Getting physical

Getting physical

25th November 2019 4 By Andy Burrows

My Allograft 2018/19 – 33. 23 November 2019

By Andy Burrows, 23 November 2019

When is the crowd the loudest?

In endurance races, have you ever noticed when the crowd cheers the athletes on the most?

And personal trainers and sports coaches – when do they give the most encouragement? When do they shout, “you can do it”? When do they berate their athletes for even thinking about stopping?

Not at the beginning. In the long races and exercises, the crowd and the trainers just say, “off you go, give it your best shot!” And then they go quiet and let the athletes get on with it for a while.

But then there are two points at which the attitude changes and the attention comes back:

  1. In the final stretch, whether that’s a final lap or a last 500m, or the last 20 seconds of the longest plank you’ve ever held; and
  2. When the athlete’s head goes down, when it looks like they are so tired they might give up, and when you can see, “I can’t give any more” written all over their face.

I’ve been thinking in terms of athletic analogies recently, and I’ll come back to complete my point on this reflection later.

My new exercise regime

The reason for thinking like this is probably twofold.

Firstly, it’s partly not just an analogy. I have been trying to get back my physical fitness, especially since finally getting past the foggy, weak, shaky, dizzy feelings. So, I’ve been spending time on the exercise bike that someone very kindly bought for me. And I’ve started trying to do some other muscle and stamina building exercises.

Second, I’ve been reading a book by Angela Duckworth, called Grit – Why Passion and Persistence are the secrets to success. I find it interesting that many of the most easily accessible examples of “grit”, determination and perseverance, are athletic. (I haven’t finished reading the book, by the way!)

And those things have generated some thoughts that I hope you will find helpful.

I’ll share those with you in a minute (I like my cliffhangers!)…

But first, I’m sure you’re wondering how the physical exercise is going for me.

Well, put it this way…

I came home from my last hospital stay on 12 October. I started getting on the exercise bike five days later.

I went on it first of all for 11 minutes, travelled a distance (virtually of course) of 2.38km at an average speed of 12.7kph. And I peaked my heart rate at 115bpm. So, you can see that I started carefully.

As I write, it’s 23 November – 6 weeks later. I’ve exercised 23 days out of a possible 38 since 12 October.

My latest stats are: 29 minutes, going a distance of 9.17km at an average speed of 18.8kph. I now tend to get my heart rate up to 150bpm, and I work up a good sweat. I’ve also started doing a few sit ups, press ups and planks.

For those who know about these things – my “resting heart rate” has dropped from around 95bpm to around 70bpm. I think that’s also quite a good sign, isn’t it?

The great thing is also that doing all this means that I now feel fit enough to start joining Heidi again on dog walks without worrying that I’ll hold her back too much. And that was my first goal.

But let me share with you some of my observations from the experience so far.

It’s good to start embarrassingly low while establishing the habit

I’ve learnt that pushing yourself to the point of collapse is not a good thing early on in building new habits. That’s why I started by only doing 11 minutes on the bike.

I know that the point is to increase my physical capacity. I know that I can only do that by stretching myself. But I know it’s something that takes daily persistence to build up. It doesn’t happen straight away. So, I want to increase what I am capable of every day.

But the thing is that if I overdo it early on (and there’s a reason I say, “early on”) I will risk not being able to go again the next day. And that increases the risk of giving up completely.

Sure, I’m making it easy to feel like I’m improving every day. But that has value, because in doing so I establish the habit. I feel more like doing it, because I know that I can improve (because I’m seeing daily improvement). I know that I’ll have a new personal best and I’ll be feeling more progress. And that gives me another big reason to carry on doing it day after day.

Grit author, Angela Duckworth makes the point that “grit” is not just about how long you can stay on the treadmill, but about getting on the treadmill every day.

And this can be applied to more than physical fitness goals. Whether it’s weight-loss, Bible reading, meditation, or whatever. If you want to get into a new habit, start with easy goals and get the good feeling of beating them every day.

But, once your habit is established by starting in your comfort zone, at some point, if you’re constantly aiming to increase or improve, it’s going to start feeling a little difficult, and then perhaps a little painful…

What do you do when it starts getting painful to do the stretch?

If you don’t feel like it, do it anyway!

I’ve noticed two things as my exercise has become more intense (apologies if this is stating the obvious to those who are already athletically inclined!).

Firstly, while you’re increasing the intensity of your workout up to your intended peak, it feels difficult. Your muscles are getting used to what you’re asking of them.

And then after a while it gets easier. But it means carrying on while your body is telling you it wants to stop.

You do have to get through a pain barrier.

Secondly, on more than a handful of occasions I’ve got up in the morning feeling groggy. I’ve wondered whether to get on the bike. Wouldn’t it be better to “listen to my body”? Have a rest day?

But, instead, I’ve ignored the urge to rest. I’ve got on the bike and experienced ten minutes of my body complaining that it shouldn’t be doing this…

… And then gone on to achieve another personal best in one or more of the measures I’m tracking (time, distance, speed)!

But to get to the point of being able to do that, I had to get through the pain barrier.

In addition, I’ve noticed that when you put your mind to it you are capable of way more than you think – and I mean waaaaay more!

In terms of physical exercises, if it’s starting to hurt at 5 minutes, tell yourself to get to 6 minutes. When you get to 6 minutes and it’s hurting more, tell yourself to get to 7, then 7.5, then 8, then 8.5. It’ll hurt, but you’ll get there. You will amaze yourself!

The pain will go away quite soon, and you can feel really pleased with yourself.

