This year, like every year, you paused during the holidays to reflect on what kind of person you've been - what kind of spouse, what kind of friend; what kind of parent, what kind of child; what kind of employee, what kind of neighbor. Too bad you didn't stop to evaluate your athletic career, too.
Yes, I'm serious. Yes, I know that the last time you did something even remotely athletic was back when you still wore braces. And yes, I know that just thinking of anything more than moderate exertion makes your back give out.
But here's the thing: If you're going to make a genuine change in your physical well-being, you're going to have to start thinking in a radically different way - not just about fitness, but about yourself. If until now you have imagined yourself the perfectly average person, from whom little athletic glory is ever expected, it's time to start cultivating a new self-image. Specifically it's time to think of yourself as an athlete.
This is a vital concept. The extent to which you buy in to the idea that you are an athlete will correlate directly to your success in your pursuit of fitness.
Think about this for a minute. There is a fundamental difference between the average person and the athlete, and it is not just in genetics. The real difference begins in the mind, not the muscles.
To start with, the average person "works out," while the athlete trains. The difference is huge, and definitely much more than a matter of semantics. The average person's workout consists of mildly strenuous activities that provide minimal effect. Most people have only vague fitness goals, and when they show up at the gym they have no well-defined plan of what they're about to do. The athlete's training, on the other hand, consists of vigorously challenging activities that are profoundly effective in achieving specific goals. The athlete knows what he or she wants to accomplish, works hard on a plan to accomplish it, then devotes him- or herself to fulfilling that plan.
The average person works out because he feels an obligation to do so; if not for that spare tire around his middle, he'd happily avoid the gym altogether. For the average person, exercise is an onerous but necessary way to make amends for dietary sins. The athlete, however, trains because he or she finds physical fitness invigorating and uplifting; for the athlete, exercise is one part of an all-encompassing pursuit of realizing his or her full potential.
What will life look like when you think of yourself as an athlete? It won't necessarily include any lucrative endorsement contracts, but it will certainly mean some practical changes in the way you act.
When you think of yourself as an athlete, you will choose to exercise - not because you will feel guilty if you don't, but because you will see training as an opportunity to live up to the expectations that you place on yourself. When you think of yourself as an athlete, you will choose to follow a healthy diet - not because you will worry about gaining extra weight if you don't, but because you'll know that doing so will improve your performance. And when you see a direct correlation between your efforts in training and their effects on your performance (not to mention your body), then your training will transform from a chore that "punishes" you into a pathway to the rewards of greater fitness.
For too many people, exercising serves as a constant reminder that they are not what they wish they were. The fact is, though, that none of us is perfect. Cultivating a mind-set - and a set of behaviors - that reinforces the idea that we can reach our personal best, and helps us get there, adds a powerfully positive element to our lives.
As an athlete, you'll need to establish goals for yourself that you can reach through your training, and you'll need to focus your training on the skills necessary to reach your goals. If your goal is to become stronger, you won't help yourself by doing an infinite number of spinning classes. If your goal is to run farther, you won't succeed by spending half of every training session pumping up your biceps. And if you want to make gains in several fields at once, you'll have to break out of that same old routine you've been doing since your high-school gym class.
Recording your workouts and tracking your performance will help you figure out what works and what doesn't - but perhaps most importantly, it will make you accountable to yourself. Are you getting better from one month to the next? If not, step back and figure out whether it's your effort or your training that is holding you back, then attack your next workout with new vigor and fresh ideas.
Being an athlete doesn't have to mean being obsessive and extraordinarily demanding about every aspect of your life, but it does mean approaching your training and your diet as if something is at stake - because something is. Being an athlete means holding yourself to a higher standard - and reaching it. That's what victory is. Athletes experience it all the time. Shouldn't you?
The author, an editor at The Jerusalem Post, runs Personal Best Fitness.