For the past two weeks, the world witnessed inspiring moments of athletic greatness. Years of training, practice and intense focus unfolded in a matter of seconds. Thanks to the continued dominance of Phelps, the speed of Bolt, the endurance of Mo Farah, and the heart of Gabby Douglas, London, in the summer of 2012, will burn bright in our collective memory, like the enormous cauldron that illuminated its Olympic Stadium.
The greater question is: Can this inspiring two weeks propel us, as a nation, to real change, healthier lives and better well being? Few of us will (or need to) train with the intensity of an Olympic athlete, but most of us can better incorporate fitness into our daily lives. For all the profound Olympic moments this summer, perhaps one of the most inspiring came in, of all things, a Nike commercial entitled Find Your Greatness. In the spot, an overweight 12-year-old boy named Nathan from London, Ohio, begins a journey to finding his greatness by stepping out onto an empty road and jogging. In the commercial, the narrator (Tom Hardy) says: "Somehow we've come to believe that greatness is gift, reserved for a chosen few -- for prodigies, for superstars -- and the rest of us can only stand by watching. You can forget that."
While most wouldn't qualify Nathan's athletic ability as "greatness" (it's debatable whether or not his pace even qualifies as a "jog"), his efforts and achievements, relative to himself, are exceptional. Granted, if this is the only time Nathan steps out on the road to jog, that isn't much of an achievement... but with sustained dedication, this is a means to a more active and healthier end.
As a professional fitness trainer, many of my new clients come in with goals right out of the stuff you see on magazine covers: "GET RIPPED ABS!" "LOSE FAT FAST!" "BUILD BIGGER MUSCLES IN MINUTES!" And they usually want to see all that... immediately. Occasionally you get people more health-oriented who come in wanting, for example, to lower their cholesterol, but nine times out of 10 clients are just concerned with looking better in their Facebook photos.
To those who are overwhelmed by the prospect of what is required to reach these goals, my advice is this: Be better than you were the day before. That's the secret. That's what drove those athletes to greatness. If you follow that motto, your other goals will fall into place, your body will become tight and toned, your body fat will dramatically decrease, your health will improve and most importantly, you'll find (and sustain) your greatness.
I imagine before he broke world records, Michael Phelps started his Olympic career swimming the length of a pool. And before she won gold medals in both the individual and team all-around competitions, Gabby Douglas did her share of handstands in her family living room. Their greatness was born by a consistent desire to improve. Fortunately, many kids are likely to start swimming, gymnastics and other athletic programs because of what they saw this summer. For the rest of the kids (and adults) still on the sidelines, we need to find ways to make fitness friendly and far less intimidating.
In this country, we've been given the dangerous impression that, in order to achieve results, you have to finish every workout drenched in sweat and on the verge of vomiting. With marketed workout programs like P90X, the Insanity Workout (the name itself implies you'd have to be of questionable mental health to attempt a workout this extreme), the CrossFit community, or the grueling punishment the contestants of The Biggest Loser are put through, exercise has begun to seem daunting. Do these workouts produce results? You bet. But are they for everybody? How many people fail to start working out because they are intimidated by the perception that every single workout has to be a sadistic, torturous pukefest? And more importantly, how many people begin working out but fail to stick to it because the intensity at which they think they need to work out is not realistic and they burn out too quickly? While not as glamorous, consistency is far more important than intensity. You can go in the gym for an hour once a week and "kill it," but you are better off incorporating a moderate workout three times a week.
You can't lose 25 pounds before you lose five. You can't run a marathon before you run a mile. It's one day of making healthy decisions... followed by another. The key factors for success in any exercise program are setting realistic goals and reaching them through perspective, discipline, consistency, and patience.
As someone once awarded "Star Body Sculptor of the Year" I have helped my share of actors look perfect for the part. What most of the public either doesn't realize or ignores is that those physiques happened over time with a lot of hard work and intense focus. Those goals were achieved through discipline with their diet and dedication to spending hours in the gym every week. Actors and athletes give up a lot to look and perform the way they do, and it doesn't happen overnight.
While you can strive to mimic their efforts, my advice is not to set goals and judge success or failure based on how you compare to other people's physical appearance; the only person you should compare yourself to is yourself from yesterday. Don't juxtapose yourself with someone who has been working out for years, has more money or time to train, or makes a living by being in exceptional shape. You don't, to list one example, need your body completely devoid of fat to be healthy.
We can draw inspiration from the past two weeks by taking the smaller steps that these athletes have taken throughout their career. Everyone is at a different starting point, but we all should feel empowered to find our greatness. Greatness comes, like 12-year-old Nathan from London, Ohio, discovered, one step at a time.
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