Working Inwardly To Find Your Outer & Inner Health


By Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S.



Whether the topic is exercise, flexibility, diet, fitness,
intelligence, hair color, or practically anything else, making
comparisons between ourselves and other seems to be the rule, rather
than the exception. Working out at the local fitness center not only
provides an opportunity to get or stay in shape, but also as I recently
heard someone say, a chance to ‘size up the competition’. What struck me
about this comment was how pervasive this theme is in so much of what we
do day-to-day. There seem to be very few circumstances anymore that
don’t invoke competitive aspirations. And in the realm of health and
fitness, it’s not uncommon for competition to be used as a motivational
strategy to promote the attainment of fitness. “If I can do it, so can
you” is a friendly way to challenge someone whom you feel needs a bit of
a push, and there are many other variations on this theme.

People often lose sight of the fact that the inspirational qualities of
others really have more to do with an appreciation of what they have
done with what they have, rather than on the specifics of their
accomplishments. Think of someone you really admire, and you will
probably be aware that your attitude is shaped as much by an
appreciation of the circumstances of their lives as their actual
accomplishments. Lance Armstrong is probably admired more for having
persevered in the face of cancer than for the fact that he routinely won
the Tour de France.  Does it make sense to aspire to be Lance Armstrong
and fantasize about winning the Tour? To me, this is a prescription for
envy and futility.  On the other hand, drawing inspiration from the way
he accepted the reality of his situation, and persevered in the face of
a life-threatening challenge can be applied by all of us in the context
of our personal circumstances, which are as unique and individualized as
those of Lance Armstrong.

In terms of health and wellness, although the inspirational qualities
of other people can serve to some extent as a guide or beacon, it’s
important that they not detract from an understanding and appreciation
of the qualities that we bring to the table as we are, in the present
moment. The idea here is to be like a good cook, who can take whatever
is on hand and prepare a satisfying, even in the absence of exotic
ingredients, expensive equipment, and the latest kitchen gadgetry.
Working with what we have — and who we are — is one of the most
fundamental ideas underlying many meditative and contemplative
practices. Related to this is cultivating a heightened sense of
awareness of personal circumstances as they develop and change on a
moment-by-moment basis.

One exercise-related application of this principle comes from the
Heritage Family Study, a multi-site study undertaken in the early 1990’s
that evaluated the impact of exercise and physical activity on oxygen
uptake and various metabolic indices. A key stimulus for the study was
prior evidence of significant individual differences in response to the
same exercise stimulus. That is, any two people participating in exactly
the same exercise program are likely to attain different results.
Results of this study confirmed that individual difference factors in
response to exercise are substantial, and should be taken into account
in designing and assessing fitness programs. Finding out where you fit
on a broad response continuum is a vital aspect of self-knowledge and
self-understanding. So the next time you notice yourself making
comparisons with others about fitness, flexibility, or strength, keep in
mind the importance of finding your own path and staying on it.

Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S., is a faculty member in the Psychology
Department at UofL, a  certified Health Fitness (ACSM) and Yoga
(RYT/200) instructor. He can be contacted at


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