Huffpost Healthy Living
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ben Greenfield Headshot

8 Life-Changing Lessons Exercise Enthusiasts Can Learn From 'Thrive'

Posted: Updated:
WALK
Mike Harrington via Getty Images

Two months ago, on a road trip to the Oregon coast, I read a life-changing book: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington.

I'm a true believer in serendipity and thus believe I was meant to read this book at a very opportune time -- a time when I was immersed in a combination of pursuing physical greatness with very difficult workouts, juggling half a dozen simultaneous writing assignments and attempting to map out a hectic summer of kid and family schedules.

Just like many other high achievers, exercise enthusiasts, weekend warriors, gym junkies, biohackers and health nuts, I was trying to squeeze every last drop out of life in an attempt to attain personal fulfillment by achieving amazing feats of physical, mental and career performance.

Arianna wrote Thrive while immersed in a very similar hectic pursuit of greatness, and she was specifically inspired to begin writing after a personal wake-up call for her came in the form of a broken cheekbone and a nasty gash over her eye -- the result of a fall brought on by physical exhaustion and lack of sleep. As the president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, Arianna is celebrated as one of the world's most influential women, and she is, by any traditional measure, extraordinarily successful.

Yet as she found herself going from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond pure exhaustion, she asked herself: Is this really what success feels like?

Within the pages of Thrive, Arianna reveals how there is far more to living a truly successful life than just earning a bigger salary or capturing a corner office. She details how our relentless pursuit of the two traditional metrics of success -- money and power -- has led to an epidemic of physical and mental burnout, stress-related illnesses and an erosion in the quality of our relationships, family life, and (ironically) our careers.

So why was this book such a life-changer for me? You're about to find out the eight reasons why, and in this article I'm going to do something new. You see, I read many books on my Kindle Fire, and while reading, I use the highlight function on my Kindle so that I can re-visit especially meaningful sections. In order for you to visualize my highlights from Thrive in their raw format, I've included screenshots for you below, along with why I found that specific section particularly meaningful. Enjoy.

Lesson 1: Life Is Obstacles

Dr. Alfred D'Souza You will find several quotes strategically scattered throughout Thrive. As an obstacle course racer, this quote by Souza was especially meaningful to me. An obstacle race like a Spartan does not begin when you have conquered every mud pit, barbwire crawl, cold water immersion, traverse wall climb and boulder carry. The obstacles are the race. If you spend your entire race frowning and complaining as you wait for the real stuff to begin, you'll be pretty disappointed at the finish line that you didn't instead welcome, relish and appreciate conquering the challenges of the event.And life is no different. It's supposed to be full of obstacles, setbacks, sweat, stress and times of need. Those are not only what keep life interesting, but also make the easier parts of life all the more enjoyable and appreciable. If you dig this concept, you may also enjoy Ryan Holliday's book, The Obstacle Is The Way.

------------------------------

Lesson 2: Learn To Center

Learn to Center Back in high school -- especially before an important match -- my tennis coach would bring us all into the classroom and have us lay on the ground with our eyes close. He'd play some light music, and then walk us through the process of sequentially flexing and releasing every muscle in our body, starting with each individual toe and progressing all the way up the legs to the hips, back, shoulders, arms and even our cheek and forehead muscles. Flex and release. Flex and release. When we'd finally released and relaxed that final forehead muscle, we'd be in a deep state of relaxation, and then we'd visualize one single word that we associated with that feeling. For me, that word was "Blue" -- as in the deep blue hue of a river, lake or ocean.

And then, when the set was tied at 6-6 and I faced the ultimate stress of a formidable opponent about to crack a break point serve down my throat, I'd visualize that color "Blue" and softly whisper it to myself. It would suddenly create an overwhelming sense of focused calm and peace.

Later, in my exercise psychology course at university, I learned that this technique is called "Progressive Muscular Relaxation," and it's based on the concept of centering that Arianna describes in the book.

Now, when I find myself shallow chest breathing during a workout, holding my breath while writing an e-mail or sweating bullets before I step on stage to speak, I'll use that same centering technique. You'd benefit from learning it, too. I'd recommend learning the technique described in the highlight above, or Progressive Muscular Relaxation or the Quick Coherence Techniques from the HeartMath Institute or even experimenting with all three to see what works for you.

