Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
You may not be Sauron, scheming to rule all of Middle Earth, but you do want to be happy, successful and healthy.
But where to start?
What to do?
What will give you the best results for your efforts?
And how do you do it without overburdening yourself because you already have too much on your plate?
Keystone habits are the key to creating more success in your life, leveraging your efforts.
Getting more for less.
What is a Keystone Habit?
Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and Life, describes a keystone habit as,
…some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization.
Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.
Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.
Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
A keystone habit then is something that has an impact and effect on much more than just the activities that the habit entails.
You get more bang for the buck.
Like a drop of water that sends ripples throughout the pond, one keystone habit can ripple throughout your life.
But, if you’ve spent any time on the web seeking to create a healthier lifestyle, you’ve noticed that there are quite a few of these keystone habits to choose from:
Granted, you could pick any one of the above items and your life would improve.
But there is one that is head and shoulders above the rest.
One, that not only affects the healthy habits that branch from the keystone habit but also supports all of the other keystone habits as well.
Daily Exercise – The Keystone Habit that Kills Them All
In 1943, Abraham Maslow quantified the basic needs for everybody.
More importantly, he organized them into an easy to understand framework where each need could be seen to support the other needs.
For any individual or organization to operate at peak efficiency, Maslow’s Hierarchy is vital to see how your most basic needs have to be in place before you can seriously impact your “higher” needs.
From the diagram, a sense of belonging is impossible if there is no feeling of safety.
And safety is not possible without the underlying psychological needs being met.
Exercising daily, not only supports you for your physiological needs, it also creates the foundation for all of your “higher” needs.
How Exercise Supports All of Your Needs
For simplicity sake, let’s break exercise that you can do each day into two groups; cardio and resistance-strength training.
Cardio exercises focus on raising the heart rate for an extended period of time.
As compared to resistance-strength training which uses weight and/or resistance to increase muscular strength.
You need both.
That doesn’t mean you have to go crazy.
It doesn’t mean you need to sign up for a gym membership and buy a store-full of vitamins, supplements, and powders.
And you certainly do not need to push yourself to run 26.1-mile marathons or being able to dead-lift a small car.
What it does mean is that you slowly allow yourself to build your ability to increase your heart-rate for 30 minutes 3-5x/week AND using resistance to keep up muscle tone, especially core muscles, and maintain your bone density as you age.
Though our world today has shifted from being less physically demanding, it doesn’t change the fact that our body was designed to be active.
Not only that, some of the body systems do not work well without some physical activity, the very act of moving signals the body to perform specific health-related functions.
For example, regular healthy exercise signals the body to burn off fat as a source of energy instead of storing it for later use.
The Benefits of Exercising
Benefits that regular exercise will give you:
- regulate brain chemistry to feel happier and release stress and anxiety
- contribute to maintaining a healthy weight
- maintain muscular strength and bone density
- increase energy levels, both mental and physical
- mental acuity and brain health, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain presents research that shows mental health degradation after hip-replacement surgery in the elderly
- gives you a timeout from your day to day grind
- improved mood, self-respect, and awareness of your unique strengths
- improve sleep and relaxation
To learn more, check out Dr. Axe, a great resource for healthy living:
Why Exercising is a Keystone Habit
That’s all great but what makes exercising a keystone habit?
What other habits will you improve because you start exercising?
Sleep Deeper & Better
To begin with, you will sleep better. If nothing else, the physical exertion will make it easier to knock out as soon as your head hits the pillow.
Your sleep will also be improved because while you were exercising, you were able to let go of the stress from everyday circus we all live in.
Not only will you sleep more due to the activity, you will also sleep deeper. Deep sleep has been linked to increased memory consolidation and for the ability of the brain to remove toxins.
Make Healthier Eating Choices
A natural extension of exercising is that you became more aware of the food that you eat and how those foods impact your performance.
When I first began training seriously in martial arts, I was the typical blue-collar worker, spending time with friends and coworkers in sports bars, watching games, drinking alcohol, and playing foosball.
I soon realized though, something was going to need to change. It’s hard to work out in a physically-exhausting class if I had had a “liquid lunch” or was still dehydrated from the previous night’s festivities.
Now, I didn’t instantly become a health food nut, but I did curb and eventually stopped my sports bar activities.
I also notice which food sapped my energy and which food helped me to make it through my training.
The same will happen to you.
As you exercise, even if you don’t keep a journal, though I recommend it, you will begin to notice patterns of energy level and performance.
You will slowly, organically make better choices.
Using Exercise as Meditation Practice
Even with adding variety to your workout routines, working out, in and of itself, is often repetitive. It needs to be to allow the body the needed process to work certain muscles to failure, allowing them to be rebuilt and renewed.
The boring nature of exercise can be a trap unless you also learn to use it as an exercise in mindfulness.
Mindfulness exercise has received a lot of positive accolades recently, but all too often, it is taught as a static exercise. Sitting quietly, contemplating and releasing thoughts as they arise.
But not all meditation has to be so boring and stoic.
Dynamic meditation can be just as powerful.
For proof, chat with any long-term tai chi practitioner. They will share the advantages of being mindful in the slow and graceful kata of t’ai chi ch’uan.
You can apply this same mindfulness to your personal exercise regiment.
How Exercising Impacts the Other Keystone Habits
Besides the obvious benefits of how exercise benefits you, based on Maslow’s hierarchy, for breathing, sleep, and excretion (of toxins), it lays the foundation for your other needs.
