Earlier this year, I began to exercise more regularly.
It started when my mother suggested that I do a couple of low-intensity sessions on the treadmill every week. I’d had major surgery a few months prior, and Mum thought the gentle exercise would help with my recovery. I agreed to give it a try, but I told Mum that these would be LOW-intensity sessions, and that I would be exercising at my own pace, thank you very much.
I started with 20 minutes of light walking. That was enough for me. My heart rate was elevated, my legs were warmer and looser, and I felt a little bit worn out without being in pain.
After a while, however, it stopped being enough. My body was now used to my workout, and I found myself wanting to do more. So I walked a little faster. Before too long, that also stopped being enough, so I extended the duration to 30 minutes. Then I added push ups and sit ups. Then I increased the speed on the treadmill again and started running. Finally, last week I downloaded Couch to 5K; an app that promises to have me doing 5-kilometre runs, three times a week, by the end of the year.
As a formerly fat child (and currently fat adult), I was raised to view exercise as a necessary evil; something that had to be done in order to be allowed dessert, or parental approval. To me, exercise meant sweat, and pain, and hating myself, and wishing I could just be thin so I wouldn’t have to do it anymore. I hated exercise and everything associated with it.
But now I genuinely look forward to my workouts. I get excited when I think of how much I have improved, and how much I might continue to improve. I love the endorphin high, and the fact that my biceps are slowly and steadily growing. Best of all, I find that I like my workouts more every time I do them.
And why is that? Having thought about it, I have realised that my initial insistence on exercising at my own pace was the key. Instead of running, and pressing, and lifting, until I have collapsed in exhaustion and pain, I take care to notice when my body has had enough, and stop at that moment. In other words, I do my best, and I do not push myself beyond my limits.
As I have now learned first-hand, those are two very different things.
Before I had this epiphany, I always thought that ‘doing my best’ meant ‘doing the thing until it physically cannot be done anymore’. I have always had super high expectations for myself, and I operated under the idea that doing my best was just not good enough, unless I became ‘the best’ as a result.
My high school and university years were plagued with days upon days of studying, memorising, and writing practice essays, normally to the point of frustration and exhaustion. It was the same when I got out of academia and entered my first full-time job. When I started work, I vowed to do everything in my power to be perfect at my job. I worked well into my lunch hours, I stayed late every day, and I took on new projects that I really did not have the time for. But none of that mattered to me at the time. All that mattered was that I was doing what I felt was ‘my best’ to be ‘the best’.
So I pushed myself beyond my limits, almost every day, for years. As time went on, I became more stressed and anxious. The more stressed and anxious I was, the less effective my efforts became. I got to the point in my studies where I was neglected all of the other important parts of the high school/university experience (going out, joining societies, meeting new people, etc.) in order to study. I was studying so much that I could not focus on what I was studying anymore. Everything became a scrambled mess in my brain, and I stopped enjoying the experience of learning that studying used to give me. I ended up doing fairly well, but I know that I could have done just as well, if not better, if I had not pushed myself so hard.
While school and university had reasonably happy endings, my first full-time job experience did not. While I enjoyed the job and the work I was doing at the start, I was pushing myself so hard to be the perfect employee and not make any mistakes, I ended up burning out and making more mistakes than I would otherwise have made. Worse than that, my mistakes were noticeable, and my bosses remembered them. I became an untrustworthy employee, and I was unable to progress in the company. I ended up leaving the job after three years (for unrelated reasons), and by the end of my time there I absolutely hated the job, and was doing work that required fewer skills than the work I was doing at the start.
As it turned out, pushing myself beyond my limits meant that I wasn’t doing my best at all.
If you are anything like me, and have a tendency to set impossibly high standards for yourself, it can be very frustrating when other people tell you not to push yourself too hard, or that you should ‘just do your best, because you cannot do any better than your best’. Believe me, I have felt that frustration. But it is something that needs to be heard, because it is true. As my experiences in study and work have shown me, pushing myself beyond my limits resulted in terrible work/life balances, severe stress and anxiety, and consequent bad effects on physical and mental health. But more than that, pushing ourselves so hard also prevents us from doing the best that we can do.
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As living, breathing organisms, we can only exert ourselves to a certain point. Once we reach that point, we need to stop, and rest, and recharge our batteries. Our brains and our bodies need that rest time to absorb the information they have just received, whether that information takes the form of a more intense workout, a new vocabulary list, or a day in the office. It is only when the information has been sufficiently absorbed that our brains/bodies will be ready to take in more.
If we continue to exert ourselves after the point where we should be stopping, the new information does not get absorbed. Instead it leaks out, causing pain, exhaustion, and confusion. We fail to get fitter, or to learn, or to do a good job at work. We might even forget why we wanted to get fit, learn, or be good at our jobs in the first place. We end up no longer doing our best, which is the exact opposite of what any of us wants.
And so, we all need to learn to recognise when we have reached our limits, and be disciplined enough to stop when that time comes. Not only will this make our best efforts more effective, but it will help us remember why we are doing it in the first place. Because it is easy to forget this once we are beyond our limits.
[Feature Image: A photo of person with long dark hair. They are wearing a grey and black striped short-sleeved shirt. Behind them are bare trees. Source: Rubbertoe (Robert Batina)]