Reflecting on Strength

Image: Jonathan Mak

I’ve reflected on my life goals more this week than I have in a while. I’m sure the confluence of creating goals for ROW 80, and Steve Jobs’s death had a lot to do with that.

As I connected the dots backward in my life, I thought a lot about times of great change in my life, and the events that precipitated that change. Steve Jobs’s commencement speech was one of those dots, a moment of change, where I felt my whole universe shift toward What Could Be. Shawn Phillips was another one of those dots, specifically his article on high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in Muscle Media magazine (1996) (and later in his book, ABSolution, where he expands his perspective).

Phillips was the first person I encountered who taught a holistic view of strength and its role in your life. He didn’t cherry pick a specific food or exercise or some other magic pill. He stated consistently back then (as he still does today) that the One Thing you can do to build a healthy body is Everything. Or, like he said, “Everything we do affects the way we look and feel.”

The Power of Perception

I know it seems like a small thing, but growing up, I never thought of myself as athletic or physically fit. The only reason why I felt that way? I didn’t like to run. At all. Sure, I was one of the only girls in my gym class to do any chin ups in those physical fitness tests (the other girl was a gymnast), but in my mind, running was THE exercise, and if I didn’t do it, I must not be physically fit.

Flash forward to my junior year in college. I just transferred to a new school without the full support of my parents. I wasn’t confident that this new school would meet my educational needs better than my previous one. I was in a new state, and didn’t have any friends or family nearby. And, I was the most out of shape that I’d been in my whole entire life (keep in mind, I was 20 at the time, so my perceptions may have been skewed).

My then-boyfriend-now-husband attended the same university for a master’s degree program in Kinesiology, and he introduced me to the beauty of HIIT. Through him, I had private access to the faculty fitness labs after hours, and I slowly incorporated HIIT, in the form of sprints, into my training routines. The more I sprinted, the more addicted I became to them, like a self-sustaining feedback loop. Along with weight lifting, my body eventually became leaner and stronger. And, the stronger I became physically, the stronger I became mentally and emotionally.

The concept of intense bursts of activity followed by periods of rest before another burst, etc, is not a new concept. But, the principles of intensity came at a time when I needed to hear it.

One Strength Feeds Another

“No Pressure, No Diamonds.” Thomas Carlyle

Years later, while reading ABSolution, Shawn Phillips put into words exactly how HIIT changed my perception of fitness and life in general. He said,

“One of the most powerful benefits of [HIIT] is that it will force you to develop your inner strength–your tolerance for intense exercise. When you’re performing interval training with true intensity, your ability to tolerate physical pain is expanded. Rather than doing the opposite–jogging at a low-intensity level, sitting on a stationary bike for an hour without ever pushing yourself…teaches you to exercise within a certain comfort zone.

“HIIT training works on a physical level, and it helps on a mental and even emotional level by helping you build inner strength.”

Pushing for more intensity allowed me to not only expand my tolerance for physical pain, but also my tolerance for mental and emotional pain.

I look back on college and recognize it as the best years of my life. I loved my classes, I loved interacting with my professors, I loved talking to my peers about literature. But, I realize that most of that love resulted from pushing myself out of my comfort zone in the first place. Before then, I had trained myself to believe that I was only capable of a certain level of achievement, of thriving in a certain kind of environment, of living a certain kind of life.

HIIT not only revolutionized my view of Exercise, but it also allowed me to embrace the idea that I can create the change that I want to see in my life if I was willing to push beyond my comfort zone.

Gratitude

There have been others who have shone brightly along my path as I’ve connected the dots backward, those who have empowered me to take control of my life and shifted my sights toward the goal I have now. One of these days I’ll be able to thank them all individually. Today, I thank Shawn Phillips.

“The thoughts that occupy your mind from moment to moment either elevate your energy and provide you with a sense of power or drain you, adding stress and bringing you down. Your ability to feel appreciation and find the positive is strengthened through regular training, just like your muscles. So go ahead and flex your gratitude and positive focus each day.” ~Shawn Phillips

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