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Life Lessons at the Gym
by Sharon Teitelbaum

Have you ever noticed how one absolutely pertinent life lesson sometimes sneaks up on you SMACK IN THE MIDDLE of another context? I think many of us have experienced this "Aha!" connection.

For example, a couple of years ago, I was working hard at "stepping out" into the world more boldly and becoming more visible, particularly in my business. At the same time I was also taking voice lessons. I remember one particular lesson in which my voice teacher kept repeating to me, almost shouting, "You need to take up more space!"

Well, it happened again this morning, in a full, multi-dimensional way! During my spinning class, many areas of my current learning got reinforced. First, "what's spinning?" you might ask. Spinning is a popular form of cardio-workout class offered at many fitness centers. Participants and teacher ride a special stationary bike with sensitive controls for adjusting resistance. Setting the resistance very high simulates the experience of riding a bike up a steep hill. Although the teacher leads the class through a finely tuned workout of hills, intervals, sprints, and so forth, each person can work at her own level.

This morning, I heard the instructions and immedately realized they applied on more than one level. My antennae were up and wiggling. I was so delighted with it, I immediately thought of sharing it with you. Here's how it played out, in no particular order.


Early on, the teacher said, "Feel the focus in the room." The combination of energy and intention in the spinning room was palpable, powerful, inspiring. When you surround yourself with like-minded people, the collective intention and focus support everyone. The whole is somehow much greater than the sum of the parts. The corollary is that the well-meaning "support" of people in your life who are not aligned with you can be "the kind of help we all could do without." Sometimes that "alignment" is hard to define; it isn't a straightforward matter. Look deeper when you sense some distrust or doubt from a supportive person. The words may be right, but the spirit or intention may be off-kilter and not what you need at this time.


During our first climb, she said, "Strong legs, strong mind." The learning here is to pay attention to both the muscle and the intention. We often focus just on the "legs" and forget the mind. We implement a strategy to increase our income but don't deal with our core ambivalence about money. We want to be more effective at work but our attention is scattered. Where you look is where you go: how well you focus your mind is as critical to your success as the efficiency of your "pedal strokes." Keep your larger intention clear and conscious for yourself. The legs often take care of themselves.


Having great music playing converts the work into play, turns the workout into dance, transforms difficulty into exhilaration. What's music to you? Where in your life do you need to turn it on or turn it UP? (or turn it OFF?)


After we increased resistance several times on one of our "hills," the teacher said, "Turn your resistance up a smidgeon. And by the way, 'smidgeon' is in the dictionary. I looked it up." Next steps count, no matter how small they are. Whether you're expanding your workout zone by one heartbeat a minute, recovering from a "failure" more quickly than the last time, or driving to the airport for the first time -- SMALL STEPS COUNT! In fact, they are THE PRIMO medium of personal growth and evolution. Let's face it -- quantum transformational leaps are not often an option for most of us mortals. But at any moment in your life, next steps are always visible to you -- small steps you are capable of taking. Think of 'smidgeon' as a highly technical term in the realm of personal growth.


Pedaling a bike is a circular motion, but we naturally emphasize the down stroke. In spinning, we're supposed to pedal as hard on the up stroke as on the down stroke. We need the teacher's countless reminders, "Equal strokes up and down!" Another way she helps is to pace us. She has us bring our heart rate up to our cardio range (the higher range of heart beats per minute that gives us a cardiovascular workout), keep it there for a while, and then bring it down to our "recovery range." She leads us through this cycle a few times during the 45-minute class. This is applied workout technology: these cycles are efficient ways to get the most out of an exercise program. So what's the lesson here? Up is as important as down. Rest is as important as work. Stopping is as important as going. Relaxed is as important as pumped. Down time is as important as up time. What are YOU discounting??


It makes a difference to have a teacher! And having an excellent teacher is the best! What are you trying to do on your own that you'd do much better, faster and more enjoyably with a teacher? This needn't be seen as a weakness; we don't need to be totally self-sufficient. Be aware of where you're struggling and keep an eye out for your teacher. You know, "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." (And what are YOU ready to teach?)


During a particularly hard part of the workout, the teacher said, repeatedly, "Go for it!" The music was thumping, my endorphins were pumping, and I was totally "going for it." Making an all-out effort in one part of your life supports you to do so in any other part of your life. It builds your credibility with yourself as a person who can "do 100%." Try it. Taste it. Feel it. You'll like it. You'll even thirst for more opportunities to go for it.


At the end of the class, when we had cooled down and stretched out, the teacher said, "Give yourselves a hand for a really good workout." We did, proudly. Acknowledging yourself is such a simple, inexpensive, powerful way to keep yourself motivated! Yet I bet you don't do it nearly enough. You wouldn't dream of working your staff, your students, or your kids as hard as you work yourself without thanking them and acknowledging them for their hard work! And mean it when you do.


Special thanks to my excellent Tuesday morning spinning teacher, Debby Fertig. Also to my other terrific spinning teachers: Andy Bergman, Nancy Jenney, and Joan Tufenkjian. Thanks to the Mt. Auburn Club in Watertown, MA for offering spinning classes throughout the week.


1. Pick a "spinning lesson" that speaks to you from the list above.

2. Name an arena in your life where you would like to apply that principle.

3. Think of a way you could apply that principle.

4. Do it this week.


"NO TENSING, NO CLENCHING, NO SHOULDERS," the spinning teacher tells us as we pedal into a sweat on the stationary bikes. When you ride a spinning bike, it's the legs that do the work. But if you're not paying attention, you can add to your workload by clenching your teeth and tensing your shoulders so they're up to your ears! This secondary work is not only unnecessary -- it's counterproductive. The teacher's reminder is helpful. All it takes is consciousness and intention to relax the parts that don't need to be working.

You can apply this principle in so many ways! When you are on a tight schedule, you can remember to breathe. When you are challenged by a work project, you can still take a relaxed lunch break. When you are stressing about SOMEthing, you don't need to stress about EVERYthing.

Where can you apply this in your life? All it takes is consciousness and intention. No tensing, no clenching, no shoulders!

Copyright 2003, Sharon Teitellbaum. All rights reserved.

Sharon Teitelbaum,, a Master Certified Work-Life and Career Coach, works with high achievers, people at mid-career, and professionals seeking greater career satisfaction and work-life balance. She coaches by phone and in person in Boston. Her newsletter, Strategies For Change, offers practical tips for work-life success. Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: Restoring Work-Life Balance is Sharon's most recent book. Sharon also also delivers keynotes & workshops on work-life issues. Clients include Children's Hospital Boston, Merrill Lynch, Arnold Worldwide, professional organizations and alumni groups. She's been featured in national publications including The New York Times,, and Working Mother Magazine. Married for 30 years, she is the mother of two amazing young women.


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