The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Importance of Self-Reliance

5 Tips for Becoming More Resilient

In 1939, at the beginning of WWII, the British Government printed over 2-million posters that were created to go up within 24-hours of the outbreak of war. The objective of the posters was to keep morale of the British people high in the event of a German invasion. The posters were masterminded by civil servants, but delivered as a message from the King. The maxim of each poster emphasized the responsibility of each British citizen as a member of the British collective. 

Two of the slogans used in this campaign were: "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory" and "Keep Calm and Carry On."  The mottos of these posters tap into the zeitgeist of the current economic times and are experiencing a resurgence of popularity, which has lead to a merchandizing bonanza. You've probably seen one of these maxims on a mug, T-shirt, screensaver... or one of the parodies that say things like "Now Panic and Freak Out" in the same font and layout.

Things are so bad for so many people right now, that you have to have a sense of humor at a certain point or you really might lose it. How can we as a nation keep our individual and collective morale high in such desperate times? I think the key lies in a push for self-reliance, a philosophy made famous in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. In this entry I will share 5-tips that can help you become more resilient and help you create self-reliance.

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This past weekend I watched a panel discussion called "Reawakening America: From Poverty to Prosperity" hosted by Tavis Smiley that focused on what we can do individually and collectively to deal with this crisis. The statistics of poverty and economic inequality are staggering. With so many talented people out of work and the 'middle-class' evaporating rapidly, there is a palpable-and contagious-sense of hopelessness in the air. How can we turn this around?  The panel didn't offer a specific agenda, but as someone who focuses on the power of physical activity to transform lives, I believe that motivating ourselves and others to be active and healthy will create a nationwide energy based in strength, hope and confidence, not fear, hate and resentment.

As a panelist on the Reawakening America broadcast, Suze Orman spoke about her belief that every individual has the power to change his or her attitudes and behavior and can create a chain reaction of change. Your daily attitude and behavior impacts everyone that you come in contact with throughout the day and you have the power to start a domino-effect from the bottom up that could have national ramifications. We've seen it happen in the Arab Spring and it can happen here too. It matters what you say, it matters what you do! So, as Spike Lee said, "Do the Right Thing."

Below are 5 tips that are rooted in the philosophy of The Athlete's Way to make you more resilient and help create more self-reliance.

1. Stay Healthy: When you feel tired, sick or depressed everyday tasks become monumental. If you dedicate yourself to staying healthy you will have more energy, strength and stamina--which are key to self-reliance. By eating a healthier diet, exercising, connecting face-to-face with other people, reducing stress and getting enough sleep you create a life-long recipe for resilience. The principles of wellness are basic and will never change. All you have to do is commit to making small changes in your daily routine. These small lifestyle changes will lead to long-term and permanent improvements in your mental, physical and emotional well-being.

Behind The Athlete's Way approach to motivating teens and pre-teens to take better care of themselves is an understanding that in order to want to take care of yourself you have to begin with a foundation of self-respect, self-love and hope for your future. As a gay teenager, I was very self-destructive which came from a place of self-hate and deep-rooted cynicism and anger at the world around me. Abusing my body was a slow form of suicide, which it is for anyone who neglects to take care of him or herself. I really didn't want to be around to deal with more pain, suffering and bullying for eternity.  Running helped turn my life around by making me more optimistic, self-reliant and resilient. I think that any type of regular activity can do this and through exercise we all have the power to take our lives to a higher ground.

2. Daily Physical Activity: Our bodies are designed to work hard physically and are short-circuiting in a sedentary digital age. Regular physical activity is something humans must do in order to maintain a sound mind in a sound body and be self-reliant. Luckily, it is something that is designed to make you feel good. Remember that Sweat=Bliss. The more you move your body, the more energy you will have to seize the day. On the flip side, the more sedentary you are the more your life force gets sucked into a black hole where it goes to waste. If you do not move your body regularly, your constitution will deteriorate and you will slowly become more and more fragile and dependent on others for your survival, which is the opposite of self-reliance.

A recent article in AARP magazine said that 'sitting' is the 'new smoking' because inactivity has become an epidemic that is creating health costs which are as high-or higher-than those from tobacco use. Think like a Spartan youth. Embrace the 'pinch of hunger' and start believing that your daily physical activity keeps you brave and sturdy in the face of adversity, and it will!  Sometimes you have to use your imagination to cope with truly dire situations.

