How Exercise Increases Awareness
And, why Leveraging Awareness is so Important to Goal Achievement
If you went shopping for advice on how to increase awareness, you might find threads on gratitude, learning new skills (language, musical instrument), mindfulness, keeping a journal, revisiting a childhood game, and, perhaps even doing it with your children. It's good stuff. I recommend all of it. I’ve even used many of those techniques in my career to increase team bonding and awareness.
When we set out on a goal path, we naturally increase our awareness. The degree to which you intentionally leverage that dynamic will improve or diminish your shot at reaching your goal.
For me, increased awareness has always accompanied high growth. And many, but not all those times, flowed from hard experiences, perhaps even extremely difficult moments. During those periods of growth, you either reaffirm or discover, maybe even rediscover, your true values and purpose.
Right now, we all face challenging times to varying degrees amidst the pandemic, quarantine restrictions and lockdown. I’m going to share a personal example and familiar metaphor to underscore the point. We all face a marathon of a struggle now.
Running long mileage gives you time to think, even when you are with someone else. Exercise stresses you and many a long-distance runner is attracted to the solitude and the suffering, the increased resistance and breaking through barriers. We also thrill at the interval sprints or threshold runs (running for a period at lactate threshold.) And we find ourselves prone to falling into familiar patterns, loathe to increase our resistance by attempting longer distances that will challenge our stamina, endurance and fitness.
Many moons ago, when we lived in the Midwest, I started on a defined running regimen, aided by my running partner, friend and neighbor, Greg. We arose early around 4:30 every morning for a 5 a.m. run. I both loved and resisted these runs!
I have many strong memories of this period, but I’ll mention the winter runs. It's instructive as a metaphor for any cycle of growth and change, but also for the benefits of awareness.
Again, at 5 a.m., we would meet in the middle of our cul-de-sac. In the mid-winter months as we might prepare for our next half marathon or marathon, the sting of the cold air, lack of light, solitude and Greg’s 1,001 jokes created new experiences every day.
My senses heightened, again, as the frigid air stung exposed skin (during winter in Indianapolis, I bundled up like an astronaut in multiple layers. Not a lot of exposed skin for a California kid who thought sixty degrees was cold. Thirty five degrees seemed downright apocalyptic! But some openings remained, even with a ragged Baklava fitted over my face.)
I remember the cool oxygen penetrating my lungs as we started to jog, our breath filling the space in front of our faces like clouds of locomotive steam, the silence of the streets save the crunch of the morning frost on the concrete beneath each footfall, and the steadily climbing sunrise in the East. How I loved the first moments the sun would appear on the plains, illuminating our path and warming, if only visually, the landscape.
Typically, the first mile came upon us slowly, our bones and muscles adjusting to the activity. Many days, I resisted getting up, but knew that once I had five minutes of motion in me, the rest would be awesome. Many days, as I lay in bed next to Esther, I would prefer not to will myself into action, but I did. Most of the time. The thought of my friend, who never missed a day, waiting for me, helped.
The pattern on daily runs repeated over the course of five days, getting up early, running 3 to 5 miles, maybe more as we increased our exercise load. We would get home before 6, with enough time to shower, breakfast and head to work. I always loved the start of a cycle, which is why the wintertime comes to mind. Before the holidays, we would start plotting out the races or events we planned to tackle over the course of the year. We would outline the average weekly mileage ramp up, the expected long weekend runs, when we would taper off or intentionally dial back the intensity to consolidate gains before a future surge of activity.
We would think in terms of reaching a goal time for the half or full marathon, or perhaps what a tempo pace might be on a longer Saturday outing. Keep in mind, I am not built like a marathoner, so my goals would appear comically modest compared to a serious runner. For me, completing the first marathon, just crossing the finish line, formed a great goal. Its relative. But, over time, as my fitness level increased, my goals, relative to my skills, grew. I loved reaching new milestones.
Awareness of my purpose always drove me. Awareness of my values: improved health, overcoming obstacles, creating a new habit, discovering new limits and surpassing them — spurred me on and helped me meet moments of resistance with the force and energy of those values and purpose. On a micro level, just after the first bleating of the alarm clock at 4:35, as I reached over to tap it off, the awareness of the benefits of what would happen in 45 minutes would enter my mind.
Just getting out of bed might seem like a chore. It was cold outside! Many days, I willed myself out of bed on a wintry morning in mid-January supported by the thought that when I threw off the warm covers and pushed my reluctant muscles, tendons and bones into motion, and then ambled into the bathroom, I was on my way. Once I initiated that one motion, answered the command of that one thought, move, I knew I would be in the street meeting Greg in another 10 minutes AND taking another series of steps, literally, towards my goal.
Over time, the benefits of the practice showed up in a multitude of ways. I have not researched this in detail, but there must be something about outdoor exercise that energizes you profoundly. When we ran every day in the morning, I realized an energy the rest of the day that is hard to describe fully. An emotional calm accompanied the increased energy, not to mention an acute improvement in mental functioning. It was awesome. Interestingly, I do not experience the same level or combination of energies from exercising in doors, even at the same frequency.
More importantly, over time, I realized the huge benefits of simply spending time with my friend. Greg was a great friend and human being who I missed when we eventually moved back to California. We logged hundreds of miles together over the course of four years. Awareness of how to reach a goal serves one purpose. The awareness of the value of a friendship is quite another. Good friends, those who will guide and push and challenge you are incredibly valuable, perhaps invaluable. I look back fondly on the moments we faced. Plus, he could tell a wickedly funny joke!