The Gym and Me
My wife and I joined a gym last month, and since we paid in advance, and since I get 5 points every time I check in, I've been going a lot to get my money's worth.
My favorite part of the gym is not:
- the line of treadmills directly in front of a bunch of televisions, most of them playing Love It or List It
- the “yoga room” complete with a Marshall stack that probably produces fewer decibels than the wall of sound deployed at one of Motorhead's 2008 “Deaf Forever” concerts
- the men's locker room where unclaimed dirty shorts, underwear, socks, and flip-flops go to die
No, what I love about the gym is the water area: pool, whirlpool, and steam room.
I am Not a Fish
Since the whirlpool and steam room involve no swimming, they have been my wet activities of choice. You see, I've always thought of myself as a non-swimmer.
It started in summer camp when I was eight or nine, and I couldn't go underwater without swallowing gallons through my nose. Rather than teach me to blow out when submerging, the adults in my life took me to a doctor who diagnosed swimmer's ear and prescribed nose plugs.
I'm out of touch with today's youth culture, so I have no idea if nose plugs have become hip. But in the early 1970s, they were decidedly NOT. And by extension, neither was the wearer.
I tried to avoid swimming pools, lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans whenever possible. At camp, where swim lessons were required (perhaps as a nod to Talmud tractate Kiddushin 29a, which states that “there are those who believe that a father's duty to his son includes teaching him to swim”), I reliably tested into Advanced Beginners, which was tolerable when I was 10, but far less so when I was 16 and all the other kids in that group were still 10.
So here I am, a grown-ass man, walking past the gym swimming pool every day so that I luxuriate in the whirlpool and steam room. And the pool mocks me, so loudly that I'm amazed nobody else can hear: “Howie, you still can't swim for shit, huh?”
Getting in the Pool
I know that the crawl stroke has something to do with moving one's arms and legs, and trying not to inhale the entire pool when one sticks one's face in the water. Basically, it's a magic trick, one that has eluded me my entire life.
I try to do it, and end up halfway down the lane of the 25-yard lap pool, gasping for air, grateful that the depth is only three feet and I can recover without needing rescue.
This spectacle was happening on Monday, a couple of days ago, when my wife Mia entered the pool area and silently watched me. Upon calculating that she would not in fact have to jump in and save me, she opted instead for a suggestion:
“Why don't you try the kickboard?”
The Kickboard and Me
OK, so I have a hate-hate relationship with the kickboard, dating back to my Advanced Beginner years. The kickboard is what the counselors would give us when they were afraid we would drown during swim class and the last thing they needed was the hassle of an incident report and all that paperwork.
The kickboard screamed “Incompetent!” It shouted “Baby in the pool!” It boomed, “Spazzy loser!”
Of course, that was a long time ago, and I have totally healed all the soft and wounded parts of my soul since then.
I don't want to be seen holding a kickboard.
On the other hand…
Upon reflection, the kickboard would solve the “Howie drinks the pool” problem caused by my confusion about where to put my mouth and nose and when to blow out and when to inhale.
So what the hell, I'll give it a try.
Mia tosses me the board. I grasp it with both hands. I allow my legs to float up. I close my eyes. And I kick for all I'm worth.
I kick like the world's worst tantrum.
I kick like I hate water sooooo much.
I kick like I've just seen a sleek dorsal fin bearing down on me and a John Williams two-note movie theme welling to crescendo.
After what seems like 20 minutes, I open my eyes, confused that the board hasn't bumped up against the edge of the pool yet.
I haven't budged a fucking inch.
I guess my requirements for an infinity pool are fairly modest – a large bathtub would probably suffice.
Mergoddess to the Rescue
Yesterday, I mentioned this to Sarah Bofinger, aka Mergoddess, who is training for the 2020 Paralympic Games. And she gave me a profound piece of advice:
Don't focus on kicking down, toward the water. That actually stops your motion.
Instead, focus on the upkick, the motion that brings your leg up to the top of the water level. That's the stroke that propels you forward.
I had thought that my effort was enough. That my will was enough.
And it turned out that my effort and my will were directed at a behavior that was actually holding me back.
But Sarah didn't just tell me what I was doing wrong. The useful bit was to focus on the UP part of the flutter kick. The action that would move me where I wanted to go.
And so now I had something to practice; a training regimen to correct the problem.
Got a Bad Habit? Get a Training Routine
I have so many clients who come to me to get rid of their bad habits. Eating junky foods. Eating too much. Eating too often. Eating too fast. Sleeping in. Checking their phones incessantly.
And all these bad habits are getting in the way of their goals.
They've been trying to overcome the bad habits like I was on the kickboard, through effort and will.
But effort and will can't help us inhibit unhelpful behaviors. You can't just NOT do something. You have to DO something else instead.
That's why the up-kick advice was so helpful.
If you have a habit you're trying to kick, stop focusing on inhibiting the bad habit.
That just creates a behavioral void, and without anything else to do, and the bad habit the only thing you're thinking about, you're pretty much doomed. You can kick and splash all you want, but you're not going to make progress.
Train that New Habit
Instead, identify a new behavior that can replace and is incompatible with the bad habit. Don't down-kick; up-kick.
Don't NOT EAT a cookie. Eat an apple. Or drink tea. Or water. Or do 5 squats.
Now you've got something to train. Something positive to practice.
And with time and focus and repetition, you can drown out (bad metaphor in this context, but hey) the bad habit with a good one.
The up-kick focus replaces the down-kick struggle.
The morning walk replaces the mindless Instagram scrolling.
The apple replaces the donut.
Bad habits are untouchable. But good habits that cannot coexist with bad ones are identifiable and learnable and practice-able and trainable.
And with this insight, I plan on making it to the end of the pool lane one day.
Looking for New Habit Suggestions?
At last, we get to the point of this post: the Plant Super Holidays summit. It starts today, and features advice and suggestions and tactics and strategies and recipes and mindsets to keep you strong and plant-based and healthy and sane during what can be a very challenging time.
If you're worrying about all the bad habits you're hoping NOT to do this month, you're focusing on your down-kick. You'll end up being drawn to what you're thinking about.
But if instead, you watch some of the summit interviews (I like mine a lot, and Kathy Hester and Chef AJ are awesome of course) and come away with one or two ideas for new behaviors to turn into habits, you'll be able to flutter-kick your way to a healthy and joyous mindset and resultant actions.
Here's that link: Plant Super Holidays
See you on the inside!
Become a Health Coach
New cohort beginning March 2021. Live classes will be 10-11:30am US Eastern Time on Wednesday, so this is a Europe- and Africa-friendly class. Also for folks in the US, Canada, and Central/South America who have flexible mornings.
Find out more and apply here: WellStartCoach.com.
New Audiobook: Use the Weight to Lose the Weight
Listen to Josh LaJaunie and me narrate our latest audiobook, about how to start moving when you're obese.
It's $10, and Josh and I split it evenly 🙂
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