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Mind Over Matter: Personal Choices for a Lifetime of Fitness. S. Cantwell (Stoddart, 1999)

Get Back on the Right Track to Fitness S. Cantwell. July 2000.

Heart Smart Exercise: Rate Your Workout S. Cantwell.’s Unifi

Combining: How to Exercise While Doing Other Things S. Cantwell.’s Unifi

When stressed for time, hit the gym to prevent hitting rock bottom M. Habib. C|Health February 2000

The Truth About Training Your Abs. S. Cantwell. May 21, 2001

I was drowning—literally—not in a sea of emails, paperwork, or meetings, but in the Green River in Utah. I had been hired as a coach and fitness expert to accompany a group of fifteen people on a five-day trip down the Green River in early May two years ago. I probably wasn’t the best choice for this particular trip. I hated cold water and one bug bite was enough to send me running indoors. But, with an adventurous spirit and an open mind, I accepted.

The Maytag Experience

Now, on day-three, as we entered a rapid called the Thundering Hole, I found myself, propelled out of the kayak, over my partner’s shoulder into the icy water. I didn’t feel the 30-degree water as my life jacket pulled me to the surface. It was dark and I couldn’t breathe. I reached up and felt a hard object on top of me... it was the kayak and I was underneath with hundreds of tons of water hitting the top of the kayak. In a moment of clarity, I dove down, cleared the kayak, and surfaced. The roar of the water was immediate. I was propelled down the river and couldn’t see over the crashing water. I couldn’t think clearly, no thoughts entered my head except “I lost my new sunglasses,” but not how I could get out of the situation—I simply panicked. Even when I slammed into a rock and tumbled around it, the same thought remained in my head; “I lost my new sunglasses.”

At that moment, my sunglasses appeared by my right hand. I reached out and grabbed them. It was only then that I realized that my fear was keeping me stuck in the situation. It dawned on me that if I was going to get out of the water, I had to change the way I perceived the problem. I decided that if I was going to go down the river, I was going to have fun doing it. I thrust my arm into the air and yelled, “I got my sunglasses,” and immediately laughed. Granted, it wasn’t the most intelligent thing I’ve ever done because my mouth filled with water and I started choking. No problem, I spit it out. My mind was clear. I thrust my feet out in front of me to keep from kissing any more rocks and scanned down river for the other boats. Suddenly, I could hear people franticly yelling at me and I saw the other boats. Within minutes, I was out of the water and sitting on the bottom of a larger boat called a J-rig, totally relaxed and grinning. I had just learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life—change the way you perceive a situation and the possibilities will reveal themselves. It’s all about your frame of mind. Once the boundaries of thinking are extended, you can truly achieve balance in your life.

I use the word “balance” with some trepidation. The word brings to mind a tightrope walker or a scale where, if one more thing is added to one side or another, something is dropped or neglected and you end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed. It’s not about achieving balance; it’s really about understanding what brings you pleasure in life and recognizing its value both in the workplace and at home. Once you feel more balance in your life, your performance at work and your personal life will reach heights you never thought possible. These few simple suggestions may help you get started on the journey to altering your perceptions about what is possible in your life and how to create a life of balance...without taking a nose-dive into a river.

Create a Strong Personal Foundation

A strong personal foundation means making time in your life to take care of yourself physically. One of the major components of self-care is exercise. Everyone has heard about the benefits of regular exercise such as reduced risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and prevention of some forms of cancer and a number of other life threatening diseases. However, on a day-to-day basis, exercise can help combat feeling tired, stressed, and overwhelmed by the demands of your daily schedule. What may be even more important are the psychological benefits of exercise. Research now suggests that regular exercise can increase mental alertness, memory, energy, and heighten problem-solving skills, not to mention drastically reducing real or perceived stress.

Dr. Henriette van Pragg, a scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California says, “Exercise may help improve learning and memory.” According to a study performed at the Salk Institute by van Pragg, exercise increases the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. The research compared two groups of mice. One group was put in a cage with only food and water. The other group was placed in a cage with food, water, and a running wheel. [I deleted this because it was so obvious. Ann] Both groups were placed in a water maze. Their memory was subsequently tested by the speed in which the mice located a hidden platform that they used to rest on. Mice that exercised found the platform far more quickly than the non-exercising mice did. They also had stronger synapses (cellular connections), which are crucial for information flow and storage.

