Updated: Mar 23
Being physically fit is great, right?
Hmm, maybe not always...
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The alarm next to your pillow jolts you awake. You fumble around to find the snooze button. Quiet returns.
You jolt upright 40 minutes later and realise that you stopped the alarm, rather than snoozed it.
Shit! You're so late!
You stumble out of bed and move towards the bathroom, tripping on your running shoes and clothes that you placed on the floor near your bed the night before. Oh well, no time to use them this morning. Again.
The light in the bathroom is bright and, with eyes firmly shut, you fumble around and run the water in the shower.
After your shower, you get into the kitchen, and still yawning, make yourself some coffee and something quick to eat. Coffee first, food second. You have to get your priorities right.
You turn on the radio in the kitchen and Dolly Parton's '9-to-5' is playing. You sing it Dolly!, you think. You munch on a slice of toast and despite knowing that your coffee is really hot, you drink it like a shot and wonder why you just did that.
You're still not really awake when you get to the office, but the day doesn't wait for you to gently ease into it. It's another morning of back-to-back meetings, but there's time enough to race out to grab a coffee and a muffin at your favourite coffee shop between meetings at 11am. During this time, and between mouthfuls, you delegate work to your team for them to do during the day and check in with them. It's always nice to see how they're going, isn't it? You race to make a lunch meeting with some host government officials, but as you're taking notes, you can only grab a little bit of the food in front of you.
The meetings continue in the afternoon and then it's time to review the work your team has done before it's sent back to your capital city, return phone calls, respond to emails and cables and complete the endless administrative tasks. As you make yourself a cup of tea, you see a piece of cake on the table in the kitchen and you shovel it in. Back in your office, your tea goes cold as you're attending to the many demands on your time.
Shit! It's 5.30pm. Where did the day go?! There's a national day function at a hotel across town that starts in 30 minutes. You quickly secure your office, straighten yourself up and then race down to jump into a taxi. On the way, you check more emails, respond to texts, catch up on the news by reviewing a few of your preferred news apps and have a quick look on social media to see what's happening in the real world. Seeing those #fitspo people you follow on Instagram makes you feel bad for not putting on your running shoes again this morning. You sigh. Tomorrow, you resolve. Definitely tomorrow.
Before long, you're at the reception and working the room and finding people with whom you need to speak. You nurse a drink as you talk and exchange cards. The wait staff keep passing by with hors d'oevres, which you devour as politely as possible. You're so hungry.
The reception ends soon after the official proceedings are finished. Exhausted and with sore feet, you make your way to a taxi. Once home, you collapse on the couch and are too tired to prepare a meal for yourself. Toast and chocolate it is again.
You sigh as you realise that today was Monday. There four more days like this to go.
For mid-career diplomats, the scenario above describes a common day. Our days are spent going from one meeting to another and keeping on top of both the urgent and the important. We are sandwiched between the expectations on us by the people we report to and the needs of those who report to us.
This post looks at how we must balance our hectic days with the need for some physical movement and eek out the time in our days.
What's the problem?
As a diplomat, it can be very difficult to maintain a focus on good nutrition when work happens during receptions and official meals. Meals can be on the run, in restaurants with little control over ingredients or eaten standing with one hand. Finger food becomes the sixth food group.
The long days mean that by the time we get home, we are too exhausted to prepare a decent meal for ourselves. In our exhaustion, we can pick up something quick on our way home, reach for snacks or order a delivery.
The long days combined with the pace of work means that our hearts get a good workout as they thump during stressful situations - which really, can be common at work - but our bodies don't get the benefit of movement to go with that racing heart. Indeed, the pace in our days mean that we're constantly moving from one issue or meeting to another. There can be very little time to practice sound resilience techniques, like going for a walk or even taking some deep breaths, to help us respond mentally and emotionally to these challenges.
I know there are days when there is precious little time to be active. I get it. We need to be careful that those days can turn into weeks, months and years of physical inactivity. Sooner or later, your body will demand you pay it some attention, so you may as well do something to help yourself now.
For the mid-career diplomat
Our work is mentally and emotionally taxing. We spend our days thinking, strategising, talking, writing, responding to various crises and emergencies (some more major than others, without doubt). By the end of the day, we are mentally and emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
We can reach for booze, junk food, caffeine or anything else in an attempt to refill or balance our depleted emotional and mental reserves before we start another day.
This approach does not respond to our body's physical need to move. For this reason, some movement, no matter what it is, is important each day. Using physical energy helps replenish our depleted mental and emotional energy stores.
We know it's important. We know we should do at least some, if not should do more physical activity than what we're doing.
Many of us do already. One reader - who is a senior official in a diplomatic mission - tells me that he does something, if not a few activities, each day whether that be a run, a cycle, a swim or yoga. He sees the benefit in getting out of the office to do something physical as an important part of balancing the mental and emotional demands on him from his job and family life. Others have shared that they make a point of getting out and running or going for a walk a few times a week for the same reason.
