By Michael Krueger
“What, do you think you’re gonna live forever?” That was the question put to me recently by an out of shape, cantankerous (but likeable) acquaintance when he brought up exercise and my lifestyle. It shows a huge misconception (not to mention a little hostility) about what a fitness-focused lifestyle is all about.
So, aside from the obvious, what is it all about?
The Not So Obvious
We all know what exercise is good for, right? It can help keep off unwanted pounds, it can strengthen your heart and lungs, it can add muscle mass and make you strong, not to mention keep you looking good.
But what about those benefits that run in the background? Things that one might call side effects? These are the things that might not immediately come to mind when someone asks why you live life like you do, but which can really make the difference between a lifetime of fitness and a slow slog to infirmity.
Despite the stereotype of the big dumb muscle head, it turns out that exercise has some very positive effects on your brain. Both cardio and strength training have been shown to improve cognitive function and performance and even improve brain structure in the elderly. People who exercise tend to have less memory loss, have an increased ability to learn, have less depression, generally report less anxiety, and have an overall improved sense of well-being.
The down side is that it takes some effort and time to see these results. Because the pain-to-pleasure response in the brain lags a bit, it is easy to quit before the longer-term positive benefits are seen. If you anticipate and understand the challenges, both physical and mental, then you will in turn be much more likely to be successful.
Just goes to show you that you need to use your brain before, during, and after you work out.
One item that is often neglected but so important to overall health and well-being is a good night’s sleep. Many people report feeling tired during the day and complain that they just aren’t getting enough sleep. The exception to this seems to be regular exercisers; they tend to sleep just fine. This is in part because sleep is a priority for those of us who work out. We understand that our energy, enthusiasm, and progression are going to suffer if we short our sleep--not to mention that we’re tired.
Some people exercise in the morning, some at noon, and some are night owls. Each person may insist that the time of day they work out is optimal, and they can’t imagine changing. In truth, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect time to exercise. It depends primarily on your personality and then secondly on your schedule.
I know people who complain that they have trouble sleeping after they exercise. I tell them not to exercise before bedtime. Others say they can’t possibly hit the gym at 0530, so I tell them to sleep in and work out at noon or after work. Still others report that if they lift hard and heavy late in the evening, they sleep like a baby for eight solid hours, and others say that they always take a 20-minute nap after a long run, waking up refreshed and ready to go.
The thread that runs though this is that all of these people have found a time for exercise that works best for them and their ability to sleep. If you can’t sleep after exercising and you work out at night, you are in all likelihood not going to be a successful long-term exerciser, and you’re going to be tired and cranky as well. Similarly, the person who likes to sleep late isn’t going to sacrifice sleep for exercise for very long, nor should he.
A regular sleep pattern is one thing that should never be voluntarily sacrificed. Occasionally something will come up that will prevent or disrupt your sleep, which is to be expected, particularly in the world of firefighting. The thing is that when you have a choice, choose a regular bedtime. If you are jolted awake during the night, then, if possible, a short nap later on will help.
The bottom line is that if you are fit, you are more likely to sleep well. When things do go sideways, you’ll have a much better capacity to perform during that period of sleep deprivation without a serious degradation in your performance.
So get some exercise, and then get some sleep.
Any parent can tell you “Do as I say and not as I do” isn’t an effective strategy when dealing with your children. Children learn by example whether they realize it or not, and if you provide a good example at least you can take the high ground when it comes to arguments.
When children are small, they want to do whatever mom or dad does. Soon they want to do whatever their friends do instead. If you and your children’s friends’ parents exercise and eat healthy food, it increases the odds that the message your children will receive will be consistent and positive whether at home or away.
If you prepare and eat healthy foods, work out regularly, and get out and move, your children are more likely to be active and of normal weight. If you take your kids to parks to play and you play with them (not just watch), they are more likely to see exercise as fun and just a normal part of life.
Little kids and dogs are responsible for a lot of the exercise adults get outside of the gym and, in many cases, are the only sources of exercise many of them get. Once the kids get involved in organized sports (and the dog ages out), the parents switch to sitting on the sidelines and watching.
This is no time to become solely a spectator. Keep in mind that you want your children to see you as fit, healthy adults, participating fully in life, so that they will continue an active lifestyle after they move out, grow up, and have children of their own.
The obesity/sedentary epidemic we have in this country could be reversed within a generation if parents would take responsibility for their own health and fitness and, by extension, impart the importance of a healthy lifestyle to their children.
You owe it to yourself and to the next generation to do just that.
Happiness and Self-Esteem
People who exercise regularly tend to be happier. They have a more positive outlook and are more resilient when life throws them a curve. Exercisers have a take-charge attitude about their lives, and that gives them a strong sense of control. They tend to be more focused and go out and get what they want. They also understand that to get what they want they have to work for it. If you miss a work out, there will be a price to pay in your performance. If you slack off, you will know it, even if no one else does, and it will eat at you until you make it right. When you have a great workout, your endorphins surge, and it can crank your mood up for hours and even days.
Nothing in fitness comes quickly or easily; therefore, you must learn patience. Every lost pound of fat and every increase in muscle and endurance will build your sense of self-esteem more than anything else you can do. You can’t buy fitness; you can only earn it through effort, discipline, and dedication. That’s what makes it so great.
Additional Side Effects
Lastly and for all of the above reasons, exercise will make you a better firefighter. You will be a healthier, stronger, smarter, happier person and that, in turn, will positively influence everyone around you--your family, your friends, your department, and your community.
An investment in you is an investment in life, and the return is greater than you can imagine.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.