How 103 days of daily exercise made me a better leader

“Something’s got to give,” I thought, adjusting earbuds as I logged into the umpteenth zoom call of the morning. Change is hard.

I could feel stress squeezing the muscles on my neck, shoulders, and upper back. No standing desk, no clear boundaries between family time and work, and no physical outlet. Just a few weeks in, life under quarantine felt weighty.

“Download it,” my wife quipped, as she floated past my dining table work station at the dining table to pour another coffee between her own meetings.

The app was Strava. She had encouraged me to join an exercise challenge — a pretty mild one requiring a commitment to exercise for at least 20 minutes, at least four times a week.

She said I needed it. She was right. I downloaded the app.

On Monday, April 13, I logged 20 minutes of exercise, and I’ve logged at least 20 minutes every day since. Forty-two days of exercise has been great. I feel healthier. But I also find myself changing in other unexpected ways. I’m finding balance working from home. I’m identifying margin and staying grounded. I’m carving space to care deeply for my family, to grieve, and to rest.

I’m a zoo COO. I also coach executives, run retreats, write kid’s books, adjunct at Westmont College and University of Miami, partner as affiliate faculty at Penn State, and serve on local boards. I’m a person of faith, a husband to my brilliant bride, and a father to three amazing humans working through their elementary years.

Maybe I’m a runner?

At some point in my distracted, busy, programmed, privileged life I let go of quiet.

Intentional, daily exercise has re-introduced me to quiet. At some point in my distracted, busy, programmed, privileged life I let go of quiet. Now it’s back, and quiet is teaching me. I’m re-learning what it takes to be grounded, what energizes me and what drains me. I’m paying closer attention.

I can’t attribute all the changes to running. I’m managing novel work challenges via countless hours muting and unmuting myself in conference calls while sharing limited bandwidth with my wife and kids at my in-laws home as we care for my father-in-law who continues to battle cancer.

Truth is, I hate running. My wife chuckles each time I head out for a jog.

I will say that exercising daily has grounded me — like deep roots in a hurricane. Showing up each morning demands increasing grit, perseverance, and discipline. As I exercise those proverbial muscles I grow stronger — and my roots extend.

I’m also starting to like the way I feel after each run — just don’t tell my wife. I enjoy the routine and sense of accomplishment. Across these forty-two days I have renewed focus and clarity.

Running is leaking into the rest of my life.

For that reason, I decided to track my journey. I want some data to understand how this commitment to daily exercise might mark my life. How would my life be different if I simple exercised every day?.

So, how did the first six weeks go?

For the first seven days, my legs and lungs ached the entire twenty minutes. I mixed jogging with walking to help my lungs recover. One day three I pushed all the way to the end of mile one without walking — a huge victory at the time.

A week later I jogged for all of two miles. The last minute was the hardest. When my Fitbit finally announced “two miles,” I threw my hands up in celebration and walked the last half mile home.

These little victories have gamified exercise, rekindling a “competition-with-self” drive left dormant since high school. In week two, I accidentally ran/walked a 5k. It surprised me, and I’ve tried to run one each week since.

It’s been six weeks, and I feel different. I have new energy — not just physically, but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I have focus and clarity. I have healthier boundaries. And, these changes make me a better spouse, father, friend, coach, and colleague. I am more self-aware than six weeks ago. I have grown as a leader these past 42 days.

How will the next 7 days go? Will I find time to exercise tomorrow? I can’t say for sure. Check back in a week. Better yet, take the journey with me. Drop a comment. Start your own routine. Let’s see where this journey takes each of us.

*update, days 43–49

wk 7. 5 runs, 7 walks / ran 20.1km / 5k in 24:34

I still exercise daily. My sanity depends on it. I type from a chair next to my father-in-law’s hospice bed. He rests to the hum of his oxygen and the infrequent tapping of my fingers. Dad is a fighter. For nearly five years he has fought. I know a fighter — I watched my mom battle Sjogren’s for 25 years before her journey here ended.