You may be happy for them that they've found something that works for them where they are, but it's often hard getting motivated, isn't it? As people of the modern era, we can turn to social media and the internet for inspiration. Anyone with an Instagram account will see people with beautiful, fit bodies extolling the virtues of some product or other to contribute to their well-being. We scroll, we swipe and tap 'like', all the while comparing their manicured social media branding to our lives and end up feeling pretty average about ourselves.
It's these comparisons that can just as easily demotivate as motivate us. We cannot devote the obvious hours needed to be fit, so why bother? Some of us have to attend to important matters of state and don't have time to take all the recommended supplements, lift the weights in the best way or train for hours a day, right?
But it's not only on social media and the internet. There are the evidently very fit diplomatic friends and colleagues among us (and there are a great deal, aren't there?). There are those in our offices who are obviously fit and capable athletes who talk of long bike rides and epic runs that make us feel inadequate. It can all just seem too hard.
I'll simply say this: such comparisons do not serve us and we fall victim to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about other people and their circumstances. Furthermore, the comparisons can be another example of how we allow competition to rule our lives. They're smart, successful AND fit??! C'mon....
What are we to do?
Move. Do anything and use what's available to you where you are. Do what you love or have always been keen to try. Do you like walking? Dancing? Yoga? Running? Swimming? Weights? Cycling? Anything that gets the heart rate up, puts a smile on your face and challenges you.
Do something physical for 30 minutes a day. You don't need to get super fit, so we can stop comparing ourselves to the buff, tanned and svelte creatures on Instagram who peddle the latest product on the promise that it'll get you looking like them. They can be good for suggestions and tips, of course, but they can de-motivate and discourage as much as they motivate and encourage.
Make the 30 minutes your gift to yourself for what your body, mind and soul needs. You need time alone to regroup? Put on headphones and go for a walk. You could even listen to your favourite podcast during this time. Want to see and meet people who aren't from work? Join a class or group. It's a fantastic way to meet and connect with others outside of work and to connect with where you are.
I promise you that the time you spend on your physical well-being each day will work on your mental and emotional well-being as well.
You have to set the intention, and do it. This means that you must be prepared to say 'no' to something in your life and risk disappointing someone for a moment so you can say yes to yourself. This is a topic I covered in a previous post. The physical, mental and emotional benefits accumulate, and often aren't immediate, so stick with it. But you must prioritise it.
I know, what many of you are thinking. I know you know all this already, and I know that you're busy and that your days often look like the example at the start of this post.
Consider this: How's your status quo working for you? Is your body already letting you know that it's not doing so well with your current approach to life? Sooner or later, your body will force you to stop and take notice of it.
One more question: Is the narrative in your mind telling you that, as you read these words, that you should do more exercise and eat better? You know what I'm going to say here, don't you? The clue is the use of my least favourite modal verb.
I want to be very clear before we move on. Guilt and shame - indicated by should - are both extremely powerful behavioural drivers. We humans will do almost anything to avoid or reduce the feelings of shame. Using guilt and shame works extremely well in the short term, but basing any change we want to bring into any aspect of our lives in a bed of shame is doomed to fail (and cause more shame).
Instead, I want you to do exercise each day because you want to. Do something that brings you joy, that raises your heart rate for a while and moves your body. That is when you will reap the benefits of daily movement.
Some readers will already have well-established physical fitness programs and they already know the benefits that being physically fit has on their physical, mental and emotional health. Indeed, some of you may be seriously and impressively fit.
If this is you, I want to ask you a question: why do you exercise?
Could it be that, like turning to food, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, gambling, work or any other numbing agent, you're using exercise to numb, quieten or distract yourself from something you're avoiding in your life?
Stop and think about that for a moment.
We could be using exercise as a way to present as perfect a version of ourselves to the world. We hope that people will judge us by what they see, not what we're feeling within us.
This was most definitely me. I used exercise, almost literally, to run away from myself. I took up running while in Seoul and began running in 10k events and I ran a half-marathon. I loved the challenge and the comradery that came from setting a goal, working towards it and then achieving it. It was a great way to de-stress and connect with others around me and work through my loneliness.
But I was using exercise to silence the thoughts of not being good enough and numb thoughts and feelings that I desperately wanted to avoid.
For me, no distance was too far to run. No weight too heavy to move. I hoped that by throwing myself into exercise - which was 'healthy' and good for me, after all - I could work through my issues myself. Of course, I was kidding myself. I needed to work through my issues before they consumed me further. The only way to do that is to realise that I was numbing and then identify and acknowledge what the real issue is and then seek help to address it.
Could you be seeking to control your physical circumstances through exercise or diet as a way to stop your mental and/or emotional well-being from spiralling out of control?
It's time to reflect on your circumstances and your relationship to physical movement.
What's preventing you from incorporating movement in your day? Is it real or a story you're telling yourself? What support do you need? From whom can you ask for support as you develop a new habit or create boundaries that will help you incorporate movement in your day?
Alternatively, could you be using diet and/or exercise as a numbing agent? If so, what are you numbing?
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.