Life lessons from the gym

10 minute read

Casting my mind back to how this journey began four years ago, a friend had posted his first 10km run and I remember being so impressed. I got on a call with him to understand his process and journey to the run. That was the motivation. It started with taking short walks within my estate and turned into longer and much longer walks. At the time, I did not have proper walking/workout shoes, so I was faced with a choice - I could either begin with whatever I had or wait a couple more days to get properly kitted. I knew how well my quest for perfection often led to procrastination, and so, off I went walking with my pair of comfortable slippers. My fitness journey had begun.

Joining a gym, finding your tribe 

Whilst in Nigeria, my gym was more than just a gym; it was a community and a delightful one at that. People trained in groups, supported one other, hailed when another completed a feat, complemented individual progress and/or consistency, noticed when you had been away for a bit. It was a vibe. That made a world of difference. Shout out to i-Fitness Gym, Magodo Branch. 

I remember my first day at the gym. When the instructor asked if I’d been working out prior to then, I responded so confidently - ‘yeah, I follow some routines via an app fairly consistently. I take walks and do some light jogs’. He said ‘Cool. Please give me some walking lunges back and forth the hallway three times’. Guys, I almost died. What?! I came back sore, panting, and thinking to myself, ‘Gosh I thought I was fit!’ He would later tell me he's often skeptical of the fitness levels of people who say they only work out at home by themselves. My view, good for you and better than nothing. 

From my experience though, there’s only so much you can do on your own. And if you are doing great solo currently, imagine how remarkable you can become in a community.  It always helps to be among people aspiring to similar goals, gym or no gym, the payoff of being a part of a community of like-minded people, whatever that means to you, is immense. 

Getting a coach

I find writing this piece interesting, as I have never really set out to get a coach. As with many life instances, coaches sometimes happen upon one. Having one, though, I see what a huge difference it can make in shaping the overall experience.

Coaches are pretty much guides. People who have been there, done that, with results to show. Working with one can dramatically shorten the learning curve, preventing one from going round and round in circles. Is it possible to get through without one? Yes, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to learn the ropes or settle in, coaches go a long way. Things as ‘simple’ as correcting your form while carrying out the routines, ensuring you’re doing the right mix of workouts, pushing you a bit further, reminding you to rest, the list goes on. I can’t count the number of times my coach reminds me that ‘rest is part of fitness’, or encourages me not to do weight training after yoga. Overall, with a coach, I feel a lot more confident that I am on the right track and doing the right thing.

A major deterrent I see to people leveraging coaches is the sheer cost of it. For many, it could be a pricy, avoidable expense. Personally, I have shifted from seeing them as an expense to reframing it as an investment in myself. I realize I’m going to be paying anyway - either with my money, or with my time. I prefer the former. 

I find it helps immensely if the coach is one you like and respect and whose energy is right with you. Brownie points if they actually care. Be sure they are professional and treat you with respect too. Absolutely important.

Resting between sets

I cannot stress this enough. Fitness regulars will probably relate to getting to the end of a set and thinking ‘I still have some strength, let me just throw in another round.’ It’s quite tempting to forge ahead to the next, to ‘power through’, and that's because there's usually some reserve energy at the end of the last set. Tempting, but don't do it. If you do this for long enough, you will probably experience burnout. Working out becomes a less enjoyable experience, and thoughts of doing it fill you with dread, almost crippling you. Eventually, you stop altogether.

That leftover energy is called 'reserve' for a reason. Reserve it. Don't be tempted to run with that. It's so similar to how prone we are to powering through life, quickly taking on one project or assignment after another assignment without pausing.

Regroup. Recalibrate. Sharpen the saw. If you don't, you're unlikely to complete the next set with ease. You'll tire out in-between. Take breaks between milestones. Stop and breathe. Don't wait till you cannot go any further. You're likely to go a lot further if you pause.

Rest. Again, I say rest.

Avoiding comparisons 

Newbies at the gym, and probably oldies, may relate to the tension of seeing those buff looking peeps who lift such heavy weights or power through intense high-intensity interval training (HIIT) programs and still manage to stay alive. I remember my first spin class, thinking to myself ‘this looks easy, probably the easiest of classes as there's no jumping, lifting or excessive movement. Just a normal bicycle’. Boy was I wrong! In fact, within five minutes of the class, I got off my bike, exhaled, and said to myself ‘Goal! I'll up my fitness level and come back to this.’ Guess who's a (self- proclaimed) pro now? 

Anyone you see appearing to be doing better at anything at all has probably only applied themselves to it for much longer. Get yours started (and keep at it). Comparison is a distraction. It slows you down or sets you off track completely, if not watched. 

Also, don’t compare your two-month progress to another’s. Trust your journey. And if you truly feel concerned about your progress, level chat with an expert. Get guidance.