--------------------------------

Lesson 3: Your Heart Matters

Iain Thomas Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 2 These next two quotes from Iain Thomas and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are both highlighting a similar concept.

For some, it's easy to get so caught in up career and schedules and personal accomplishments and every other shiny penny that appears in the path of life that heart and soul are neglected. Arianna admits that was certainly her state of affairs when she wrote the book -- and in her case, it was her health and fitness that was a big part of that heart and soul neglect.

But perhaps this isn't the case with you. Perhaps you're a workout fiend. Your health is top-notch. Your body fat is dialed in. Your physique is the envy of your neighbors.

However, that doesn't mean that you're prioritizing your heart and soul. See, having a healthy heart and soul is about much more than simply having good cardiovascular fitness. Heart and soul health is about happiness, quality of relationships, meaning, purpose and direction and the amount of love in your life. I know many, many people who can outrun me on a treadmill, and who also have much larger paychecks, but who spend lonely lives full of interpersonal conflict, poor sleep, 24-7 rushed stress and internal sadness.

Of course, the self-quantified biohacker in me has to point you in this direction: do the one thing that I do every morning and begin tracking something called your "heart rate variability" (HRV). If your HRV is consistently low, then it's a pretty darn good sign that you need to place more importance on your heart.

--------------------------------

Lesson 4: Rest

Rest Just two years ago, my day was not complete unless I had exercised, and exercised hard. Perhaps it was carry-over from my days as a competitive bodybuilder, but no day felt quite complete or fulfilled unless I knew I'd done something that would make me wake up with sore muscles the next morning.

Then I had my cortisol levels tested by a lab. Despite me being a very fit and healthy guy "on the outside," my body was being ravaged by levels of internal stress hormones that you'd expect to see in an overweight and unhealthy truck driver sucking down slurpees and cheese fries.

In my pursuit of extreme levels of fitness, I'd forgotten the sage and ancient wisdom of that day of rest. Our muscles thrive on contraction, then relaxation. Our brains thrive on wake, then sleep. Our bodies thrive on work, then recover. Trees thrive on blooming, then shedding. Animals thrive on hunting, then hibernating. And although it can sometimes take years, you can only go so long without that rest from labor before something breaks, often irreparably.

Now, I have two days of rest. Every Wednesday is a day in which I can do things like magnesium salt baths, cold soaks, foam roller, massage or a trip to the sauna, but no actual exercise. Every Sunday is a day to try a new sport or simply hike with the family or go on an easy walk with the kids -- but no "structured exercise" is required.

It took some time for me to become accustomed to so much rest, but my brain and body are the better for it, and I now have the peace of mind that I'm operating in accordance with the work and rest cycles we see all around us in nature.

--------------------------------

Lesson 5: Walk

Walk Since I read this section of the book, I've been going on more walks.

I love that phrase "Solvitur Ambulando". Solve it by ambulating. Figure stuff out by going on walks.

So when I'm puzzled by a business problem, stuck with writer's block, need a break from the hustle and bustle of life, or simply want to immerse myself in what the Japanese call "Shin-Yen" or "forest bathing", I've been going for a stroll.

Sometimes I just walk to the mailbox at the end of the cul-de-sac and back. Sometimes I pedal my bicycle to the park, lock the bike and go for a walk on the trails. Sometimes I walk an entire airport. I don't "count" this as an exercise session or workout (although you theoretically could if you used Ray Cronise's shiver-walking approach), but just a way to tap into creativity and solve problems.

Try going for an easy walk the next time you find yourself staring blankly at an e-mail response, empty piece of paper, or task. By the way, if you're an athlete, running is much different. When you begin running, huffing, and puffing with a furrowed brow, creativity is often shoved to the side in favor of focusing on fitness. The only exception I can think to this is if you learn how to turn running into a nasal-breathing based meditation practice, which you can do using the techniques I describe in this podcast.

----------------------------------------

Lesson 6: Live Boldly

Live Boldly This year, I started living by a new rule that helps me do live boldly in the way that Hughes outlines above.

"Every day, do something uncomfortable. Every week, do something scary. Every year, do something that scares the hell out of you."

That's not trademarked. But feel free to quote and attribute me.

