Cultivating Character Strengths and Virtues in the Gym

Values vs Goals

Previously, I have touched on values (+goals) being favourable to purely goals for life satisfaction I would like to explain a bit more and use a typical example from my life to show how it can work.

Remembering – For any Philosophy to be worthy -the flexarian attitude requires it to be life-enhancing, transformational, flexible and practical.

Personal values are what make attaining goals possible in the first place and by recognising the utility of developing such values the attaining of goals is made that much more of a rewarding process. And we are better set up for future goals and targets with strong and resilient personal values as part of our core character strengths.

I have used health, fitness and physique as my example but know that values are crucial to all seekers of life satisfaction across the whole of life.

In one area of my life this happened accidentally to me before I realised by questioning what was going on and contemplating how I was able to be successful in this area even when the rest of my life was turbulent and out of my control (or so I thought at the time). I am what you might call a lifetime fitness freak. But that derogatory term, like all labels can hide a myriad of deep reasons why we are able to show resilience in certain areas of our lives more than others. Putting it simply I was an athletic sporty kid and I just kept on moving and developing because I enjoyed that part of my life. I am 60 years old and on a day to day basis I am told I am inspirational and that my body belies my age. My wife Julie is the same as we do everything together. Over the years I have wondered why I am able to stick at this for what is well over 45 years whilst others come and go or use the gym as a “get in shape for the short term” project? The simple answer is that at first it was purely vanity (I wanted bigger muscles) and eventually (decades) as part of what could be termed the maturation process we (Julie + I) came to see our bodies as a gift and as such deserving of the work that we put into them but also we feel life has become too physically easy for human beings (a lazy species) and that the balance has to be restored. We also refuse to accept being normal (lack of illness) is acceptable for any human being. Human beings are capable of performing much better than what is considered normal and we feel performing at a high level across the board is a great way to spend our time. When was the last time your doctor called you in to discuss how you could perform better and feel better rather than for an illness or meds? Never? Then it is up to you to be your own experiment. But, none of this explains why we keep going year after year at times under great adversity. For instance – last year at the start of the summer a massive shock to me – I developed some nasty prostate issues and due to total retention and a lot of discomfort (pain) I had a catheter fitted full time for what turned out to be over 6 months. Not for one moment did it slow me down and in fact I would say that through the adversity I actually buckled down more than what is considered normal for Julie and me. I didn’t just want to get better I wanted to improve every part of my body and mind in the hope of minimising future episodes. I stepped up every aspect of my life. Physical, psychological and my spiritual thoughts. For 6 months I felt like I was trapped in a web and was going to do all within my power to escape and I did this by contemplating my thoughts and actions and working to make choices suited to enhancing the quality of life. I did this anyway in my life, but it is amazing how sudden and unexpected adversity such as total retention and peeing through a pipe stuffed down the end of your penis can focus the mind. Particularly when I had not had any health issues up until this time and felt and behaved young physically – this time was a jolt and a timely reminder of my finitude.

This was last summer and just last week I met a guy I had not seen for a while and he stated that the best shape he had ever seen me attain was last summer. He did not know I had experienced any issues. It did make me smile. On the plus side I did gain some humility as leaking urine all over yourself when you push too hard at the gym and turn your tap on tends to keep one grounded. Yes! I had a tap fitted!  In place of the bag which meant more freedom but also more urinary tract infections and mishaps. I was far from the model patient, but I needed to keep moving while it was in any way remotely possible. I spent most of the time with urine infections due to my decision and was often blocked because of the damage caused in my bladder by my active lifestyle. I also had to fight the wisdom of the nurses to wear a bag as it would be my cure-all apparently. But I am used to going against others wishes if I feel my values are (for me) superior to conforming to their more normal behaviours. Compared to my usual good healthy feelings I felt crap 24/7. I still have much to learn. But I know now even though things didn’t run perfectly that I did make the right decision for myself and that is what developing values and having a flexarian attitude is – refusal to accept as a given the norms – curiosity as to what new way is possible and innovation to develop from that point.  Once the choice is made never look back. The flexarian attitude does not look at right or wrong but rather what is right or wrong at this time for this situation. The sweet spot. And at times that has to be fought for as going against the norms and accepted wisdom for a situation can be tough and others are not used to it. But there are always options to be considered and may be new ways to behave that are best for that moment. And prepare to be wrong and humble if and when you decide to conform to the norms eventually.