3. Fortify Mental Toughness:  A daily commitment to exercise makes you mentally tough. The act of deciding that you are going to begin and finish a workout everyday fortifies a mindset and habit of perseverance that you can apply to any challenge you face. A seize-the-day attitude is fortified by pushing yourself physically and mentally through an athletic challenge-no matter how big or small it is. You don't have to be running a 10K to feel these effects.

I hate to reference the most over quoted motivational quotation of all time...but what Nietzsche said is so true that I have to say it again: "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger." You can make the concept of almost being 'destroyed' into a game when you're working out. Pushing against your limits in athletics is a fantastic way to flex your ability to persevere through a sufferfest-- "survive" it-- and come out of the experience feeling stronger.

Push yourself harder at the gym. Crank up the intensity and pretend that you are on a quixotic journey--even if you are just on a spin bike or elliptical trainer. Doing this will fortify your mental toughness and create a 'tool-box' of coping mechanisms you can use with other challenges you face in the workplace or job hunt.

When I woke up yesterday it was windy, gray and snowing. The reading on the thermometer was 7° F. I really did not feel like leaving the cozy comfort of my bed to face the brutal headwinds and bone chilling temperatures to go for a long run, which I like to do every morning. But I knew that the process of lacing up my sneakers, bundling up and heading out to complete my daily run would fortify my 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' mindset.  Like everybody else, I have to be vigilant about maintaining a tenacious spirit in order to stay upbeat and positive and to keep moving forward in these very competitive and cutthroat times.

Being intimidated by bad weather or tough conditions and then bagging a workout can make you feel like a wimp; whereas if you get out there and push through it you end up feeling much stronger and resilient. Remember this the next time you want to bail on a workout because of bad weather. That said, there's always the option of working out indoors, which is equally beneficial.

4. Live Below Your Means: As my grandmother said, "You can't spend money and have it too." Suze Orman's main message for living what she calls the 'New American Dream' is to Live Below Your Means and to try to raise you FICO score without using credit cards.  I think it's terrific advice.  As Thoreau famously said: "We make ourselves rich by making our wants few." This is a simple trick you can use to reframe your economic reality or attitude towards consumerism.  You have the power to turn feeling like you have 'less-than' into a system of belief that you are unfettered and free. There is liberty in living a simple life. And we all know that money doesn't buy happiness. Again, the reality of poverty and hunger goes well beyond simply shifting your 'explanatory style.' I do not intend to be a Pollyanna or play down the brutality of poverty.

I made the decision to purposely lead a simpler, less materialistic life a few years ago and it is the best thing I ever did. Just before the global financial crisis of 2008 I had a gut instinct that I wanted to get out of Manhattan. The east village, where I had lived for over two decades, had become really depressing to me. I felt trapped in an environment that was no longer gritty in a way that I found interesting. Everything had become either really bourgeois on the one-hand or really poverty stricken on the other, and I wanted out. There was nothing sexy about being a 'starving artist' or in my case 'starving athlete' in Manhattan anymore.

So, I called the landlord of my rent-stabilized apartment and said that I wanted to break the lease which I had had since the 1980s.  I told the woman on the phone that I was going to take what I call a 'Things I lost in the Fire' approach to moving out. I just wanted to go in quickly and grab things that I really loved and leave everything else behind. 

I told her that I was living in Provincetown for the summer and was going to take the bus down to NY with a duffle bag and a milk crate. I would only carry out with me what I could fit in the duffle back and the milk crate. We both laughed about the whole concept and had a fun conversation. When we met in person on 'moving day' we really clicked.  I asked her to please go over to my apartment with her friends and family and take anything they wanted...I left behind thousands and thousands of dollars of 'stuff' but I have no regrets. It was the most liberating thing I've ever done. 

5. Close Knit Human Bonds: The key to self-reliance isn't just about being healthy and strong-or having financial security-it is also about maintaining close-knit human bonds. Early in my athletic career I thought I was completely self-reliant and didn't need anyone else to help me achieve my dreams. I was wrong. Once I got into ultra-endurance racing-where the athlete relies on a support crew to reach the finish line-I learned a valuable life lesson about how much we need to stick together. Maintaining close-knit relationships takes effort, but it is probably the most important foundation to creating true self-reliance.         

As individuals and a nation we are only as strong as our weakest link. We need to come together and support each other. All ships rise in a rising tide. You can change the tides by setting an example of self-reliance and optimism that will rub off on your friends and family, and your neighbors and so on, and so on.... Make it happen by starting today!

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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