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March 20, 2020

How Exercise Has Infused Hope Within Me During Turbulent Times

Last August, just after my 51st birthday, I decided that I wanted to get into the best body shape of my life. I made a deceleration in a blog post(link) that I would end the year at my fittest, most energetic and healthiest condition ever.

This translated to somewhat unrealistic goals: to lose 5 kilos, have less than 12 percent body fat, and run a 10km race in under sixty minutes by the first day of 2020.

Though I achieved my overarching goal of being in the best shape of my life, I was nowhere near the numbers, which was fine.

Until it wasn’t again.

I felt that I put in a lot of work yet the stubborn belly fat was still there. It was as if I built a beautiful house only for it to be ruined by a coat of cheap exterior paint that was hiding the lavish interior.

Now you would rightly assume that I’m being rather superficial here. In that, I’m already in good shape but I still want to do more and look better at an age when it wasn’t essential.

However, that stubborn visceral belly fat meant more to me than just the aesthetics. It represented a sign of failure, of giving up only when the goal was near. There was an underlying feeling within me that I needed to push further and finish what I had earlier declared.

In shedding the extra pounds, I was also releasing my ‘not enough’ mentality. The negative state of mind that I sometimes found myself stuck in and where I say it’s okay not to push anymore because I’m afraid of doing the hard work.

Whether it’s in my relationships, at work, or with my writing, I often don’t release that inner ‘handbrake’ due to some fear that has inhibited me since I was young. It’s like I know I can do this yet I give up on it.

Perhaps I’m the embodiment of that often-misattributed quote (to Nelson Mandela) of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

The past year has been tough on me. The company I’ve built for over 25 years is struggling amidst a country-wide recession. Whenever things are tough, my go-to place has always been exercise. My body has always been a place of refuge for my self-esteem.

I had grown up as an athlete; running for the school team and playing for the football team. I have had a good physique throughout my life. For me, physical activity in whatever form is not only an anti-depressant. It has always been a way for me to seek solace from the hardships of life.

Science has backed my instinct of using exercise to feel good. In the book, “The Joy of Movement,” Kelly McGonigal confirms that the part of our brain responsible for stress response is rich in Endocannabinoids, which are the cannabis-like molecules produced within our bodies. These are released after a sustained moderate aerobic exercise and immediately increase dopamine, increasing feelings of contentment, reducing anxiety, and making us feel more socially open and connected to others.

Hours spent on a soccer pitch calmed me as I first struggled with the commitment required for marriage and parenting. The hundreds of kilometres I ran on the streets of Accra during my running phase opened up my mind and heart to new thoughts and emotions. Dedicated strength training for the past 6 months has helped me become more mentally robust and much more resilient in any endeavour I pursue.

Deep down, I feel that my company’s woes and my struggle to rid myself of the last few pounds are metaphorically connected. In that, for my company to succeed, I must also shed the excess fat that is everywhere within it – whether that’s in the way I’m leading the team, getting rid of mediocre team members who are coasting, or the company’s passive long-term strategy.

Just like my quest for a better physique, my company needs an injection of freshness and resilience in the face of stiff competition.

As the pressure on me rises, I have doubled down on my physical goal. I’ve now enlisted an online fitness coach who works with me on my specific goals. I’ve realized that I’ve plateaued in my physical growth and quickly hired Bryan when I read on his website that, “for someone who is lean, fit and strong, gaining muscle and losing fat requires a significant chunk of time, effort and sweat. But if you’re currently fat and weak, you’ll be able to make progress a lot more quickly.”

Bryan took one look at my pictures and my current workout regimen and expertly advised that I cut the carbs, eat more protein, and up the intensity of my workouts, not necessarily the time I spent in the gym. “Give it three months of consistently committing to the plan and then things will start to happen,” he said.

In becoming physically stronger, I’m also becoming mentally stronger. I’ve never faced such worrisome times as I have now, and yet instead of staying in bed and hiding under the covers as I’ve done many times before, I find myself rising early and at the gym by 7.30 am.

That then becomes the backbone of my day, where I’m strong enough to handle any troubling issue that comes my way. In growing my physical muscles, I’m also developing my emotional resilience.

Again, this is confirmed in McGonigal’s book as new research shows that our skeletal muscles also function as endocrine glands producing mood-boosting hormones scientists call “hope molecules,” or Myokines. These are released every time a muscle contracts providing us with stress resilience.

It’s like every time I’m doing a bicep curl or a pull-up, I’m injecting my mind with a surge of hope. That is precisely how I feel when I leave the gym—I’m powerful and I’m ready for any challenge that comes my way.

I’m hoping that I will reach both my goals of shedding the belly fat and setting my company back on track by the end of the year.  However, when I feel that my egoic mind is demanding quick results, I recall the lessons that I’ve learned from the Bhagavad Gita:

Get into action. Do what you love. Go for your goals.

But, detach from the results. Detach from the fruits of your actions. We can only control our actions—not their outcomes. But we should never—never—detach from our efforts.

As such, I’ve accepted that the transformation will take both time and a great effort.

I know I must be patient, resilient, and, most of all, I must enjoy the process.

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