But in addition to all that, once you’ve recovered, you’ve stopped sweating, etc, you feel great! On those days when I’ve started off feeling too groggy to exercise, it does me a power of good. It wakes me up for the day and gets me going.

Incremental progress each day accumulates quickly

Another thing is that incremental progress each day accumulates quickly to something that makes you feel really positive.

This comes back to the point I made earlier. Many people don’t start on something because the challenge seems too big. Many people give up early on because they push themselves too hard too early.

Starting carefully, within your comfort zone, and increasing/improving slowly, doesn’t mean that it will take a long time to see good results.

We know intuitively that big goals take a lot of time to reach. But what we don’t appreciate is that if you break that down into consistent daily steps, those steps add up quite quickly.

If you just focus on pushing a little bit forward each day, within a relatively short time you can achieve more than you think.

Remember, in only 6 weeks, I’m doing more than four times as much distance, and spending almost three times as much time, on the exercise bike.

In the past I’ve started doing sit ups. I start with 3 on the first day. When I feel I can do 4, I do 4, or maybe even 5. That may be on the second day, or it may be the fifth. The point is that a month later I could be doing 16 or 18 a day. Another month later I could be doing 35 a day. By that stage I’m feeling like I’m well on the way to forming a “six pack”, even though I may still need to keep pushing further and harder for at least another three or four months.

The most important thing is to get started, and not to worry how pitiful the starting point is.

The other point is not to worry how small the daily improvements are. Just commit to some improvement each day (no matter how small), and to intentionally set out to achieve that improvement (even if you have to break another pain barrier!)

You have to really want the results and believe in what you’re doing

Another thing I was reflecting on was why I have the motivation to go through the pain barrier almost every day. What makes me get on the exercise bike even when I feel groggy? And what makes me push for the next personal best even when the sweat is pouring and my lungs ache?

I came to the conclusion that the motivation to do something when you don’t want to comes, first of all, from really wanting the positive results that you’re aiming at. I really want to get my strength and stamina back, to be able to walk far, and do the physical stuff I used to be able to.

I know that to get to my goal I need to do this step (and the ones after it), and that if I don’t do it today I’ll have to do it tomorrow… and I’ll probably feel equally rough tomorrow, so I may as well do this step today!

If you don’t really care about the goal, the result, then why would you put in the effort and go through the necessary pain?

So, your motivation to do the difficult daily steps will be proportional to the amount you really desire what’s at the end.

But, it’s more than that. You also have to really believe that those results will come as a natural consequence of the effort you’re putting in. And you have to know that persistence is essential.

This is why it’s important to see some early progress, because that proves that if you keep doing what you’re doing then you will keep seeing progress.

Again, this is why a lot of people give up on weight loss diets. They can’t get past the hunger pains of the first few days, because there is no benefit yet showing on the scales that says that it’s been worth it. And therefore, how can it be worth more of the same pain?

So, again, I’d go back to starting carefully and slowly. Don’t have too much pain in the beginning. Not until you’ve seen some progress that proves you’ll keep moving in the right direction if you continue.

It’s almost like you have to get very intentional and analytical about the relationship between pain and progress.

And it’s almost like you don’t get progress without pain…

… Which means that you have to seek pain in order to make progress.

Now, this is getting very philosophically deep very quickly!

Most people who go through painful, hard, challenges, like my own – cancer, unemployment, etc – will say that they led, almost accidentally, to blessings they could not have anticipated.

People who show enough grit (in Angela Duckworth’s terms), passion, determination and perseverance, to be successful, will acknowledge that going through the pain barrier was part of the journey.

People who want to make progress towards something they really want will actually seek out pain in order to stretch their capabilities and give them the progress they desire.

So, why do we hear so much embarrassment and complaining about a worldview where God purposes pain? Why is it thought to be impossible that God could have loving, positive, motives in our pain?

Pain is not the problem that people make it out to be.

That’s why – and you may think I’m weird for this – I’ve started saying to myself, when the exercise starts hurting, “pain is my friend!”

Just remind me to say that when I have to have another cannula inserted, or another bone marrow biopsy!

Other people cheering makes a difference

But I wanted to end on this point, going back to where I began. Crowds of sports fans and athletic trainers give their best encouragement towards the end of an endurance race, or when the athlete is hitting the pain barrier.

It made me laugh a little bit when my eldest son told me how he helped his younger brother in a gym session once. Younger brother was trying to do a certain amount of time on something. Older brother was holding the stopwatch… and lying to him about the amount of time he’d done when he got to the pain barrier!

“Just another minute to go… 30 seconds… 20… 10…!” He’d already achieved his goal three minutes earlier!

But if he’d been doing the gym session on his own, he would have never pushed himself to that point!

Not only does this back up my earlier point that we are capable of way more than we give ourselves credit for.

It also shows that having people cheering us on really does make a difference.

And that thought is a challenge to my independent way of thinking.

I’m not thinking now of me on my exercise bike. I’m thinking of me in my fourth cancer journey, which is so much longer and more draining than anything I’ve ever done.

When do I need people cheering me on the most? When am I most likely to feel the worst?

Right now! Sixteen months into the journey, and the final stretch (if there even is one) is still ahead, and sometimes I have to grit my teeth to tell myself that one more step will be worthwhile progress.

The irony with a cancer battle is that there is a lot of encouragement around at the start. When it goes on this long, though…

What I’m saying is, thank you for continuing to follow my story even though it’s been going on a long time. Just my website stats show that people still care.

Thank you if you’re one of those who writes encouraging comments on the blog or on Facebook, or who sends us emails, text messages and cards. Even if it is to just let us know you’re thinking of us, it makes a difference. It really does.

I need you to stick with me!