Mental, Physical and Fiscal Fitness

Achieving physical and financial fitness requires planning and discipline.

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Well it’s that time of year again. Time to make your New Year’s resolutions and get things back on track. January is as good a month as any to get started on a more disciplined and fulfilling path. Getting physically and fiscally fit both require similar approaches. You need a plan and the mental discipline to stick to it. And your mental fitness is affected by your physical state which can directly impact your financial well being. When it all works together it can feel almost effortless – but you have to start somewhere. You will not go from couch potato to tri-athlete or financial disaster area to financially comfortable overnight.

I went to the gym yesterday and it was much more crowded than usual, most of the machines occupied and the free weight section especially full. All the people who bought a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution were making their first appearance at the gym since last January when they made last year’s resolutions.

It’s great they are back but I’ve been a gym rat for roughly 40 years and I know that most of the newbies won’t make it past the end of the month. Almost all of them will pay for it longer – canceling that monthly fee is admitting defeat – but that just makes the gym more affordable for people like me who actually go week after week, year after year.

They’ll try for a while but staying physically fit is as much a state of mind as anything else and trekking to the gym three days a week – which is about the minimum you can do and stay in reasonable shape – is tough. Doing it right takes a couple of hours out of your day and that is probably just to get an hour of actual working out. You have to get there, change into your workout clothes, work out and shower after.

My routine from start to finish is about two hours of actual working out so gym days I don’t get home until around 9 PM (my days start around 6:30 AM when I walk the dogs). I do that 3 to 4 days a week. If you have kids or other family commitments that is hard to maintain. My workouts are more intense than most though and you can stay fit with half my gym time. But even that requires some sacrifice. Prepare to miss a lot of TV.

I welcome anyone who is trying to get in shape and live a healthier life. However, I do have some tips for my new gym buddies:

  1. No, you can’t save that elliptical machine ( or treadmill or bike) for your girlfriend who’s in the locker room putting on her makeup.
  2. No, I won’t spot you on the benchpress. You’ve only got 20 pounds on the bar. Go over in the corner and do some push-ups for gosh sakes.
  3. No, touching your knees does not qualify as stretching.
  4. No, that isn’t how you use that machine. Turn around before you hurt yourself.
  5. No, spandex is not your best look. And wear a shirt with some sleeves until you can make an actual muscle. Those are not guns. They aren’t even slingshots.
  6. No, that isn’t a lounge chair. It’s an abdominal machine.
  7. No, sweating in the sauna is not the same as actually working out.
  8. No, you cannot see a difference in your physique yet. It’s only been one day. Stop looking in the mirror. And if you take another selfie I will not be responsible for my actions.

In all seriousness, you do need to have a plan before you go in the gym and just wing it. If you really want to do this right and make it stick you need to see progress and that means more than just pumping up your biceps. The most important part of your workout might well be the book you read before you get to the gym. Or the conversation you have with the, hopefully, qualified personal trainer who will help you build a workout routine.

Personally, I think these things are very personal and you are better off doing it yourself, but I’ve also known some very good personal trainers. One word of warning if you decide to go the personal trainer route. If they immediately start trying to sell you supplements – or a condo – stop and find a new one.

More important than the specifics of your workout plan is that you have one. Just as with financial and investment planning, there are lots of ways to accomplish your fitness goals but you need to choose one and stick to it. It also needs to be a realistic plan, one you can actually accomplish. If your plan calls for you to work out 5 days a week, 3 hours per workout and your last Crunch was a chocolate bar you are just setting yourself up for failure. Life is messy, things come up and life without chocolate isn’t worth living (you can do better than Crunch bars though).

There are a lot of parallels between maintaining your physical and your fiscal or financial fitness. Both require a plan and the discipline to stick to it. Both can be accomplished by DIY or with the assistance of an adviser. Both are best accomplished through incremental improvement, steady progress toward an identified goal. Both require reasonable assumptions about your abilities and the effectiveness of your plan.

