It is the opposite of everything we've ever been taught, but aggressive self-improvement might not be the holy grail we've been led to believe, writes Amanda Cassidy.
Push Yourself To The Next Level is the slogan on a t-shirt bouncing before my sweaty eyes. It is 9 am on a Saturday morning in a Dublin park and I'm close to retching. The only thing keeping me from collapsing on the grass verge is keeping my eyes on the back of the person jogging in front of me. T-shirt guy. My ankles feel dodgy, my breath is ragged but I keep running because this is good for me, right?
"We live in a society obsessed with overachievement".
I repeat his motivational slogan over and over as I near the finish line of the 10k race I've been training for over the last few weeks. But this 'next level' doesn't end up being a good thing for me at all. I've damaged the tendons in my foot. I'm off exercise for a month. I've pushed myself too hard and the reward is pain, a crutch and a sense of failure.
Related: Study: Too much exercise could be bad for your heart
"It is no coincidence that working hard to be 'better' versions of ourselves is so lucrative for certain companies"
We live in a society obsessed with overachievement. We are bombarded with the message that we must continuously sculpt ourselves into something more exceptional. Longer runs, cuter make-up, skinnier mothers. Instagram motivational quotes shame us as we scroll, sprawled out on the couch in the evenings, patronising us with their 'tips' when it comes to self-improvement.
We should be wing-tipping our eyeliner better, shunning meat, using coconut oil, running couch to 5k, shopping more ethically. The pressure to validate our better selves has never been so exhausting. Why are we so dissatisfied with who we are? It is no coincidence that working hard to be 'better' versions of ourselves is so lucrative for certain companies.
Exercise has always been synonymous with pushing yourself beyond your limits — ignoring the squeaks from your body as you force it to change. There is nothing wrong with measured physical ambition, but when you push past your actual fitness capabilities, the problems start to arise. Cardiologist Dr James O'Keefe from the US Heart Institute warned that training repetitively for more than 60 minutes a day can lead to health problems. He believes marathons and triathlons should be 'once-in-a-lifetime' challenges.
"I'm with the Buddhists who believe that most acts of self-improvement are acts of self-aggression".
There is evidence of 'stretching' the heart, disrupting muscle fibers and causing micro-tears that are permanent. In fact, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that 50 per cent of long-term endurance runners showed signs of heart damage. This isn't a risk if one occasionally pushes the body, but those who get 'obsessed' with these long-distance challenges could be putting their heart at risk, according to doctors who carried out the study at Liverpool University.
I consider myself a highly motivated person. But the quest to strive to almost reach breaking point has never really appealed to me. I'm with the Buddhists who believe that most acts of self-improvement are acts of self-aggression. While reaching goals and having ambition is hugely important in life, the intensity of the goals we are now set for ourselves is simply exhausting.
Pushing outside of your comfort zone doesn't have to mean climbing Everest — for some, it is a matter of overcoming speaking in public or completing something that's challenged them in their lives.
But when did smashing something reach this 'next level' where we end up punishing ourselves to get there? Maybe it is a form of self-flagellation? We complete a task that almost kills us and the prize is a glimmer of what... pride, endorphins, satisfaction, achievement? It is a big gamble but for many, it is a psychological draw.
Related: Blood, sweat and profit: How the fitness industry was hijacked by advertising
A higher purpose
In 2004, a man called Jure Robic won the Insight non-stop 3,000-mile bike race across American. His feet swelled to double their normal size and his thumb nerves stopped functioning. He slept just 90 minutes a night for the 7 days he was racing. It is known as the best tests of sheer willpower imaginable. Jure talks about what kept him pushing through the pain. He says he remembered his harsh childhood and his father saying he'd never amount to anything. He found his greater purpose for why he pushes himself so hard — to prove to himself and others that he is somebody.
"I am ambitious but have no desire to break myself in the process".
Of course, most people don't push themselves to their limits. In 1890, American philosopher William James admitted that" Most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make very small use of their possible consciousness, and of their soul's resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using and moving only his little finger".
So where do I fit into the motivational jigsaw?
I am ambitious but have no desire to break myself in the process. Psychologist Emma Lyndsay says that in my case, pushing myself too hard caused a negative result which reinforced the idea that challenging myself is a bad idea. "A study back in 1908 found that a state of relative anxiety — a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal — creates a better level of performance. This can be within exercise or any challenge you need to complete in life.
It is called optimal anxiety and it sits just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and our bodies are too stressed to be productive — too little and we remain complacent. It is about finding that level where you feel slightly nervous or out of your depth and everyone's is different."
For some, like the Ben Fogels or Jure Robics of the world, pushing to their limits is simply part of their personality or their deeper psychological desire to chase achievement. Good for them. However, being limitless isn't a priority for me.
I'll continue to plod on on the outskirts of my comfort zone, but I'll give planet 'next level' a skip. If only for the sake of my poor limited ankles.
Feature Image: @Morgan_inspired Unsplash.com
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