Adam (60)

Now let us look at this to ascertain what it is that results in our resilience in the gym and with our health and fitness. The goals of being fit and looking good are undoubtedly part of the overall picture but that had been attained many years ago, but we didn’t stop and start again. Why? Because those goals are largely out of our control and are not really what the achievement actually is at a deeper level.  A tight body, better than average health and fitness are largely out of our control (genetic potential etc) – they are merely by-products of the formation of personal values that are totally under our control and which we can succeed at without relying on any outside influences.

Julie (57)

The nurturing and managing of good character traits are the key to any goal – the goal then is to shape who we are and not what we look and feel like. We can control our thoughts and our actions and that is all.

What is this achievement that we are in total control of that results in our having the “secret” allowing us to arrive where we are? – Unique Personal Values!

The first value for us is self-discipline – I hears others saying that they have no will power or that they are weak. We are all presented with equal opportunities when it comes to developing self-discipline and unless you believe that everything is preordained and determined without choice the opportunity to develop the value of self-discipline is available to all of us. Having said that we are not either self-disciplined or not we are somewhere in between most of the time. A flexarian attitude recognises that we move along the spectrum of discipline and must do the work to use the value to the best of one’s ability. This is something we can control even in a society that promises instant gratification and temptation is more accessible than ever before in human history.

Adam’s Books

There are ways to structure one’s lifestyle to make discipline easier but that is the subject of another book and an area I would recommend anyone to explore. Setting up one’s life for success and removing temptations is a worthy action that we can control.

The next value that we considered important is patience. It has become obvious that others consider being in shape and healthy something they can achieve in a few weeks or months and have unrealistic expectations and they also have unrealistic expectations – looking at others to emulate physically when in reality they are unique and imitation is a futile endeavour unless we are emulating a person’s values which leads them to their goals. The purveyors of get fit quick schemes and gadgets love to fill our minds with unrealistic expectations. Learn to know the difference between healthy optimism and downright bullshit and pure fantasy. Fit happens but not overnight.

The next value is attention to detail and practising good form (technique) in exercises and routines. This includes variety and working on all the body, not just the strengths.

Julie (57)

This leads to the next value that is crucial and that is open-mindedness. There are many ways to achieve what you want to achieve don’t get stuck in a rut. There is nothing more discouraging than boredom. Not a great recipe for those expecting to work out for 40 years.

The next value is ego-control. If you are not careful the ego will hijack your workout and you will be working out for others and lifting too much and purely worried about appearances. This often signifies the end of progress. There is an ego spectrum make sure you are not too far up one end. Work your body for you and the rest will look after itself. Your ego is the single biggest threat to your health and fitness aspirations and your life satisfaction and is ever-present. Many of the values mentioned here work to manage the ego. Because you will never become ego-free but with time and care you can work with your ego to transform who you are continuously. It is vital here to be aware of your behaviour and to constantly reflect on who you are becoming.

The next value is acceptance. Acceptance is required because we all have egos that at times may disappoint us. For instance – acceptance that you will not always feel like going to the gym or giving 100% when you do. Acceptance that you will not always be in the best shape. Acceptance that your values may slip occasionally. Acceptance that there are others you consider better endowed than you. Acceptance that people may annoy you from time to time. This acceptance will allow for a better experience over time and allow you to learn more about yourself and what you need to do to develop your character more practically. We have what we call a soul shrug that we do. When we feel that things are not going as planned and much is out of our control a big sigh and a letting go of the moment is very effective. Quickly moving on to something that helps, such as walking our dogs or just enjoying each other’s company or a good breakfast or reading some inspirational philosophy or psychology. The list goes on. Sometimes it can be a simple as being alone, reflecting and accepting that there is much in life we have no control over and to stress over it is a waste of life. It takes me longer as I carry stuff around longer than Julie, but I have changed that about me. And now understand that it just takes me a while longer not to stew on the stuff that ultimately is none of my business and there is a lot that is none of our business that we get busy with until we learn what we can affect – what we think and how we act. I heard once a tale that when ducks fight, they move away and flap their wings vigorously shaking themselves and all is forgotten. Our soul shrug is our equivalent to the duck shake. A word of warning here this is the time when your vices will rear their heads and you will be ripe for corruption. This leads to a cycle of good habits and bad habits because in your mind you deserve them or have earned them. Be warned. You will go nowhere or backwards at a rapid rate of knots. Self-discipline and delayed gratification are called for. Get busy.