Your physical and financial plans will change as you age too. I’m 57 years old and things hurt more now than they did when I was 47 or 37 or certainly 27. After 40 years of lifting weights and running, my joints ache and I’ve had to adjust my workout over time. Less weight, more reps, more sets, more stretching and lower impact cardio. And by the way, yes, you need to do weight training. It is probably more important than the cardio everyone urges you to do.

Your financial plan will change as you age too. When you are young your financial plan will include a lot of very long term goals that are best accomplished with more aggressive investment strategies. As you age your goals will be shorter term and require a more conservative approach.

Accomplishing your physical and financial goals both require a mental discipline that, at least in my experience, doesn’t just happen by itself. There are days when I can’t wait to get to the gym and there are days when it is a struggle and I’d rather just go home and have a scotch – especially after a particularly rough day in the market. But I always find a way to get to the gym and accomplish something even if it isn’t my normal workout. And I always feel better for it when I’m done.

Financial success, like physical fitness, requires a plan and the ability to stick to it, even when the worst case scenario is in progress. Let me just tell you now that you are not going to be able to time markets and only own the ones that are going up and making you feel good. If you own a diversified portfolio – and you should – then you will almost always have something that isn’t working. In fact, that has to be true if you have a well designed investment strategy.

Sticking to your strategy and focusing on your goals is hardest when your portfolio value is falling. And especially when markets are very volatile as they were in the 4th quarter of 2018 or 2008. That is when your mental fitness and a well designed strategy are the most important. Your emotions are your worst enemy in those situations. You want, more than anything, for the pain of loss to stop and the easiest way to do that is to abandon your strategy.

Selling and seeking the safety of cash will accomplish the short term goal of stopping the pain but it will likely lead to another, potentially more powerful emotion – regret. Giving into the fear of not achieving your goals is a sure fire way to ensure you won’t. Successful investing is almost entirely about controlling your own emotions, the twin evils of greed and fear.

So how do you work on your mental fitness? How do you learn to control your emotions? Everyone has to find their own way when it comes to this area but I’d suggest exploring the concept of mindfulness (which really isn’t about control but this blog post is long already). This is, of course, a Buddhist concept and one with which I’m comfortable after many years of meditation practice but it translates well to other religions as well. You can even call it prayer if you are more comfortable with that.

The older I’ve gotten the clearer it has become to me that everyone needs to find a way to achieve a sense of calm. For me that means 30 minutes of meditation every morning right after I walk and feed the dogs. For you it might be something completely different but I urge you to carve out the time to do whatever it is that makes you appreciate and concentrate on the present.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions – I don’t like artificial deadlines. Psychologically, the odds of you achieving your New Year’s resolutions are actually reduced because they are New Year’s resolutions. You’d be better off starting just about any other time; the turn of the calendar isn’t going to make you any less lazy or busy. Hey, it’s mid-January and I’m writing an article about New Year’s resolutions so who am I to talk?

The exact day you start working on these things isn’t important. What is important is that you work on them all together. You probably have all of these areas working to some degree; maybe all you need to do is refine them. And if you have to work harder on one area than the other that’s okay too. In meditation, when concentrating on the breath, people often complain that their minds wander to some other topic. But the very act of recognizing that your thoughts have wandered is an essential part of meditation. It’s called practice for a reason.

So good luck with your new year’s resolutions. I’ll do what I can to help keep your finances on track throughout the year. I’ll probably even post about health and fitness too as I see them as all inextricably linked. Here are some source materials to help you get started:

Physical Fitness

  1. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training
  2. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
  3. The New Rules of Lifting For Life
  4. Born to Run

Meditation

  1. Why Buddhism Is True
  2. Wherever You Go, There You Are
  3. 10% Happier
  4. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
  5. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Financial and Investment

  1. Devil Take The Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation
  2. The Behavior Gap
  3. The Richest Man In Babylon
  4. Thinking, Fast and Slow
  5. Think and Grow Rich

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