, daily exercise. But for most of my adult life, simply knowing these things to be true hasn't done much to stop me from downing that Big Gulp or to get me away from my computer and out to the gym.
It has been a long, hard road to go from the things I want to do (start every morning off with a Dr. Pepper) to the things I know I should do (choosing green tea instead). But every year I can see we are making progress towards where we want to be as a family: almost entirely replacing refined flours with whole grains; substituting added sugar or artificial sweeteners for honey, agave or no sweetener at all; spending less time in front of the TV and more time in the garden; requesting a demotion at work that will mean less stress and more time with the family. Even my husband, who like me is admittedly not the most athletic man in the world, ran his first half-marathon last year and is training for a second one this November. But I just hadn't been able to find the right thing to get me motivated to work out and keep with it for longer than a few months.
But as you've heard me say a million times, often inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. And as has often been the case in my life, this time inspiration came from a book. I've been reading an incredibly fascinating and wonderfully written book by Jonah Lehrer called Imagine: How Creativity Works. I'll go on and on about it another time, but what got me going (quite literally) was the research showing that often our most creative insights come not when we are deeply and intently focused on a problem, but when we are relaxed, day dreaming, taking a hot bath or a leisurely stroll. It is when our minds are at ease and we allow our thoughts to wander that we are most likely to make the creative connections that will lead us to greater insights and break through mental blocks.
Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease - when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain - we're more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we're trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights....It's not until we're being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we're finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along - we just weren't listening.
So, that finally did it for me. Evidently, I value creativity and insight even more than I do my own health. (I learn something new about myself every day.) And every day now I roll out of bed, put on my walking shoes and get outside before I do almost anything else. And you would be surprised what getting out in the fresh air, admiring the beauty around you, having a designated time to yourself to think, daydream and imagine can do for the soul as well as the body.
To be brutally honest, I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life. I've been on medication, gone through therapy, identified negative thought patterns, prayed my heart out and, aside from my art, none of these things have done more to help my state of mind than my walks. Many, many days I jump from the bed to the curb out of complete desperation only to return home with a clear head and more hope than I would have had otherwise.
So there it is. And if I can encourage someone else in their journey toward health (and creative problem-solving), I'll die happy. Ok, so maybe I'm overstating, but I'm also betting there are a lot more people out there like me who could use a little encouragement in their journey, too. And here are a few tips I've picked up along the way for your daily walks, if you can use them.
1. Don't worry about having the right exercise clothes or shoes. I'm sure these are important, but if they stop you from getting out the door today, let it go. Often you'll find me walking in my flip-flops, and I wouldn't put spandex on my body if my life depended on it.
2. If you find your mind cluttered or overly burdened by worries, take some time at the beginning of your walk (maybe 15 minutes or so) to think or pray it through, but then just let it go. Make it your habit to not focus your thoughts on anything in particular but let them wander wherever they happen to go. Focus on your surroundings and let yourself get caught up in the beauty around you. If you think it's not there, look harder.
3. Walk where you live. Go right out your front door. Use the opportunity to get to know your community better. If I lived anywhere but Colorado where people just aren't that friendly, I'd know everyone in my neighborhood by now. But I'm still holding out hope....
4. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.
5. Take your phone with you. These days everyone has a smart phone, right? I use mine to take pictures that I'll to add to my journal, to make notes of the incredibly brilliant insights I have along the way (Don't assume you'll remember them when you get home!) and it makes me feel better to have a means of communication in case of an emergency. But never, ever use your walking time to text or check email. There's plenty of time for that stuff later.
6. Consider taking a small pair of embroidery scissors in your pocket for taking cuttings of plants you see on your walk. I love to try to grow plants from cuttings! And there's nothing better than a windowsill full of plantlings to make doing the dishes a delight. Although I never take clippings from anyone's lawn without asking, I might be caught snipping a tiny piece off a very mature plant from a park or other public property. The day I leave the scissors behind is always the day I run into something unique and beautiful, and I don't want to take any chances damaging the plant without scissors.
7. Be patient. It usually takes me about 15-25 minutes of walking to finally feel that sense of calm come over me, that tells me I am doing something good for myself and it's worth every minute I spend doing it. That's when I feel like I could walk for days. Maybe its the endorphins kicking in, I don't know, but don't stop before you get there. However long it takes. Often, I don't actually feel "better" until I get home and then it hits me. You'll get there, too, just be patient.
8. If I can do it, you can do it. I am the least athletic and least physically motivated person I know. Twelve times a day I fall off my own shoes, for goodness sake, so if I can walk around the block and not hate every minute of it, so can you.