What’s even more interesting, van Pragg says, they also found evidence of neurogenesis—the creation of new cells—and it seems to be the result of exercise. The research indicates that exercise can help us remain sharper as we age. This is welcome news for someone who is facing an ever-changing business environment, while juggling family responsibilities.

van Pragg says, “If you want to increase your sense of well-being, gain better health, and increase your brain power, then exercise is your answer.” Not surprisingly, van Pragg also practices what she preaches. “I believe in my own results. I exercise for an hour on most days."

Exercise does not have to be done in a gym. Start by identifying a form of physical activity you might enjoy and start slowly. Something as little as a ten-to-twenty minute walk, can help you reap physical and mental benefits. Check with your physician before starting any exercise program.

Make Time for Play

If your first instinct, when you walk in your front door, is to have a cocktail and turn on the evening news, then you may be missing out on a moment of bonding and play with your family. I recognized this important component from personal experience. One day I walked in the front door and two of my three children raced by me. The third one, who is four, slapped me on the arm and yelled, “You’re it!” My frame of mind was not exactly playful after a long and busy day, but I dropped what I had in my hands and chased the running and giggling short people as they darted just outside my reach. We ended up in a tickle fight, rolling around on the floor. I can’t say who benefited more... the children or me. What seemed so frustrating during my day dissolved and later that night I was able to think about the day with more perspective.

Play is a major component of creativity. Play creates relaxation and hence, more fluid thought can occur. It focuses you back to the person you used to be and still are, once you shed your accumulated stress and on-going responsibilities, even if it’s just for a moment. One of the first issues that surface when I coach executives on river trips is that something is missing in their lives. Many of these executives conclude that they lack a sense of fun or play in their lives. Before this realization, they believed that their dissatisfaction stemmed from their work. When a person’s whole focus in life is work, then other needs are buried, and we end up feeling burned out, overwhelmed, and restless.

We need play no matter how old we are. Ask yourself when is the last time you simply... played. Play can mean different things to different people. For some it can be playing with their children, for others it might mean taking time to draw or hike. Whatever it means to you, find an hour every week to do something that brings you into the present moment. Something that makes you feel good and fills you with joy. You’ll end up feeling more fulfilled, creative, and productive—a sure sign that you’re expanding your boundaries and living a more balanced life.

Make an Adventure of Your Vacation

Do you truly want to see what you’re capable of or unearth both your physical and mental strengths? Then an adventure vacation can jump-start this learning process. You don’t have to be in top physical condition or even be proficient at what you choose to do. Many adventure vacations can cater to your individual needs. On the river trips that I am a part of, we ask that you turn in your watches and guess what... your cell phone won’t work once you’re floating down the river in the canyons. Time has no relevance and schedules mean nothing. When we are hungry, we eat. When we are tired, we rest. When the sun starts to go down, we set up camp. It’s just you and nature. When you let go of all the external trappings of work—email, cell phones, schedules, and demands, you are free to explore your real world and how you function in it. It’s not easy and many participants struggle with not knowing the time and not being able to control events around them.

One particular participant comes to mind as I explain what it’s like to be with yourself instead of yourself “doing” things. This person, a successful stock analyst on Wall Street, wrestled with the demands of his job while trying to make time for his family. “What time is it?” was his motto for the first two days and he was developing a permanent twitch reaching for the cell telephone that he did not have. On the third day, I spied him floating by himself in a small inflatable kayak, staring at the sky, and breathing deeply. After he came aboard the larger boat, I asked him how he felt. He said that he hadn’t felt this good in years and we talked about how he could achieve the same results in his everyday life. I didn’t have to tell him how to do this; he had all the answers himself. He just had to dispose of all the reasons why he couldn’t lead a life of balance and focus his attention on the possibilities.

Several months later, I received a phone call from him. He had made more time for his family and received a promotion. He credited this to his time on the river and said that he has a fuller, more meaningful life because he put the human back in the human being.

Changing the way we think about our lives and our ability to live a balanced life starts with a single commitment to explore the possibilities present all around us. Not only will living a life of balance benefit your personal life, but you will also be able to transfer the learning and skills you have acquired to become more creative and productive in your work environment.

Susan Cantwell is a Corporate/ Personal Wellness Coach and fitness guru who has been known to have clients belt out a few lines of their favorite songs to help them center and focus on possibilities. She is the Author of Mind Over Matter: Personal Choices for a Lifetime of Fitness. To balance out work and play, she loves to run the river and the challenge of a good tickle fight with her three children. Send her an email at


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