In late February, my wife began visiting each weekend. We resisted taking the whole family in the middle of flu season. In early March, a colleague encouraged us to take our children. We did, and grandpa’s spirits surged. Under quarantine ourselves, by late March, we began visiting as a family each weekend. This rhythm paired nicely with daily exercise, and the margin we found as a family provided play and rest that our pre-COVID-19 life had squeezed out.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, another friend asked why we didn’t just stay — strong advice, and it stuck. Our continuing stay-at-home order made the choice easy. We decided to conduct our remote work and remote school a bit more remotely.

Back to today, and week 7 — there is a deeper joy mixed into the sorrow. I’m grateful for the silver lining we have drawn from the devastating tragedy that is COVID-19. I am grateful for the good we have claimed in the face of cancer’s treachery.

We are reimagining the rhythms of our life. In January, I resolved to carve more family time. By March, I had taken only a few small steps. Then, COVID-19 intervened. Forced to lead a different life, we are suddenly choosing how we want to live.

Like choosing daily exercise, following new family rhythms takes perseverance and grit. The first weeks were awkward and inconvenient. Forming any new practice feels this way — change is hard. Now, having the foundation of daily exercise, I step into new practices with fresh confidence that I can succeed — that we will be able to establish new and meaningful rhythms for our family.

Dallas Willard wrote about transformation as a combination of vision, intention, and means — vim and vigor. Without the means, the clearest vision and strongest intentions will fail. It’s out intended rhythms that bring our vision to life in practical ways. These rhythms are simple new routines or practices that change us — transform us into our future selves.

In a way, today’s run was a gift to future Aaron. A tangible practice I need to grow discipline and clear headspace for focus and clarity. Future Aaron will thank me someday — my aching knees did him a solid this morning.

In this season of life, when all the days run together, and weighty headlines push against our comfortable lives, just slipping on my running shoes takes extra effort. I have vision. I have strong intention to see it through. Now, I am also cultivating the means — those tangible practices that foster transformation.

Do you have a clear vision? Are you motivated to achieve it? Do you know why it matters and what it will take to see it through? If not, start there. If so, identify the means — those habits, rhythms, and practices that will foster your transformation.

If it includes daily exercise, fantastic, I’m right there with you — seven weeks deep and counting.

*update days 50–56

Wk 8. 5 runs, 5 walks / ran 23.5km / 5k in 22:15

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law and I sat down to watch a Hulu original called 11.22.63, based on a book written by Stephen King. English teacher Jake Epping finds himself traveling in time to stop the JFK assassination. His time traveling mentor, Al, repeatedly warns Jake: the past pushes back — it resists change. It’s been 56 days since I committed to daily exercise and I affirm Al’s warning.

Our past pushes back. It resists change.

If you’ve been following my daily exercise commitment, you’ll remember that our family has effectively been living with my in-laws since Mother’s Day weekend. It’s been a gift to be with family during this difficult season — a gift to work remotely, to serve family well, and to journey this challenge with our kids.

It’s also been relatively easy to get up each day and walk or run — a sacred time for my mind to rest, wrestle, and process. There have been days across the last fifty where I didn’t want to exercise — sore legs, a packed schedule, failure to go early in the morning, and no desire to run in triple digit heat.

Even in those tougher days, however, the decision to exercise didn’t feel like a choice. I run or walked because I needed it. Sanity dictated I would exercise.

Week 8 started in similar fashion. It opened with my birthday. Eager to attack year forty-four with my own vision for a bigger life, I ran my fastest 5k to date. I ran on air and adrenaline. It felt great.

Day two I got my run in early. The day was full of meetings, and when it all ended, I loaded up the car. My eldest and I were heading home for a few days. We didn’t want to miss his sixth-grade promotion — apparently that has become a thing since I was in sixth grade — and despite COVID restrictions, we wanted him to be as present as possible with his peers.

Wednesday I said no to a morning run. Then, the day got busy — preparing for promotion, my own work and work meetings, his promotion zoom call, and evening plans to celebrate with friends (socially distanced, of course). Afternoon turned to evening — still no time for exercise.

Resistance prowled. I readied my own excuses.

Early in the War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes,

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

He goes on to personify this Resistance as the barrier to becoming who we are called to become. That unlived life within yearns to break out — but for Resistance.

I plowed through the War of Art this week, and enjoyed Pressfield’s no bull, nearly mystical approach to getting on with living our unlived life within.

Back to that evening, with a tight window between “now” and “pizza celebration,” I told my son we needed to get some exercise.

He gave me that, “you can’t be serious” look. I said, “Please?” He gave in. with a nod. The ask wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to exercise, and neither did he.

More than that, I didn’t want the momentum to end — so I asked. Fifty-one days of consecutive exercise felt substantial. I didn’t want it to end.

It was just a 25 minute walk, but it counted. I logged my 20 minutes of daily exercise.

More than that, it opened a beautiful moment for the two of us. As we walked, we talked — about his elementary career, his reflections and dreams, his fears about junior high.

The best part? After a few minutes of walking side-by-side, he grabbed my hand. Yep. You read that right. My sixth grade son grabbed my hand while we walked around our neighborhood. I melted. We talked. Hand in hand.

Pushing through day 52 gave me renewed energy for the days 53–56. Momentum steadied me against Resistance.

The next morning, I ran another 5k, and when the week closed I had logged my more kilometers (23.5) than any prior week. My back’s not sore. My knees are holding up. This one-day-at-a-time commitment is changing me, even in the face of Resistance.

For Pressfield, we overcome Resistance by turning professional. Later in the War of Art he writes, “the professional is prepared each day to confront his own self-sabotage…his goal is not victory, but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.”

The professional is becoming grounded, and in that grounded-ness he finds increasing self-awareness and strength. I think Pressfield is right about this. In our professionalism — in that grounded strength — our unlived life within can awake.

I know mine is waking. It wakes a bit more each day — as momentum builds, alongside confidence, self-awareness, and strength to handle myself — “as sturdily and steadily” as I can.

What about you? Are you living your unlived life within? If not, what’s holding you back?

*update days 56–103

Wk 9. ran 29.8k / 5k in 26.07 / 10k in 53.40

Wk 10. ran 30.6k / 5k in 26.02 / 10k in 56.52

Wk 11. ran 26.9k / 5k in 24.36

Wk 12. ran 24.6k / 5k in 24.02

Wk 13. ran 32.2k / 5k in 29.02

Wk 14. ran 12.9k / 5k in 24.01 *switched to walks, sore knees

Wk 15. ran 24.5k / 5k in 24:17 *missed daily exercise on day 104.

Day 105…Laced up & called it day 1.

As you might imagine, much changed between day 56 and 103. In late June, my father-in-law passed. A week later, the zoo reopened. Shortly thereafter, we moved back to our home in Santa Barbara, nesting after a long time away, and grieving our losses.

The shift in living space impacted routines, and eventually impacted the streak. Probably the hardest part was letting go on day 105, realizing the inevitable had occurred, and committing to start again.

In week 13, I had my annual physical exam. The practice of daily exercise has made me measurably healthier. Beyond that, I am centered — grounded. I’ve leveraged the rhythm of exercise to stack and hone other rhythms — like reading, writing, silence/solitude, and play.

All this translates to showing up as a better version of myself — for my family, clients, and coworkers. When I think about whole health, I can’t imagine a better way to start stacking positive habits than daily exercise.

If you’re game, I encourage you to give it a go. Lace up & start with walks. I’m sure you’ll exceed my 103 days. If you miss a day, have a laugh, and start again — future you will thank you.

Originally published at https://www.armarshall.com on May 27, 2020.

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Aaron Marshall

Thriving family guy & founder w/ PhD. equips you to scale your impact. coaches execs/owners. teaches undergrads. COOs at zoo. surfs w/ his kids. armarshall.com