EXERCISE: The Importance of Rituals

twyla tharp

Photo by: rolbroute

*We are creatures of habit. Routine behaviors guide our days without our awareness. They are the most powerful forces in our lives. To demonstrate the power of routine behaviors to yourself, try switching your watch to your other arm. How does it feel?

*If you have been trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but have been finding it difficult to find the time, energy, motivation, etc. it may be that you already have a surplus of routine behaviors crowding out your new program. For greater success when adopting a new stretching, eating, or exercise regimen, incorporate a small ritual into the process.

* Rituals are patterns of behavior that are easy to accomplish. After enough regular practice, they nearly become unconscious, but their importance lies in the fact that they are catalysts for bigger efforts.

*The other day, I came across Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Ms. Tharp is exceptional in her ability to recognize and explain behaviors that facilitate creativity. Early in the book, she discusses the importance of rituals, as a call to action. Ms. Tharp’s morning ritual: wake up, get dressed, step outside, hail a taxi, ask the driver to take her to the gym. Once she has told the driver where to go, the ritual is complete and she is on track for her workout. The workout itself is not the ritual, it is the follow-on action.

The Creative HabitPhoto by: .nele

*Joint mobility exercises are my morning ritual. Doing these exercises clears my head, gets me focused on moving my body, and sets me up for the 100 push ups that follow. Without the initial joint mobility ritual, excuses and distractions make it easy to skip the more strenuous push ups.

*I also have micro-rituals. When I am lifting weights, before starting a set, I take three deep slow breaths, in through the nose out through the mouth, followed by three quick breaths, using only my mouth. My first lift starts, as I force the last exhalation through pursed lips. This little ritual preps my mind for concentration, focuses my body for exertion, and sets the timing of the lift.

*For me, these rituals have a calming effect. Prior to initiating the ritual, accomplishing the follow on action is an anxious desire, subject to being derailed by distractions, other interests, or plain old chickening out. Once the ritual is started, tension dissipates and the follow on action becomes a foregone conclusion.

*Another ritual worth experimenting with is taking a few moments in the morning to visualize your day and to think about being successful with your most important project. Taking a few moments to visualize success with a project is not doing the project, but it sets you up for pursuing the follow-on action. At the end of my work day, I purposely brainstorm projects or action steps that I will need to work on the next day. This ritual insures continuity, from day to day. More importantly, this ritual disengages me from work (once an idea is written down, I can forget about it until the next day) and preps me for the follow-on action of engaging my home / personal life.

* If you want to make positive changes in your routines, but are having difficulty finding the time, energy, or focus necessary, then develop a little ritual to help make the follow-on behavior inevitable, rather than overwhelming. A warm cup of tea before stretching, visualizing a successful lift, or putting on your favorite apron before cooking, are examples of little things that move you toward bigger projects, help you focus, and reduce your anxiety. Cherish your rituals, they are the gateway to consistent positive routines.

*Rituals can also be quite humorous.  For example, before I get out of bed, I prefer for the numbers on the digital clock to add up to 13 or 9.  11 is OK too, but I prefer 13 and 9.  So, don’t be shy, post a few of your more unusual rituals in the comments section.


7 responses to “EXERCISE: The Importance of Rituals

  1. O.K., now I understand how and why you stay in bed “just another minute or two”!


    Your Wife

  2. i really enjoy this post. thanks.

    my ritual is doing an improvisation theatrical experience every thursday.

    i would like to start developing early morning rituals.

  3. Funny thing about rituals. Some of them you do on purpose, others you may not notice until you stop and think about them.

    Anyway, you wrote:

    “Doing these exercises clears my head, gets me focused on moving my body, and sets me up for the 100 push ups that follow. Without the initial joint mobility ritual, excuses and distractions make it easy to skip the more strenuous push ups.”

    I think all of us should choose a ritual or two to get us in the habit of exercising daily. Thanks for helping me “notice” these.

    • Dr. Torey:

      *You are welcome and thanks for the comment.

      *Your point about awareness made me stop and think…routine behaviors are very powerful and run the risk of becoming habits that impede progress, rather than help…particularly if we lose our awareness of why we are doing them.

  4. Hi Adam,
    I totally agree with you about the benefits of developing routines or rituals to promote positive changes and productivity in ones life. Unfortunately, I still have the ones passed down to me from generation to generation which in the morning is mainly jumping up around 6ish, hurrying to the coffee pot, packing lunches, feeding animals, helping everyone in the house with their specific needs… like hair, clothes suggestions, breakfast.. etc and rushing out the door. (I wont’ even mention my evening routine )We’re down to 1 car now though and I’ve given up taking my husband to work every day being that it’s a 2 hour drive each way and I’m working from home anyway, plus schools are within walking distance.

