In the Dickens story A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Christmas past, who shows him how his greedy choices have led to his cold, friendless life. Getting perspective on what led him to his current state helps him become a better man.
At Kenzai we see a lot of people haunted by ghosts from the past. But these ghosts have to do with people’s perception of their bodies and physical capabilities. A lot of mental energy is wasted wrestling with these ghosts -— energy which could be better spent making better choices in the here and now.
Ghosts from the past mess with people in one of two ways:
- The “Formerly Fit” Ghost
In this situation, a person is dealing with the fact that in their youth they were athletic and physically fit. Because personality and core identity are mostly forged during the late teens through the mid-20s, a middle-aged person will often still “feel” they’re the same super-fit youth who excelled at sports and looked great in the mirror.
As stress, age, and less time for exercise wears on the body, the person haunted by the formerly fit ghost will go through a lot of internal strife. They acutely feel the mismatch between how they perceive themselves and their present condition.
“Ugh, look at that photo! That’s not what I look like, is it!?”
“Why am I out of breath? I’m not the kind of person who gets out of breath walking up a hill!”
“This hurts but I’ll push through it. I’m not the kind of person who gets injured doing simple exercise.”
As you can imagine, someone haunted by a formerly fit ghost quickly gets into trouble. They’re unduly hard on themselves when they get out of shape, and often push too hard trying to get back into shape, racking up injuries along the way. They also tend to be impatient for results, and want to skip over the ramp-up that’s required when getting back into nutrition and exercise. Ironically, we see higher levels of dropping out of programs from people who used to be fit than those who have never been fit at all.
- The “Formerly Unfit” Ghost
On the other end of the spectrum is the person whose core identity developed in an unfit body. This might be a person who was bookish and avoided sports at all costs, or someone who has always dealt with weight issues from a very young age. No matter what they do, they have a voice in the back of their heads second-guessing their fitness abilities.
“Why are you even trying? You’re just not the type of person who’s ever going to be fit.”
“You can’t run that far! You can’t do that many push-ups! You’re not ready for this.”
“Yes you may look good now, but soon it’ll fall apart and you’ll go back to your old self.”
This kind of ghost saps a person’s confidence and has them pulling back just when they’re on the cusp of significant body changes. They also tend to have more trouble maintaining, as eating poorly and not exercising feel like a default mode in times of stress and anxiety.
Have you ever been haunted by these ghosts of fitness past?
What’s the best way to get them to stop rattling their chains and get out of your head? If, in your youth, you took on 50 thousand dollars of credit card debt, that basic number is never going to change. Wherever you go, the 50k will follow, getting bigger with interest year by year.
Fortunately, fitness doesn’t work like that. You occupy an organic, dynamic, living, breathing body. You don’t wake up in the same body you went to sleep in. The structures within you are constantly on the move, tearing down, building up, and re-organizing based on the stimuli of your environment.
A good example of this is smoking. After just 12 hours with no smoking, the body has cleared all the excess carbon monoxide from the system. After 24 hours the risk of heart attack goes down. After 2 days smell and taste improve. Within a month lung function increases, and after a year incidence of coronary disease decreases by half. This process of healing and cleaning continues, so much so that after 10 years of quitting, all smoking related diseases are cut in half, and at the 20 year mark the lungs are returned to a state as if you had never smoked.
Imagine if someone who smoked 20 years ago said “I’d love to go on that hike with you, but I can’t keep up, I’ve got these smoker lungs...” This statement is not only self-defeatist, it’s plain wrong. The ex-smoker literally has a new pair of lungs compared to the time when they smoked.
What’s true for the lungs after quitting smoking is even more true for things like muscle mass and body fat. The body evolved to quickly and efficiently pack fat on in times of plenty, and break down fat into energy in times of scarcity. Similarly, if the body is getting the message that it needs to be stronger or faster, it easily shifts into a pattern that layers new muscle tissue in the right places to help you do what you need to do.
When it comes to the body, there are hard problems and easy problems. Hard problems are things like autoimmune diseases, organ malfunction, and anything having to do with the spinal cord. These problems are never resolved easily and require years of work to see minimal improvement. Often the best outcome is simply learning to live with the disorder with a reduced quality of life.
Something like carrying too much body fat, too little muscle, or being deconditioned is an easy problem. The body already has all the tools needed to fix the issue, it’s just up to the human to change the inputs, and wait for the desired output to come out on the other side of the equation. The body will do all the steps in between!
The ghosts of fitness past love nothing more than to make this easy problem feel bigger and more difficult than it actually is. If you used to be fit, the ghost will try to pile on the guilt and shame that you’ve let yourself slip. If you used to be unfit, the ghost will tell you you’re no athlete, and will never achieve the physique you want.
When you feel one of these voices of the past whispering in your ear, remember one thing:
Ghosts aren’t real. The only power they have over you is that which you give them.
You don’t have to empower these ghosts (which are really just habitual thought patterns) with your attention. You can take a breath, dismiss the ghost, and open your eyes to the huge potential that the present moment holds.
You may have done something the same way 100 times, but you can always try something different on time number 101. Ghosts have no power over a fresh, open mind in the present moment! The sunlight of now evaporates them into the ether.
In the story, when Scrooge awoke from his night of spectral visitors, did he ruminate and mope around for weeks about the experience? No! He got out and started making changes immediately. Train like Scrooge. Enthusiastically take the chance to be a better man or woman TODAY. It’s the only day you’ve got!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder