How To Use It So You Don't Lose It

Toby Hazlewood

Tactics for keeping mind, body and soul together.

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One of the few positives to come out of 2020 was that I got into the best physical shape of my life.

It’s all relative of course. While I wasn’t ready to feature on the cover of Men’s Health magazine, I felt fitter, stronger and happier with my appearance than I have for years — I even had the beginnings of a six-pack.

A summer road-trip with the family, evenings sat around the barbecue with friends drinking beer, and days spent sat in the sun quickly reminded me that as we can get fit and tone our muscles, gains are easily lost.

In a normal lockdown week, I’d have exercised daily. During our three weeks away I ran once and lifted no weights.

It's taken many months to try and get the form back, and with it the desire to exercise again. Form and strength are slow to return and while I’m not quite back to square one in fitness terms, my entire mindset regarding exercise and fitness has retreated back to where it was pre-lockdown.

The same is true in many aspects of life, or so it seems to me. It’s frustrating to contemplate but almost universally true.

It’s not enough merely to develop a skill, establish a practice or attain a particular position in life (such as finding a partner and persuading them to fall in love with us). If we don’t keep working at those things continuously and with consistency then in all likelihood they’ll degrade in quality or disappear completely.

"Use it, or lose it."

Use your body, otherwise it won't function as smoothly or efficiently as it did.

My fall from fitness grace over the summer vacation is easily explained — I ate and drank liberally and trained little. The combined effects could have been predicted and in many ways I don’t regret it either — we had fun.

That said, it’s frustrating that if we want to better ourselves physically whether to build strength and endurance then we need to commit to a program that will bring those results and sustain them for the long term.

There really is no way around that fact and it’s our collective refusal to accept the need for maintenance of weight loss and fitness gain that probably explains why 80% of crash diets fail with most or all weight lost gained back within 12 months.

The methods and mindset associated with quick-fix solutions (such as the so-called Master Cleanse where participants subsist on water, maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper) rely upon drastic measures designed to achieve the goal (in this case, radical and dangerous weight loss).

They ignore the need for enduring behaviour change if we’re to maintain results for the long term (not to mention the risk that they bring about in significant health risks and complications such as lowered metabolic rate, a weakened immune system and potential for heart damage).

The human body naturally finds equilibrium where our fitness, weight and health reflect our typical levels of activity and food intake. If you’re not willing to live a more active life and eat more modestly for the long-term then you should expect that short-term improvements are likely to be lost.

Exercising and remaining active aren’t just the preserve of those seeking to look and feel better but are widely acknowledged to be fundamental to longevity and lifelong wellbeing, as confirmed studies such as this one from Harvard.

If you want your body to support you for as long as possible, make sure you use it to its full potential on an ongoing basis — not just to achieve a desired goal, but for life.

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Test your brain to keep it young and active.

As a father of four, one of my greatest fears (besides the risk to health) was the impact that Coronavirus and the associated lockdown might have on my kids’ education.

A recent study carried out by the London School of Economics and reported by the BBC, determined that around a quarter of pupils in England (around 2.5million kids) had received “no schooling or tutoring during lockdown”. In the same article, a 16 year old student shared her own experiences of returning to full-time education after a long break from school. Where she was previously able to concentrate for hours at a time she now finds it difficult to maintain focus and finds work more stressful, due in part to having had such a long break from education.

This effect isn’t peculiar to the Coronavirus lockdown or to kids finding it hard to adapt to the mental demands of full-time education after a break. Most find it difficult to go back to work after a vacation or even a weekend. It takes time for our brains to gear up to the challenges presented by work and to call upon the mental skills demanded by our job.

The times when I seem to get most work done are often those when I’m in a flow state, in a groove having been doing the same work for a few hours. At this point, my brain is used to the demands I’m placing upon it and is primed for more of the same.

It also happens when I’m slightly busier than I might like, and with a task list that’s uncomfortably long rather than too short. Stretching and taxing the mind brings about positive effects.

A Harvard study cites seeking out mental stimulation as the number one way of keeping our brains young and preserving mental function into old age. The paper emphasises the importance of mentally taxing activities such as crosswords and maths puzzles as a means of stimulating production of new brain cells and encouraging neural plasticity — the adaptation of the brain to new challenges and uses prompted by exertion.

Just as we exercise our body to keep it fit and healthy, it’s equally important to use our brains to their fullest extent to preserve and maintain them as we get older.

Service the needs of the soul.

It’s possible to encourage the health of our body and mind through regular use, but the benefits of use it or lose it apply equally to the health of our souls too.

Consider these examples:

Speaking with family and friends regularly to maintain a connection

For much of my adult life I’ve lived a distance from my family and some of my closest friends. It hasn’t been easy but on some level I’m accustomed to the fact that when we’ve not been together for a while and haven’t spoken either, it can take a while to feel completely at ease again.

This isn’t a reflection of the closeness of our bond, but rather of how relationships work. We ease into feeling comfortable around those with whom we’re in regular and close proximity. That probably explains how we manage to get along with co-workers whose company we may not otherwise choose but for the fact that we work together.

To overcome the feelings of separation and to maintain a closeness of bond, try reaching out to those you care about more frequently even if you can’t be with them in person as much as you’d like.

A regular email, call or even a text message every few days may be a poor substitute for regular contact but if it keeps dialog open then it may well serve a useful purpose in servicing and strengthening the connection between you.

Making regular gestures of love and affection towards partner

As a twice married and once divorced man I have at least a little experience of what makes a happy and sustainable marriage. A big part of that is keeping the spark of love alive through regular kindnesses and gestures of affection towards your partner.

Taking each other for granted, acting with mutual apathy and neglecting to make time for each other are surefire routes to unhappiness. Healthy relationships are those where kind words and loving gestures are scattered freely and liberally throughout life, not just saved for an infrequent date-night or special occasions marked with a bunch of flowers and a card.

A healthy relationship is part of what sustains and nourishes the soul — but it too needs work if it’s to be maintained and give us what we need.

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Taking regular time out for yourself

I had my kids early in life and for a long while felt like I could delay gratification and put my own interests and hobbies to one-side if my kids’ needs were met. Time proved me wrong.

Whether your ‘me-time’ is spent reading, writing, golfing or walking, it’s important to make sure that adequate time is devoted to meeting your own needs and interests as to those of your family.

We all need time with friends and time alone, scattered liberally throughout life. It’s simply not possible to blow off steam on a quarterly weekend away with the boys or girls and feel equipped to handle daily life for the rest of the time.

Building regular time into each week (and each day, preferably) to ensure that you can express your own interests and pursue your own goals is essential — it’s a fallacy to think that you can bypass this need purely through living in the service of others.

Such time is part of sustaining our life-force and expressing ourselves as individuals. It’s about using our time for ourselves rather than losing it, and dulling-down our own identity in the process.

Summing up

When I’m in the zone with my exercise regime, the benefits that I enjoy transcend the end-state — it’s not just about how quickly I can run a mile or how heavy a weight I can lift. It’s about how I feel in myself when I’m exercising, and how I feel afterwards.

Using it then (in fitness terms), isn’t a chore to be suffered out of fear of losing it — instead it’s about enjoying the process and knowing I’m doing it for the right reasons, not purely motivated by a goal.

Use it or lose it isn’t necessarily a comforting mantra. It’s a useful reminder that most things in life need to be done regularly, repeatedly and with vigour and commitment if we’re to continue to enjoy them to the full.

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