A good habit of exercise is to have your exercise clothing set next to your bed so that you can easily slip them on as you rise, first thing in the morning. From there, it’s a quick and easy task to make up your bed, an added benefit to your day before you even leave the bedroom.
With a clear and happier mind, you will be able to better plan your day and approach journaling from a more positive outlook.
It’s completely possible that as you make exercise your daily habit, it may infect fellow family members. You can create the environment to not only have meals together, but those meals can be prefaced with an exercise workout together, doubling up on positive mutually-shared experiences.
And, as I mentioned earlier, don’t discount the value of exercise as a meditation practice. Simple punching exercises, such as shadow-boxing or striking a makiwara can be tools for achieving meditative states.
It’s a wonderful exercise that I recommend giving a try.
How to Start Exercising Without Killing Yourself
By now, you see the advantages of exercising but maybe you don’t know how to begin.
First of all, the thing that will kill your ability to start AND stick to an exercise program is too bite off more than you can chew.
Ask anybody who bought a gym membership in January for their New Year’s resolution. They were going 5 days a week for a while but by February, they were lucky if they made it in once a week.
It happens every year, gyms around the country look forward to it to boost their memberships.
There are two things to keep in mind when starting your exercise habit.
One is why you are doing it.
And secondly is exercising relative to your ability and not your expectation.
A nutritionist buddy of mine tells his clients, “fear is a great short-term motivator but poor long-term one. Love, on the other hand, is a great long-term motivator.”
All too often, people will start to do something because they are worried about the consequences if they don’t start. It’s a great reason to get you to get your butt off the sofa but rarely will it sustain you through the inevitable ups and downs that you will experience.
To counteract the fear/love dichotomy, you need to embrace and love the process of moving toward what you seek to create.
Notice I wrote, the process, this is vitally important.
You cannot control the results or it’s timing but what you can control is how you apply yourself to the process.
There’s an interesting truism in construction that even under the best conditions projects take and cost twice as much as initially planned. It’s not a sign of human waste or greed, it’s simply a fact that you matter how hard you try, you can never take everything into account that will pop up.
Taking this into account when you start will help you to focus more on the process and less on the timetable and results.
The second key to creating an exercise process that works for you is to keep it within the “flow channel.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared his research of high achievers in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In it, he explains that high performers maintain a state of flow by staying in the zone. As much as possible balancing their ability to the challenge. Managing this state is key to being engaged, learning, and growing.
All too often in the rush of something new and exciting, people can get caught up in the rush of pushing themselves too far. And on the flip side, it’s easy to follow into a rhythm and habit of doing the same ole thing, not pushing as it gets too easy.
In many martial arts, they use a belt system to counteract this trap. A white belt focuses on learning techniques that are appropriate for that level. And as the student moves up in rank, the techniques taught progressively become more and more difficult, keeping abreast of the student’s increased ability. Maintaining the flow channel.
Putting It on the Mat
All of this doesn’t mean squat unless you do something with it.
Martial artists love talking about how this or that technique works great but until you put it on the mat and test, it’s all talk.
The same thing happens in life.
There’s a chance you may already know what I’ve shared here but “knowing” isn’t “doing.”
And that’s a big difference.
What if I told you, you could make a difference in your health with only 10 minutes a day.
Yes, 10 minutes.
10 minutes of exercise won’t get you into the Olympics.
Hell, it might not even get you to finish a 5K run.
But it’s something and that’s the key.
Almost 40% of people in the US are obese.
10 minutes of exercise will:
- get your heart going, strengthening it and helping to prevent cardiovascular disease
- bring into awareness of healthier food choices
- slowly build the keystone habit and grow into more vigorous exercise
What You Can Do Starting Today
- An easy way to start, go outside for a short walk in the fresh air. A 10-minute walking meditation is a great way to clear the head and get the body moving.
- Start an easy body-weight exercise regiment. You don’t need any equipment and you can do it in the comfort of your home.
- Stair-climbing is another great easy way to start working out, plus you always have a seat available when you need to take a break. An easy way to start is to go up 3 or 4 flights, then back down again, a few sets of that will have your heart beating and your legs throbbing.
- Then there’s jogging, mixing it up with an easy 2-minute jog followed by a 30-second sprint.
- If you struggle with joint pain or excessive weight, swimming is a great low-impact exercise that works the whole body.
- Join a martial arts studio – the support, camaraderie, and exercise is a wonderful environment to learn, grow, and have fun
Be Easy on Yourself
Remember, you’re in this for the long haul. While goals are great benchmarks to strive for, it is much more important to focus on the process of exercise.
Hitting certain thresholds is great for helping to keep the momentum going but it is also a double-edged sword when you run into the inevitable plateaus and setbacks.
Don’t be so focused on goals that you fail to enjoy the process.
- Stay in the flow channel, keep your efforts within your ability
- Listen to your body, don’t risk injury by doing too much too early
- Drink plenty of water, important for flushing out toxins and lactic-acid
- Stretch before and after working out, helps to prevent injuries and to promote blood flow.
- Have fun, what’s the point if you’re miserable, you won’t stick with it if it’s not fun.
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Article Notes and Resources:
- Keystone Arch in Italy, https://pixabay.com/en/users/lapelusodesigns-423857/, Lapeluso Designs, September 21, 2015
- Keystone Habit, Charles Duhigg, Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Kindle Locations 1596-1600). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Water Rippling, https://pixabay.com/en/users/qimono-1962238/, qimono, Oct. 25, 2016
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs, Abraham Maslow, Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346 – via psychclassics.yorku.ca.
- Flow Channel, The Pursuit of Happiness, http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 1 edition (July 1, 2008)