Fit to Practice: 3 tips for guilt-free exercise


Don't let guilt gut your health. Taking time for yourself is the most important, unselfish thing you can do.

For many people, their biggest obstacle to better health isn't sugar or fat or fast food-it's guilt. The feeling of selfishness and self-indulgence that accompany regular exercise can be enough to sabotage the best intentions. I often feel pangs of remorse as I head out the door at dawn leaving a sleeping family behind.

Here are three tips I've used to deal with my feelings and stay focused on the goal of nurturing myself so I can nurture others.

1. Taking care of yourself is one of the most unselfish things you can do. Family, friends, co-workers, veterinary clients, and patients all require your best efforts. If you're run-down, burned out, or just plain tired, you're no good to anyone. That's why taking time to nourish yourself is selfless. Whenever I think I should skip a workout to spend more time with my family, I remind myself that the quality of my interaction is as important, if not more so, than simply the quantity of time we spend together.

Most of my workouts are first thing when I wake up. If I didn't take care of myself this way, I wouldn't have the energy to keep up with my kids and engage in meaningful activities with them. Even better, I'm living an example of a healthy lifestyle I hope they'll share when they're adults. The bottom line is if I want to take care of my family, I'd better darn well take care of myself.

2. It takes a team. I swim, cycle, and run for long periods of time by myself. During races, my family waits hours to catch a glimpse of me as I rush by. On the surface, it appears as though I'm a selfish man, except it's not just about me. It's about my team, my tribe-my family. Every December my wife and I sit down and look at the upcoming year. Part of our annual goal-setting exercise includes what athletic events and races we want to do. Notice I said “we.” If you go as long and hard as I do, you must have a support team that is willing, able, and committed. Without a secure home base, nothing I do would be possible.

We approach each year as a season and balance family, individual, and work objectives that everyone is happy with. As my daughters get older, they're brought into these discussions and provide insight into what they'd like to accomplish in the upcoming year. Whether you want to do a 5k, ascend Mount Everest, or simply drop 20 pounds, get your family involved. Explain what you want to achieve, how you plan on getting there, and ask for help. You'll be surprised and delighted the first time your child asks you how your workout went.

Involve your family, and when you begin to feel guilt creeping into your consciousness, you can beat it back knowing your team wants you to succeed. There are many times I'm out on a tough training session and I want to quit and be with the family. But then I begin to wonder what my daughters and wife will think. Why did Daddy quit? Is Daddy hurt or sick? We teach our children that quitting is a habit and should be used cautiously.

3. It's only 10 percent of your time. The average person has about 112 waking hours per week. If you work 40 to 50 hours, that leaves 60 to 70 hours for the rest of your life. If you exercise five hours a week, that's less than 10 percent of your time. These efforts are an investment in my future. By depositing health and fitness now, I'll be better prepared and able to survive and recover when I'm faced with a health crisis.

I was reminded of how valuable this self-insurance policy is back in 2007 when I was struck with a serious case of appendicitis. Emergency surgery, including cholecystectomy-didn't see that one coming-was performed. Because my body, mind, and spirit were ER-ready, four months after surgery I completed an Ironman triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run).

I'll leave you with one last tip: Alone time means unplugged time. In today's hyper-connected, 24-7 lifecycle, it's rare you get any quiet time. I don't run with my iPhone. I turn off my phone when I bike. Open-water ocean swimming is the ultimate escape. Whatever you do, make a conscious effort to disconnect from the cord at least some of the time every day.

Combine escape with exercise and you've got the perfect recipe for renewal. Don't let guilt gut your health. I'd love to hear the ways you avoid the negative thoughts that threaten to derail your time alone. Take care of yourself so you can care for others.

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