Minding your business

Can I just state here, that not everyone at the gym is trying to achieve a fitness goal. At least not a physical one. I find that people come to the gym for a myriad of reasons. My fitness journey, for example, started with a need to improve my mental health. 

While many are in the gym to lose weight, build muscle, or improve their general fitness levels, others are there to gain weight, recover from an injury, meet new people, curb a negative habit, the list goes on. Knowing that, it'll be fool hardy of me to impose my standards (or routines) on anyone. For instance, you may find someone spending more time on the phone than working out (which can be annoying when you’re waiting to use that equipment they are on), or spending time chatting away. Hey, different goals. 

It’s okay to engage, but don’t think to impose your concept of ‘right’ on another. We are not all pursuing the same goals. Not everyone wants what you desire. I made the mistake a couple of times of correcting too quickly. On one occasion, I tried correcting a guy who I thought was holding a piece of equipment wrongly and was told he was trying to target a different muscle group from what I initially thought. On another occasion, I realized the person suffered an injury that'll have made it dangerous or completely impossible to carry out a routine the way I would have expected. Lesson learnt. 

Same with life I guess, you need to have a good enough understanding of the other party's goals and unique circumstances before giving advice or, worse still, imposing on them what worked for you.

Live and let live.

Remaining consistent 

I probably should say this louder for those at the back, ‘consistency is everything.' Once you're sure you're on the right path, stay consistent. And no, intensity does not replace the need for consistency. If I were to pick one over the other, I'll say consistency over intensity (though both, ideally). Showing up regularly weekly for 30 minutes over an intense 90-minute session once every other week. 

For anyone who has tried out beauty products, you will agree that it does not matter how potent, highly acclaimed, or expensive a product is. If you only use it every other time, skipping days, you're unlikely to notice much visible change. Not all progress is immediately visible. But boy, when you begin to see the result or get feedback or compliments, it makes it all worth it.

Consistency makes the difference.

Friends have asked how I stay consistent with workouts despite the immense time pressure of the MBA program. My most straightforward answer is, ‘we always make room for what matters to us.’ Also, it is the mindset towards it. I have long switched from seeing working out as an add-on to realizing it as a core part of my being, without which I break down given time. 

So, how important is being fit to you? Do you really want it? What do you stand to lose if you don’t? That is the starting point. And if it’s a go for you, can you schedule 30-45 minutes in the mornings or right after classes? Block one or two of these weekly on your calendar and plan everything else around it. Then show up. It is that simple.

Loving what you do 

This matters greatly, especially if you're in it for the long haul.  You are more likely to remain consistent if you enjoy what you're doing. And yes, it is possible to enjoy working out.

To enjoy it, it’s important to identify what fuels you, and switch things up to allow for that. Is dance your thing? Prioritize the dance classes. Do you prefer being with others? Then prioritize group classes or group coaching sessions or bring your friends along. Point is, make it work for you. I find time flies by quickly when I'm listening to Afrobeats, and so I'll almost always listen to that when on my personal training.

To wrap up, I’ll share a recent moment where I experienced a ‘miracle’ that I could only trace to the investments I have made so far, working out. The night before a course assessment submission deadline, I realized I was almost totally off-track with what I had earlier compiled and had to start over. I was already quite exhausted, and my brain had shut down for the day. There was absolutely no way I could make it (or so I thought). So, I opened the deadline extension request form. In that moment, I casually shared my experience with a friend and classmate who suggested I take a walk, get some air and see if it made a difference. It didn’t. Not quite.

I was sad, disappointed in myself and beat myself up for making the silly mistake and not getting it right the first time. Right there, in the middle of my tears, pictures of different moments at the gym flashed through my mind, and I heard the voices of my instructors ‘push through the pain… it’s not real… distract your mind… you’re stronger than you think you are… give it one more push…’ I don’t understand how that happened, but it worked! I immediately felt washed with renewed energy. My mind felt crystal clear, and I returned to my laptop, almost with a vengeance. I stayed up all night working on that paper and turned it in, just before the deadline. 

Call it what you may, but that experience remains seared in my memory. It also made me realize that really, life is intertwined. Working on one aspect of your life affects every other aspect, even when you do not immediately realize it. Thank you so much Prafull, for encouraging me not to take the easy way out with an extension. You made the difference.

Fitness is its own reward. You see and feel the difference both in your body and mind. While it can be a struggle to keep up, I constantly advocate for a focus on building consistency at the start. Just cultivate that discipline to show up even when you don’t feel like it. It can be hard initially, more so with the aches and pains, but when you do push through that initial resistance, it gets easier. You move from struggling to work out to looking forward to working out. Fitness truly is its own reward.

To fitness! To life!

Oxford MBA