Hard work – focus and concentration – I witness the absence of these values all too often in modern gyms. Let me explain – If you are at the gym you are there to improve your overall fitness in one way or another. Sitting on your phone or chatting to others is not the way to achieve anything. There is a Flexarian approach which is to be sociable and busy with likeminded people all striving to achieve a common goal. We always work out with intensity. We never take our phones to the gym and ensure we interact with others in a way that does not impede our goal and we are respectful not to distract others similarly. Working hard, focusing and concentrating are all values that will serve us well in most areas of our lives. When it is time to work – the ability to focus attention is paramount to progress. We have the ability to shift attention from brief moments of social interaction to working sets proficiently after years of practice.

Michelle Foucault suggests three values that we have adopted as part of our life philosophy. The first is refusal to accept the norms and the way things are as a given. An example would be how we are expected to be as normal 60-year-old adults. Being good for our age is not a goal. Being good for any age is much more like the kind of goal we like. Another is when we are told that this workout or that workout will produce this or that result. Try them yourselves and you will find it is not so much the workout or diet that works but the belief and discipline of the person acting that is the deciding factor. The next value is curiosity – this covers a lot but leads to questioning why we behave the way we do, and this leads to the next value which is innovation. We see our whole experience as one big experiment and see no point in behaving the way we are expected to or the way everyone else does but rather try small things, different thoughts and actions throughout our lives to shift the expectations and norms a little.

Competitive Julie (52)

Optimism – If you aren’t optimistic then become optimistic. Julie taught me this value. She has always been a very optimistic person and I have learned from her. That is another value. Willingness to see the lessons and learn from every source. If you need help with this one Martin Seligman has written a book called Learned optimism and this will help. There are other ways also to become optimistic. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is another such possibility as is ancient stoic philosophy. Through it all maintain the open-mindedness and flexibility of the flexarian attitude and you will succeed. Above all else stop walking around repeating stories about yourself that are self-defeating. What you can’t do or what you fear or what your fixed opinions are. Everything hinges on you telling a much more optimistic story to yourself and exploding any myths you hold about what you can’t do this or that or why such and such is not possible. Keep an open mind and watch your negativity it is remarkable how many limitations we accept without even thinking we are doing it. Refuse to accept as a given any ideas that are not in service to your transformation. When you do have moments accept them for what they are which is part of the process and move on. Resistance is futile – accept and move on.

The value of enjoying the experience and the people you meet. Helping others when they need it is also crucial and the social aspect of getting to know others on similar journeys is priceless.

The week before my final competition – a 4 show career – not really my thing – too extrovert a behaviour for me. But box ticked nevertheless! Adam (55)

Loyalty to a training buddy is another great value to develop and the camaraderie and support that develops between you. I would say here that when you are looking for a training buddy the most important thing is to find some of the values you wish to develop. If you are pessimistic then find an optimist. Look for values – not how much someone can bench press. You are looking to transform your whole being together so when you are looking for a buddy expand your horizons and open your mind. Your bench press will eventually lose its importance and will look after itself anyway once the whole package is moving forward. And your chest will be better for not bench pressing. I never bench press as I view it as an ego exercise unless used to complement a balanced routine. I see trainers bench pressing when we get in the gym and still doing variations of the bench press when we leave after training our full bodies just over an hour later. No, their chest development is never exceptional, but their egos are very well developed. The question I get asked the most? How much can you bench press? The answer I never bench press! The reaction? The confused puppy dog looks and thinks I am lying. The honest answer is we really don’t know what we lift when we train. We are strong but the weights lifted are not a goal but just a tool to reach our goals. The important thing is the values we use to attain our goals. I think one of the main barriers to attaining a quality physique and fitness is the obsession with how much weight we are seen to be lifting. It may even be the number one barrier to progress.

Self-reflection is crucial to this process and honestly appraising how your values are developing and looking at how you coped with each day is priceless. If you have a trusted partner to help with the feedback you are blessed.

The knowledge and wisdom that develops from all the above and the technical knowledge that can help your motivation. When we learn as we live our values, we enjoy the experience even more.

From just this short section on some of the values we can use to enrich our lives you can see when we have values to develop which are in our control – our thoughts and actions the goals fade into the background giving way to the much more gratifying task of developing our characters for life. This does not mean we have no goals it just means we are now concentrating on things that we can control.

Adam (60)

It is also easy to see how these values will be useful in other areas of our lives such as nutrition or our attitudes to work or play and how developing values transforms who we are at the very core of our characters. The gym is unique but offers us situations and challenges that are mirrored throughout life and can truly be a centre for transformation, not just of the physical but of our characters and the way we deal with adversity and manage our psyches. The gym brings out the ego in all its glory and that is the ideal time to understand it and to live with it in a creative and loving manner.

I repeat – I have used health, fitness and physique as my practical example but know that values are crucial to all seekers of life satisfaction across the whole of life.

Adam x

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