On Priorities and Selfishness
For over a decade, I’ve spent a significant portion of my life coaching and helping others navigate their health and wellness journey. With that type of time investment I’ve been able to observe a number of similar trends in the way people think about fitness and health and where they place their priorities.
Back in our old mill location, one of our members pulled me aside after a noon class to ask for some help and advice. He started out by telling me how much he loved the gym and how much better he feels after the workouts. As the conversation progressed, it shifted into him telling me how he was having trouble justifying his membership because of how busy he was. He looked at me and asked how I was able to balance running the gym, coaching and taking care of a pregnant wife while still taking the time to workout myself. My answer was simply “priorities”.
I went into the office to grab some paper and a clipboard and we spent the next half hour or so writing down his typical daily routine from getting out of bed in the morning until bedtime. On the surface it looks like it would be a challenge to find space in his schedule to accommodate the gym but with a little effort we found time for two classes per week that he could regularly attend. Two hours a week dedicated to his health and fitness was way better than zero! However, with only two classes a week, he was going to struggle to meet his fitness goals.
With some digging and hunting, we were able to rubix cube together a plan where he could get in the gym three days a week. Definitely not ideal but much better than where he currently was. With his new schedule written down he kept looking at the paper and saying things like “man, this is going to be tough” and how he would really have to hustle to make this work. He agreed that it would take some time to get used to this new routine but in the long run he would feel better for it. I agreed to send him a text every few days to make sure he was staying on track and for support. We decided to start the following Monday.
Over the weekend we exchanged a few texts and he sounded excited to get into a new groove. Once week 1 hit he nailed all 3 days. Same for week 2 and 3. Then week 4 came along and he was only there for 2 classes. Same with week 5. Week 6 he only came in once. Mind you I was still keeping track of him by sending him texts asking where he was. He usually had some legitimate sounding excuse but eventually I think he got sick of me and he started to ignore my texts. So, instead of texting, I called him. He answered! I asked him how the plan was working (already knowing the answer) and offered my help again. A sudden change of tone in his voice happened and he said “I feel like I’m being selfish by putting the gym before my family.”
I can tell you at that moment, I didn’t have the right answer for him. There was nothing I could say that would be able to help him (or so I thought). The next week, he cancelled his membership.
That one was tough for me. After all, I invested so much energy into trying to help this person and I felt like I had failed them and I wanted to know what to do when I encountered this again. I spent the next few weeks really thinking about what he had said and trying to put myself in his shoes. I didn’t have any kids (one was on the way), and while my schedule was full with coaching and the Fire Department, I still found time to workout just about every day. I still didn’t get it. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t feel I had any right to say he wasn’t trying, either.
It wasn’t until after becoming a dad and also having similar conversations with a number of others over the subsequent years that I could frame this in a better way.
In my experience, most people instinctively place others and their priorities above their own. Sometimes this is in detriment to their own best interest. There are exceptions to this but most people that I’ve been able to observe operate this way. Think about it for yourself. If you have kids you probably wake up in the morning and have to get them ready, make them breakfast and bring them somewhere. There are probably things you do at work to keep your boss or customers happy. Our minds are always thinking about what we need to do for others and it’s rare that we actually think about ourselves and our needs before others. Most of us, anyway.
No one would tell you that being selfless is bad and I’m not arguing that we should abandon this amazing quality and become selfish and self-centered, but what happens when we put others ahead of ourselves for so long that it begins to affect our health? Is it selfish to prioritize your health and fitness? I say no.
Now whenever I sit down with someone to talk about goals and time management, I ask them to tell me the three most important things in their lives, in order. The list looks like this almost every time:
Then I usually reframe their list to look more like this:
The usual response? “I would never put the gym before my family or my work”
I usually follow up by challenging “But how can you be all in for your family or all in for your work if you aren’t healthy? What are you missing and what are they missing, or could be missing, if your health gets in the way?”
Here’s how I see it: If I spend my whole life putting my family and career before my health, the outcome won’t be what I was expecting.
While I’m young this would be fine, but as I start to age I notice some love handles. That’s okay right? It’s called a “dad bod!” Next, my doctor makes a weird face when he sees my blood pressure at a routine check up. “Nothing to be too worried about, but that is a little high,” he says. A few years later, I just don’t seem to have the excitement I used to for my job, I’m tired all the time and need three cups of coffee a day to stay awake, and those love handles have now turned into needing a new wardrobe. During the next check up with my doctor, he tells me I need to go on blood pressure meds and to start looking into my diet and an exercise program, telling me “If you keep this up you’re on the path to an early death.”
So, let’s go back to my list. It took me years to put my health first on my list for the same reason others don’t as well. I didn’t want to appear selfish. But who’s really the selfish one? The dad who spends one hour a day five days a week working out or the dad who passes away a decade earlier than he should have?
My grandfather passed away from a heart attack in this early 60s. My brother had a heart attack at 36. Yep, you heard that right. He was only thirty six years old, the same age I am right now. A high school friend of mine’s brother passed away at age 41 from preventable heart problems. Both he and my grandfather left this world way too young and both could have lived much longer if they had taken their health seriously. Instead, they were workers! My grandfather was a carpenter who didn’t watch what he ate, didn’t exercise and hated going to the doctor. My friend’s brother was a heavy drinker and smoker who had had a white collar executive job at a large company. Both worked themselves to death, because they put family and money before their health.
I can say, without a doubt, that my family would have given up an hour every day without my grandfather to have had him around much longer. I’m sure my high school friend would say the same about his brother.
The purpose of this isn’t to shame anyone into fitness. I’m also not saying to leave your kids out in the rain to fend for themselves while you chase back squat PRs. The purpose is to encourage you to review your personal priorities. If family is at the top of that list, then health should be too. Maybe they can be equally important. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go crazy. You can simply start building a routine by setting aside 30 minutes to an hour a day for some sort of physical activity.
This routine can consist of almost anything. Maybe a family walk every night after work. Roll those walks into hikes on the weekends, and jogs with your spouse. Next, go on Craigslist and buy a kettlebell. Start doing some short, intense workouts in the garage that last no longer than 10 minutes but get you sweaty and full of endorphins. Next, sign up for a 5k or obstacle race so you have something to work towards.
Picture yourself twenty, thirty or forty years from now. Are you happily playing with your grandchildren and enjoying your life independently, or are you stuck on the couch or scooter, too achy and out of shape to enjoy this beautiful world and those in it? If you want the first life, like me, then put your health first. Just an hour a day. You can do it! And if you feel you can’t, come talk to me! We’ll make it happen together.