By Claire E. Parsons • August 22, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
Late last year, I started exercising regularly again after a long period of doing hardly anything at all. It wasn’t until this happened that I realized how much I missed physical activity. Law practice, after all, is not something that lends itself well to movement or even sensory stimulation. Instead, lawyers often spend long hours cooped up in an office and huddled over a computer or stacks of documents. We also tend to keep long hours, have little control over our schedules, and may feel at the end of the day like we have little else to give.
Even so, these are the very reasons why lawyers really need exercise. After I started exercising again, I realized how nice it was to just pay attention to how my body felt while moving after I had spent the day using my brain. I noticed how good stretching in a yoga class felt after I had been at my desk all day. I saw that the frustrations and worries of law practice could in fact be set aside for a while if I did physical activities that were difficult enough to require my full attention. In short, exercise for me was the missing piece that completed the puzzle of my own work life balance.
If you are at all like I was when I started, however, you may be skeptical and think that I am making this all sound too simple. Believe me, I’m not. It is really challenging to add exercise back into your life if you haven’t been doing it for a while. In my case, part of the reason it took me so long to do so was that I believed the story that I did not have time or, worse, lacked the control to change how I lived my life. Looking back now, those stories seem really silly.
So what worked? What got me moving again when I had adopted a well-worn pattern of idleness? Honestly, I think I was just sick of feeling tired and stressed all of the time, so I was resolved to feel better. Here are the five tangible things I did which turned that temporary feeling into a consistent exercise plan and changed my life for the better.
First, I started where I was. At the outset, I opted for light exercise for short periods of time. I’d take a 20-minute walk at lunch or a beginner yoga class. I didn’t get hung up on judgment about what I couldn’t do because I figured anything was better than what I had been doing. I was right. Combined with better food choices, I dropped pounds and quickly felt better and stronger. In a few weeks, I was motivated and able to do more.
Second, when I was ready to advance I found a welcoming community. I have some exercise equipment at home but find it boring to work out all the time by myself, so I shopped around for group fitness classes. I ended up with a membership to a fitness studio near my house and I love it because the teachers remind students in every class to listen to their own body and avoid comparing themselves to others. They also constantly show modifications and varying levels for exercises so you can actually implement that recommendation. It made me feel safe to try new things and it never diminished my desire to try as hard as I could. Indeed, I found that I didn’t need a drillmaster constantly pushing me because that motivation came from working hard along with my classmates.
Third, I focused on process goals. After I worked out for a while, I decided I wanted to make the habit a long-term one. Rather than set a goal to lose a certain amount of weight or achieve some level of fitness, I set the goal to attend 100 classes in a year, which is roughly 2 per week. So far, this year I am ahead of pace to meet the goal with no signs of stopping. I find this of goal-setting motivating because it focuses on what I can control and the other benefits, such as lost weight or better fitness, are met in the process.
Fourth, I relied on data. I invested in a FitBit to keep track of steps. During the week, I try not to worry about the exact number of steps I get each day but I note whether I’ve moved a lot or a little. If needed, this helps motivate me to move some more before the end of the day. I also track workouts in a journal so that I can monitor progress towards my goals. In addition, I finally made a habit of regularly using my sit/stand desk at work by tracking my energy level at the end of each day for a month. After seeing that, invariably, I had more energy on days that I stood 3 or more hours, I was convinced that sitting—and not standing—made me tired. In each of these cases, however, I was selective about the data I collected and only used it to the extent it helped me. This helped me to avoid getting distressed about not making progress fast enough or giving up after a bad day or two.
Fifth, I had a plan b and a plan c and so on. I represent local government entities and so often have night meetings but the studio where I work out tends to have mostly night classes during the week. Because of this, I brought a pair of tennis shoes to the office so I could take a walk at lunch to a nearby park. Fortunately, there is also a yoga studio within a block of my office which offers noon classes. I bought some passes and now drop in for a class as a backup plan when I can’t get to a class at my regular studio. As another alternative, I downloaded and tried some fitness apps to use on days when I can’t get to a class. I particularly like Sworkit, which is comprised primarily of plyometric and body weight exercises and requires no equipment except a yoga mat. As an added bonus, it even has a track for exercises that won’t cause you to sweat, which means I can do them in my office on a lunch break if I have a tight schedule that day. Thus, even on busy days, I found some time to move.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise routines; we each have to find what works for us. While our lifestyles and schedules may make it difficult for us to get regular exercise, we lawyers can use our well-developed problem-solving skills to find a way to move most days. Just like the exercise itself, finding time to do it is hard work. But, having seen the difference regular exercise has made on my outlook, my stress levels, and my ability to focus, I think the hard work is well worth it.