Eight Steps to Fitness for Writers
Novel writing is a marathon that’s interspersed with bursts of speed, hurdles, and trip wires (aka plot holes). And yet it’s a very stationary sport. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation of staring out of the window, sipping from the half-empty coffee cup or vodka glass, as you ponder the inevitable: that like all writers, you are suffering from writer’s block. You are, of course, allowed to.
Writer’s Fitness – a Healthy Body for a Healthy Mind
Yes, writing is hard mind work—but minds are at their best in a healthy body. A fit body gives more energy, more thinking power…and builds a winning confidence that can feed into all areas of a writer’s life. “Your Workout Makes You Smarter”, an article in Scientific American in July 2009, explains that “physical exercise is critical to vigorous mental health”.
This is something I have certainly found in my life to be true. I used to box competitively, and noticed pretty early on that the fitter I was, the more effective I became at achieving goals inside and outside the ring. Pretty soon it was clear that in order to achieve my daily written-word target, I needed to spend many hours per day at my desk—but I also needed to be physically fit. The words just didn’t seem to flow from within when the vessel that held them wasn’t in top working order.
I believe that we are comprised of a mind, a body and a spirit—and the body minds spirits! So, the first step is to pour the Smirnoff and the cappuccino onto the knot weed that’s chewing through your home’s (and your writing’s) foundations—and to take some exercise.
Support for Your Writer’s Fitness Plan
It’s one thing to have a fitness plan, it’s another to stick to it. I’ve tried a lot of different ways to “trick” myself into exercising over the years. In the end, what worked best for me was a multi-level support plan.
- Find a Friend
First—find a friend who shares your fitness ambitions. You can both then encourage, congratulate, or cajole the other into actually doing it.
I’m lucky because my co-trainer is my editor. This means our work schedules are often focused on the same deadlines so we can co-ordinate our gym visits too. Even though my editor works on the other side of town, we check in via email to push each other along.
It doesn’t matter whether your friend is in the same country—though similar time zones can be helpful—what matters is the consistency and the commitment of you and your partner to stay in touch and support each other in your goals.
- Make a Plan
The second is to draw up a (realistic) plan and monitor progress. This can be via a spreadsheet or (in my case) a piece of paper pinned to the bathroom wall above the sink.
The key thing here is to write it down. There’s more impact when looking at marks on a calendar that clearly show when days have been missed. Somehow, just noting it in the brain doesn’t have the same effect. We are writers and respond well to the written word—so write your plan down, update it daily and put it where you can see it.
- Banish TBSALA Syndrome
The third is to rid yourself of TBSALA Syndrome. This is perhaps the most important of all. It stands for: The Bathroom Scales Are Lying Again.
Arbitrary numbers have never worked for me. To be allowed to box competitively, you must make a certain weight. This meant weeks before an event of monitoring exactly how much I consumed, with daily trips to the weighing scales. I learned pretty quickly that the scales never lied. They also never made me happy. As soon as I stopped competing, I threw them away, which was a liberating experience.
Not only was it a mental burden banished, but I also became more aware of how my body felt at its correct weight. I learned how to “feel” the difference if I gained or lost a few pounds. Without the scales to rely on, I had to learn the feeling of normal for myself. It takes a while to get used to, but looking at scales puts distance between us and our bodies. It’s indirect. If you make exercise a part of your routine, you’ll notice on your calendar notes when you miss a day. Your body will tell you too.
- Make Fitness Part of Your Daily Plan
I start my day with a brisk fifteen minute walk to a local coffee shop. It’s enough to wake me up and I fill my time considering the writing challenges that kept me awake the night before. Then I drink a decaf or herbal tea, read the paper, and do the word puzzle, hoping to beat the Bulgarian trainee barista who wins four times out of five.
Why not add a gentle morning walk to your routine? More and more, I hear walking is the exercise of choice—there are several Meetup walking groups (www.meetup.com) in my area. If you find walking suits your style and want to go further, perhaps there’s a walking group near you.
- Add Moments of Meditation Daily – Fitness for the Mind!
After the coffee shop, it’s a brisk trot back to my desk. I open the Word file for my manuscript and write until lunchtime (the timing of which is dictated more by hunger pangs than by a clock). Then after a light lunch, I lie on the sofa for twenty minutes and blank out.
It’s a form of meditation—and I try not to fall asleep. When I rise, I feel recharged in body and mind. So I stretch a little, then write some more. This is usually the time of day when I am at my most productive.
It may feel silly to stop and take time for oneself, especially when there are pressing deadlines to be met. But give it try. Persevere. It’s an effective way to supercharge your productivity and it only takes moments.
- Make Sure You Move Every Hour!
When writing, I try to limit myself to an hour of sitting at a time. After that, I get up and move around. Web MD recommends two minutes of walking every hour to boost health (www.webmd.com, Dallas, Mary Elizabeth, April 30, 2015). In 2016, I’m planning to buy a treadmill so that I can create a “walking desk”, to enable me to walk and write at the same time.
Author Yann Martel of Life of Pi fame uses a walking desk—and it seems to work well for him. You can see him on Youtube discussing it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JBJMhJqgu0 .
- Find Exercise That You Love
Walking may not be the exercise that most speaks to you. But there are so many sports to choose from. And sometimes a change of pace is fun too. Even a favorite sport can become repetitive. Alternating between types of exercise can keep interest levels high.
Late afternoon/evening for me is the time for a gym visit or swim. I try to alternate sessions and aim for four workouts a week. Swimming is an incredible form of exercise because it’s highly efficient (working most muscle groups) and low impact. In the gym, it’s skipping, hitting a bag, stretching, and fast reps with light dumbbells.
Why not be adventurous? Find out what you enjoy. You can also alternate your favorite exercise with a new sport. What have you never tried but always wanted to? Does your exercise partner have a suggestion?
- What Motivates You?
One of my most powerful fitness motivators is the sense of guilt—letting myself down—if I miss a session. This feeling lingers until I hit a new target, whether it’s about losing weight or a certain number of push ups etc. I try to push myself extra hard after a missed session.
The energy of others working out nearby motivates me too. I’m fortunate in that I really do enjoy exercise. However, I find it difficult to work hard when I’m alone, so I aim to train when there are others around. Pretty soon you start recognizing and talking to people. As writing is a lonely occupation, I find this interaction stimulating. And once your new friends learn that you write, they usually want to know more…
But everyone is motivated by different things. Some make a promise to their exercise buddy about a target they hope to achieve; others promise themselves treats after a goal is reached. How do you motivate yourself in other areas of your life? What works for you there? Maybe you can adapt this to motivate you in your writer’s fitness routine as well.
A fit body keeps the mind fit. Scientific American said it. Someone—possibly golfer Gary Player, or actress Ethel Merman—said something similar too: “The harder I train, the luckier I get”. So I train pretty hard, and you know what? So far, I’ve been pretty lucky.
How do you keep fit as a writer? What exercise and routines motivate you?
Ben Starling is passionate about marine conservation and boxing, both central themes in his work. His interest in marine life has taken him across three continents over the past three decades. He boxed competitively until recently and continues to coach. He graduated from Oxford University with a Master of Arts and a Master of Philosophy. www.ben-starling.com
Ben has just released, Something in the Water, available now on Amazon at http://bit.ly/SITWbtour2am.
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