It was January of 2016 that I started a regular workout practice, right around the time I celebrated 10 years of having my eating under control. I had played around a little with jogging and bodyweight exercises the few weeks prior to that, but I have never been good at doing anything by playing around with it. I am always either in or out. My default is generally set to out. But I decided I wanted to be in.
Before that, I had primarily gotten around, and therefore gotten my daily exercise, by walking. In New York City, that was like breathing. I did it without thinking. Even if I took the subway, I had to walk there. There were stairs to get to the station. And even if there was an escalator, I was an impatient New Yorker. I took the stairs anyway because walking was faster than riding. And if the weather was nice, and I had the time, I didn’t bother with the subway. A 4 or 5-mile walk in the city on a nice day doesn’t feel like a workout with all of the people watching and window-shopping available. Exercise was a non-issue. It came built into my life.
But when I was working to get my driver’s license, and my (then) boyfriend and I were planning to buy a second car for me, it became clear that I was not going to be walking as a mode of transportation. And I was, it turns out, not getting any younger. I was 38 at the time, and I knew that it would only get harder to stay in shape as I got older. So I tried a light workout a few times in December of 2015, but I was only motivated for a few days. It was hard. I wasn’t good at it. I never really “wanted to” do it, even if I wanted to have done it.
So I did what I do. I made a commitment. I decided to jog 2 miles a day, 5 days a week, with 3 sets of 10 each of push-ups and crunches, and a 30 second plank. Basically 30-45 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.
Now this is a long, drawn-out setup to get to my point. I didn’t see results right away. I have made some progress in terms of my strength, and stamina. I have also possibly lost fat and gained muscle, though I am not good at gauging my physical size. But any and all progress I have made has been very, very slow. So slow, in fact, that I am only starting to recognize it as progress now, after over a year of consistent workouts.
When I first started doing push ups, I could not get very close to the floor, even though I do them on my knees. The truth is, I was barely moving in either an up or down direction. If someone had been watching me, it would have been deeply humiliating. Hell, it was a little humiliating doing them alone in my home while my husband was at work. But I did them anyway. I could only start where I was.
I only recently noticed that I was able to move up and down with ease, and get my face to the floor and back up again. Now that I have the arm strength to do them on my knees, I have started making my third set of 10 push ups the regular plank kind. Not all three sets. Just the last one for now. Because I don’t have to be in a rush to see results. And just like before, when I do them, my arms are barely moving. It may take me another year to have the strength to get my face all the way to the floor and back up with regular pushups. But ultimately, no matter how slow the progress goes, it’s progress. If I didn’t do them because I wasn’t seeing results quickly enough, there would simply no longer be any results to see.
We live in a results based world. And I don’t think that’s all bad. What I think is a problem is wanting results now. The problem is choosing instant gratification over long-term gratification.
I never really understood the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare wasn’t slower, he was a jerk. If he hadn’t been trying to show off, and publicly shame the tortoise, he would have won the race easily. So that story always occurred to me as bullshit. Slow and steady does not win a race against an opponent who is fast and steady. But I have a different point of view now. I am not certain that everyone has it in them to be both fast and steady. I know that some do. That is what makes them athletes. I honor that. But I am not an athlete. And that’s just fine. So now I think of it this way: it is not that I am the tortoise and someone else is the hare; I am both the tortoise and the hare. The hare in me wants to show off, get results, hear people tell me I’m so fast, I look great. But the hare in me does not do things in a sustainable manner. The hare in me doesn’t know how to deal with obstacles, or how to persevere through failures and difficulties. The hare in me wants results all day all the time. The hare in me is like the people who lose weight on “reality” television by exercising daily the way other people go to work. It might make for dramatic TV to take on 40-50 hours a week of strenuous exercise, but it will almost certainly only get you short-term results. And if I am honest and thinking clearly, I don’t want short-term results.
The same could be said for the ways that I tried to lose weight before I gave up sugar and got my eating under control. I always wanted to lose weight fast. I wanted to be skinny. Now. I would, when my food-addicted, compulsive-eating self could manage it, eat way below my calorie limit, sometimes to the point of starving myself. I was not very good at starving myself, but I could manage it when I was seeing results. Losing weight quickly got me high, and that made it possible for me to limit my food intake for the sake of even more results. But bodies are not huge fans of this way of losing weight, and any hiccup in my quest for an ever-decreasing waistline left me disillusioned and often led to me giving up, or at least cheating on my diet for a day, week, or month. And that’s not even taking my exercise bulimia into consideration.
Enter the tortoise. The tortoise in me is just putting one foot in front of the other. My tortoise may technically be enrolled in the race, but she is not competing. She just made a commitment to start at point A and move to point B. She’ll get there in her own time.
The results I gain when I am slow and steady may take a lot more time to manifest, but they also usually last. Because the steps I take are small enough to take every day. And they are small enough that the inevitable “one step back” is also just a bitty baby step. So instead of focusing on results, I focus on the practice itself. I focus on the commitment to take the action, consistently and without expectation.
So it may not be particularly exciting to practice being the tortoise, but it is pretty inspiring. And ultimately deeply satisfying.