To do something uncomfortable, I learn a new song on my guitar, teach my kids chess, try to read a chapter of an old work of fiction like Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle, flip open the pages of a book about finance, do 30 burpees, or even use a brain-training phone app -- like N-Back Training or Lumosity. These are small injections of discomfort that ultimately make the body and brain bounce back just a bit stronger, without creating too much stress. Music, new hobbies or short hard bursts of exercise all count.

To do something scary, I do a hard workout that makes me quake in my boots for a couple hours before the workout begins (I call this "going to battle"), or I try to slam dunk a basketball off a trampoline, or I jump off a cliff into really icy, cold water and stay in the water as long as I can, I call a friend I haven't spoken to in more than two years, or I get on stage and speak to a large audience. I basically send a message to my body that yes, it's still alive, and it better be ready for anything. Extremes of heat or cold, very hard workouts or very mentally demanding activities all count.

To do something that scares the hell out of me, I sign up for an amazing feat of physical performance like an Ironman triathlon, or marathon or Spartan race, commit to writing a very big book like Beyond Training or fly to a different part of the world to immerse myself in culture and the discomforts of being gone from home for a long time. Having a new child, getting married, doing a very hard physical event, or starting a new job all count.

Live boldy. Hopefully this gets your creative wheels churning.

----------------------------------------

Lesson 7: Be Present

Be Present

 

Be Present 2
Above are two separate quotes from the book.

Regarding the first -- in the symphony of your life, are you simply waiting for some grand finale as you engage in the daily routine of rolling out of bed, checking your e-mail and Facebook and trudging to work, or are you enjoying every note, beat and moment of silence along the way? For me, since I finished Thrive, my moments of symphony enjoyment have included being more present during sex and orgasms, listening intently to my breath, my heart and the rhythms of my body during each exercise session and savoring every bite of lunch outside in the sunshine rather than inside hunched over a computer.

Regarding the second, in all your journeys, adventures, discoveries and workouts, are you present, or you simply holding your iPhone camera up to your face and seeing life through the lens of a 2 inch x 5 inch device? Are you actually listening to your conversations with your children or your loved one, or are you simply thinking ahead to dinner, to your evening meeting, or to your upcoming workout?

Are you living every day as if it were potentially your final day on the face of the planet?

That's a powerful way to think.

----------------------------------------

Lesson 8: Embrace Death

Embrace Death I was recently criticized on a popular online forum for seeming to be engaged in crazy, pill-popping techniques that would somehow allow me to "live as long as possible". I have websites like "BiohacksBlog.com" that features edgy and controversial anti-aging and longevity techniques like smart drugs and electrical stimulation. I've had guests on my podcast like Nick Delgado, who wants to set a Guinness record for world's longest living man, and Aubrey De Grey, who has devoted his life's work to longevity science.

But I don't dwell on these types of topics because I fear death. I simply desire to use better living through science to live the years that I've been blessed with as a fully functional human being with a body as unbroken as possible from the unnatural stressors of our modern post-industrial era (and yes, you may need to go back and read that sentence again). This is why I do things like exercise, take multi-vitamins and "biohack".

But when I read the description of Lou Reed, it really makes me think about the way I think about death, or as Arianna says in her book "mindfulness about death". The purpose of life - and especially the purpose of healthy living and exercise - should not be to avoid or hide from death in a desperate attempt to extend our lives as long as possible, but to instead prepare ourselves for death by spreading as much love as possible in the world around us while we are alive, and learning how to deeply appreciate each and every breath we take.

The entire final section of the book Thrive is about death. And it is heavy stuff. But no matter what you believe happens when we die, whether, as Arianna writes "our souls live on, whether we go to heaven or hell, whether we're reincarnated or folded back into the energy of the universe or simply cease to exist altogether" - it is probably the best perspective on death that I have ever read.

---------------------------------

Summary

So, those are the eight lessons learned from Thrive: life is obstacles, learn to center, your heart matters, rest, walk, live boldly, be present and embrace death. This new way of living has made an enormous difference in my happiness and direction, and I owe Arianna a world of thanks for being brave enough to defy social expectations of success and pen this book.

Finally, you may be curious what the "Third Metric" refers to in the full title of Arianna's book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. You'll just have to read the book to find out.

Enjoy the journey and leave your questions, comments and feedback below.

From Our Partners