Happy February ya’ll. I’m going to write a short series to help us get fired up about all the benefits of an active lifestyle. Maybe some of you made new year’s resolutions and are getting a little discouraged, so hopefully these posts will help get you pumped up again on all the reasons it’s so worth it to lace up those shoes and get busy when you really feel like curling up into a ball on the couch and opening a jar of cookie butter. Let’s be honest, most people start working out to look a certain way. All the Pinterest propaganda out there tells you that if you work out enough you will have this perfect, supermodel skinny body in no time. Lies I tell you. It’s all lies. And it sets women up for a lot of frustration and disappointment when our bodies start looking more like an athlete’s than a supermodel’s, or we don’t see much change at all. Some other nonsense reasons I see on Pinterest motivation boards are to get back at “all the haters” (is that really a thing?), make your ex wish he never broke up with you, or to be able to look in the mirror every day and tell yourself how (insert expletive) sexy you look. Honestly, is that the best we can do?
Before I get into today’s subject, let’s knock out the first, most obvious, and arguably the most important reason to workout. Lest we forget, our body is where we have to life, and fitness will help us live a longer and much higher quality of life. Let me tell you, spending the last couple decades of your life in and out of the hospital, only to die in an ICU hooked up to a bunch of machines isn’t an existence I would wish upon my worst enemy, yet it is a reality for many people. We would all do well to remember that the choices we are making now directly affect our quality and length of life in the future. To me, there’s really no good reason not to care for your body. That’s just short-sighted and lazy. But besides the obvious, health and weight loss, let’s talk about what else we get out of living an active life.
Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite off-label benefits of working out. I work in an emergency room and my husband is helicopter pilot and a firefighter, so the subject of mental toughness and being able to make difficult decisions in very high-stress environments is a popular one in our house. And it turns out that exercise makes you more likely to survive a disaster and helps you function in life-or-death situations. It may seem bizarre to some of you that I’m making the jump from exercise to survival, but as emergency workers, we witness the aftermath of deadly accidents and disasters on a regular basis. I know not all of you are adrenaline junkies and risk-takers, so it may not be likely that you will get lost in the woods or end up stranded at sea or at the bottom of an icy crevice any time soon, but you never know what the future hold. Tomorrow I could drive my car off the road and end up hundreds of feet down the side of a mountain, injured, with a busted cell phone and no way to get help. We could have a 9/11-scale disaster in our area. A tsunami could hit Hawaii next week. “People will quite simply ignore the possibility that a particular disaster will ever strike them,” (–John Leach). But seriously, what would you do if you were driving to work and witnessed a horrific accident and someone needed your immediate help? Or someone walked into the bank and held you up at gunpoint? What if the plane you were on crashed into the mountians? What if you had to outrun an attacker? I know it’s not fun to think about, but hang in there, there’s some encouragement coming…
“It’s easy to demonstrate that many people (estimates run as high at 90 percent), when put under stress, are unable to think clearly or solve simple problems. They get rattled. They panic. They freeze”. In his book Deep Survival Laurence Gonzales makes the point that, “Sports are survival training in that they teach strength, agility, strategy, and the endurance of pain,” (Laurence Gonzales). Stress and pain inoculation can help prepare us for the critical situations in life where we may have to act fast in the face of incredible danger and stress. Strenuous exercise teaches us to endure and survive despite feeling pain, exhaustion, and emotional collapse. Every time you push your body to a very uncomfortable level and you persist despite it, you are teaching your mind and body to keep going; to ignore the voice that’s saying, “this hurts,” “I’m tired. I can’t do it.” Gonzales says, “(Good survivors) are used to caring for themselves and facing the inherent hazards of life. So when something big happens, when they are in deep trouble, it is just more of the same, and they proceed in more or less the same way: They endure.”
Recently, a firefighter we know was in a horrible on-duty accident. During a seemingly routine rescue, he was electrocuted and fell thirty feet. Most who saw it thought he was dead. But he is a fit, strong guy. He is a competitive paddle-boarder and prior to becoming a firefighter he held records in physical fitness tests as a lifeguard. He was no stranger to pain and endurance. He suffered bad injuries, but he recovered faster than anyone expected him to. The fact that he is alive at all is probably in part due to the fact that he was in great shape, both physically and mentally. He had essentially inoculated himself to stress and pain at lower levels, and was able to endure the pain and stress of recovering from horrible injuries.
Gonzales gives the examples, “As a bike racer, Armstrong had had long training in enduring pain, even learning to love it. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent eight years in the Hanoi Hilton, as his prison camp was known, advised those who would learn to survive: ‘One should include a course of familiarization with pain. You have to practice hurting. There is no question about it.’” Coasting through life without ever pushing ourselves sets us up to be blindsided if we ever end up in a true survival situation. You may have started this whole fitness thing to lose five pounds, but what you are actually practicing could eventually help save your life. The next time you are halfway through a workout and you feel like you are going to die, keep going. When you want to throw up, lie down, or grab a beer, endure. When you want to chuck the weights and call it a day, persevere. What you do under low levels of stress and discomfort is a foreshadowing of how you will respond in the face of overwhelming pain and stress. Maybe it won’t be in the wilderness with no food; maybe it will be in the face of sudden, overwhelming loss or hurt. Create good habits, good pathways. You “default to your training”. When all hell breaks loose and you can’t think straight, you will do what you’ve done in the past. So what are you practicing? Do you give up? Don’t ever practice giving up. If you fail, do it again. Always end on a good note. Always finish. Always endure. Because if you do it in practice, you’ll do it in the game, which matters when the game is a matter of life or death.
Britt is an ER nurse on Oahu. She loves to workout, hike, and above all enjoys being challenged by the surf that the North Shore has to offer. She's always down for a new adventure and loves to travel.