By Michael Krueger
There are many different motivations that inspire someone to get fit and stay fit. In fact, there are probably as many different reasons as there are people who train.
Some people find that addressing possible health concerns is motivation enough. For others, vanity will do it; for still others, it’s the enjoyment they get from training and seeing improvement. For some, it’s a mental vacation from the daily grind. Then there are the ones who train for improved athletic performance while others say that even though they may not like it, it’s something they feel they just “have to do.”
Then there are the reasons that are bigger than you.
It usually takes a combination of external and internal factors to be a successful long-term exerciser. Most people who say they exercise for health reasons would admit that they also like that they look lean and fit. Most of these people would also admit that they like to work out, maybe not every time but most of the time.
There is a basic selfishness involved in consistent training. Year after year, you get to carve out an hour or so five times per week for yourself. You put on your exercise clothes, and off you go for your “me” time. After a while, the routine might appeal because there isn’t much to think about. You run, or swim, ride your bike, or lift your weights, and you can let your mind rest. On many days, your muscle memory can take you through a workout with very little mental input from you. In the short term, training like this can relax and recharge both mind and body.
Other times, you might choose to really get your head into your training. You might analyze and tinker with the nuts and bolts of your workout or really ramp up the intensity. You might choose to train this way because you are having trouble shutting off intrusive thoughts so you are unable to relax and recharge during your training. It’s an avoidance technique that can force you to stop thinking about your problems, allowing your mind to refocus. Often after such a workout, you find that the problems that were vexing you don’t seem so big and the answers to other questions come to you easily. In the short term, this can cut your stress levels and get you back on track mentally and physically.
Some people also train for competition. They tend to be very intense and consistent because they can see how their levels of strength, conditioning, and concentration directly influence their athletic performance. Performance training is where internal and external forces start to interact. In the short term, this keeps you focused and on track.
It’s a rare trainee who doesn’t compare himself to others in one way or another. Even those who insist that they don’t care where they fall on the charts of normative data or what the average performance for their age is can’t resist peeking at that data when it is available. Short term, this can let you know how you measure up to your peers and perhaps push you to work a little harder.
As you get older, you are more likely to look at people your own age to see how well you measure up. The first time many people make this comparison is on the occasion of their fifth or 10th high school or college reunion. Seeing classmates who got fat and sedentary or who are fit and lean makes you look at yourself to see how you are doing.
Thinking about these things can help you come to a self-awareness that you wouldn’t be privy to if you didn’t look around and compare. Once again, short term this can reinforce in your mind how well you have taken care of yourself or perhaps give you an inkling of what you need to do.
Motivations That Really Matter
Now let’s look at the long term. The most important motivations transcend the definitions of external or internal. They go beyond the desire to simply look good or be bigger, faster, or stronger than someone else. They aren’t so much about health and life expectancy as they are about truly living an authentic life.
As you are aware, firefighters take on themselves a great responsibility. They risk life and limb for people they don’t know who are in trouble for reasons that don’t matter. They put in hundreds of hours of training and studying, repeatedly going over the same practices and procedures until they become second nature. They spend time away from friends and family because they know that’s what they must do. They know that what they are doing is important in a way that’s bigger than the sum total of all the aggregate parts of the job. This “bigger than you” reason is also why being as fit for duty as you can be, and not just “good enough,” should be the ultimate motivating factor.
The elite members of the fire service don’t stop at “good enough.” They are motivated internally to be the best they can be and externally to be the best of their peers. They are the ones who arrive early and stay late and always have a good attitude. They take more classes and additional training than anyone else, because that’s what it takes to be the best. They get in their workouts during their off-duty hours so there is no chance of interruption or carryover fatigue.
Then there are the elite of the elite, the ones who do what the best of the best do–and more.
To these firefighters, the very thought of doing less than their best is abhorrent. They can’t abide the thought of dishonoring those who have come before or of setting a less-than-stellar example for those who will come after they are done. They wear their uniform with pride, whether it be their dress blues or their everyday work uniform. They enjoy doing the community relations part of the job because they are proud of themselves, their department, and the fire service. They care deeply about their community, their crew, and their family.
Their goal is to be better tomorrow than they are today. That means continuing education, regular physical training, skills training, and mentoring new recruits and in all ways being an upstanding and honorable person.
The Big Reason
If you have allowed your physical fitness to slip, now is the time to get back on track. If your nutrition is lacking, make the effort to fuel your body properly. If your skills are a little rusty, motivate yourself to hone them to a fine edge. If you haven’t been the best citizen, crew member, husband, wife, mother, or father, now is the time to make some changes.
It’s time to look beyond yourself, to see the bigger picture. Now it’s your turn to be the leading edge of a tradition that goes back many generations. Many firefighters serve for years before passing the watch to the next generation; others won’t get that chance and will make the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Still others have suffered (and still suffer) physically, mentally, and emotionally for their devotion to the service.
So recommit to excellence in all you do, and rededicate yourself to honor the traditions and missions of the fire service. As for motivation, well, that should be reason enough.
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.