    Christian is loving the bike ride every morning, which provides him with a routine and everyday exercise to begin his day. His ritual is putting on his biking gloves, back pack and hoodie while talking to me. I love that! I love that he’s excited about starting his day and it has a lot to do with the bike ride. Serina has been catching rides with friends for the month even though she really is close enough to walk. I would have loved that opportunity as a teenager, but she is in car mode and is eagerly looking forward to December when she is 16 and can get her license. Her ritual in the morning is like most young girls and it’s all about hair, make-up and getting ready for the day. Both are accustomed to some sort of breakfast and fruit is usually a part of it. Christian likes to socialize and have his at school and Serina likes me to prepare hers. We used to go to Taco Cabana 2 times a week (her favorite) but that has not been an option lately.

    I’ve tried switching to tea in the morning after reading your article, but it makes me nauseated for some reason. I’m not sure why because I can have it with no problems later in the day. I have several varieties that are delicious and are supposed to be good for certain health benefits. I still enjoy at least 3 cups coffee every morning but did switch to ½ caf with no problems. JJ didn’t even notice 🙂

    I also began a 4 day a week exercise; stretch routine 3 weeks ago incorporating several of your favorites, even lunges! I did lunges around the entire house and was very sore the first day but the pain did subside. Stretching is something I have never been fond of and when I began that part it was very uncomfortable. I can’t believe I was able to do splits at any point in my life. I’ve noticed a little cardio does warm up the muscles and help with the stretching and you’re right jumping rope is a great one. Bicycle crunches are very effective and I tried them when I read you did them. I can do 3 sets of 20 fairly easy, but have a hard time not holding my breath during these for some reason. Yes, I read your deep breathing article and find that those do relax me and seem to help with stress I just have a hard time breathing correctly during certain exercises. Regarding Fingertip push ups – No way! I can barely get 10 regular push-ups finished. Lol I only do 3 arm; shoulder exercises with 10 5 lb dumbbells. Now I’ve only been consistent for 3 weeks now and have to admit I have a horrible sweet tooth and wine craving so I know that is preventing me from seeing the kind of results I would otherwise. Plus we eat a lot of pasta in this family!

    Adam, you really did inspire me to begin these baby steps and I’ve been meaning to tell you that. I saw big improvements in overall energy after changing my vitamin schedule to the one you wrote about in August. The detailed yet simple explanations as to why supplements are more effective at certain times of the day and what they should be taken with was very helpful to me. I found the information interesting, therefore it’s been easier for me to remember and put in to practice. I’m one of those people that need the why’s answered, not just the list of what to do, but why it’s done that way. That has always helped me to learn and retain the knowledge. I also understand the biological clock better now also and everything makes more sense as to why I feel the way I do at certain times of the day and night.

    I will try your suggestions about the pre-routine rituals, the ones that get you motivated to start your activity. I can’t really think of any I do except talking to myself and just making myself take the 1st step towards the project or goal because once I get started it gets a lot easier and when I see I’m making progress then I even get a burst of energy that helps me complete the task. That has to be mental! I also will try writing down what I would like to finish or start back up on the next day at the end of the day because I do tend to remind myself and fret about things a little throughout the evening and even in the middle of the night so that may be something that would help. I will get back to you and let you know.

    Sorry I jumped around a little! 😀 Hope you have an awesome week; send my love to Eileen and the kids! ~gina

    • Gina:

      *Great to hear from you again…I enjoy your stream of consciousness approach to comments.

      *Sounds like you have some great things going on. We only have one car now too (amazing how much money you save this way). The kids walk to school and I walk to work most days. Like Christian with his warm up bike ride, I enjoy the movement before having to settle in behind a desk.

      *Interesting that tea is a no go for the morning. Just goes to show, you have to experiment and see what works for you. I guess you can stick with the traditional English afternoon tea.

      *Great work on the exercise routine. Pat yourself on the back for that. Eileen did stair lunges with me for the first time this weekend…she felt it too. 3 sets of 20 is great on bicycle crunches. Breathing is key for any exercise. It is harder with ab exercises, but keep working on it. I don’t think Bruce Lee was cranking out fingertip pushups after 3 weeks either…10 solid pushups is great.

      *Very cool about the improved energy after working with your vitamin and supplement schedule.

      Q: Has the new schedule helped with getting to sleep and sleeping better?

      *The first step can be the hardest part of any big project…if you have a little ritual before you get started, it is almost like an affirmation that you will be able to finish.

      *Also, like you I tend to ruminate about things. Writing them down, means that I don’t have to worry about forgetting what I was worrying about. This also works in a positive way too, because it allows me to capture creative ideas before they escape from my memory.

      *Will do. I hope you have a great week too.

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