by Todd Whitthorne
This article originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of TASA INSIGHT. Todd Whitthorne is a Dallas-based speaker, author, advisor, and mentor. He holds a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology and exercise physiology from UCLA and spent 14 years as a senior executive at the Cooper Aerobics Center. He’s been enthusiastically working with leaders in the education arena since 2008. Feel free to reach Todd directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.toddwhitthorne.com.
We’ve most likely not met, but I’d like to offer you two gifts … permission and encouragement. Let’s start with permission. As a career “health and wellness guy,” I’ve been fortunate to interact with thousands of Texas public educators for more than 15 years. I’ve learned that the majority of folks who work in education, whether it be in the classroom, cafeteria, field house or the central office, are there for a reason — to serve others.
My guess is you didn’t select your career path to become rich and famous. You do what you do to positively impact the lives of children and their families. For you, education is not a job, or even a career. It’s a calling. The odds are, much of your joy comes from your ability to make a difference, but here’s the catch, and it’s extremely important: You can’t pour from an empty cup.
While giving to others is your “juice,” please realize your capacity is not infinite. Again, your capacity is not infinite. If you truly value your ability to positively impact others, then it’s imperative that you take care of you. Self-care is not selfish; in fact, it’s the polar opposite. You already know that giving to others takes energy, lots of energy. If your tank is on low or empty, you simply are not going to have the capacity to effectively do what it is you’ve been called to do.
It’s a cliché but appropriate: When flying with young children, in case of emergency, be sure to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others. You’re a giver. To maximize your ability to impact your students and colleagues, not to mention your family and community, start by taking care of you. Not that you need it, but you have my permission.
Now, for the encouragement. You’re smart. You know many things. Remember though, knowledge does not change behavior! When it comes to being healthy, both physically and emotionally, I guarantee you already know that fitness, good nutrition and getting plenty of sleep should be prioritized. How are you doing in each of those “buckets?” Be honest. On a scale of 1-10, give yourself a score in each category. Now, add them together. Knowing what I know about those who work in public education, my guess is your total is most likely not in the 27-30 range. Guess what? That’s absolutely fine.
The good news is the human body is beautifully designed. It will do exactly what you ask it to do. That means today is a fantastic time to start moving in a healthy direction. Don’t worry about where you’ve been or even where you are. You have zero ability to change the past. No need to trip over things behind you. Focus on where you want to go, and who you want to be.
Now let’s try something fresh. Every day when the sun comes up you have a new opportunity to prioritize yourself. Rather than setting your sights on some lofty goal like losing tons of weight or running a half marathon, which might take weeks or months to achieve, focus instead on simply winning today. Here are some evidence-based behaviors you can embrace that will help you start moving in a healthy direction:
Hydrate … with water. Think about what took place while you were sleeping last night. You were respirating (breathing), possibly perspiring (sweating), and then, most likely as soon as you woke up, you went to the bathroom. Basically, you lost quite a bit of fluid. Ladies, you’re about 55% water. Guys, we’re closer to 60%. Unfortunately, most of us operate in a state of perpetual dehydration. You can notch a victory every day by simply drinking 6 to 8 ounces of water when you first get out of bed. Yes, you can still have your coffee, but I suggest starting with water.
Sunshine. Getting outside and viewing morning sunlight, without sunglasses, within 30 minutes of waking up is an outstanding way to jumpstart your day. Just 5 to 10 minutes (double that on a cloudy day) will trigger the release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters (epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, cortisol, etc.), which will help you wake up, increase your focus, and improve your mood. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week. Mix in a little forward ambulation, i.e., walking, and you’ll increase the benefit even more. If you wake up before sunrise, turn on lots of lights. This is not as beneficial as natural sunlight, but it’s a step in the right direction. Believe it or not, this will also let you set your circadian clock, which will then make it easier for you to get to sleep at night. Remember, your eyes are an extension of your brain, so if you want to hit the “on switch,” leverage morning sunlight to your advantage. (Of note, I firmly believe this strategy would be of tremendous benefit to students as well.)
Embrace the cold. I’m guessing this will be met with a bit of resistance, but try ending your morning shower with one to three minutes with the water as cold as you can safely tolerate. This is known as deliberate cold exposure, which is getting lots of attention because, well, it works. Now, don’t go from zero to 60. Start by lowering the temp gradually for around 30 seconds, then with each day, you can decrease the temperature a bit and increase the duration by 10-15 seconds. This will activate your sympathetic nervous system and, much like morning sunlight, it will trigger a cascade of positive responses throughout your brain and body. Amazingly, we each have around 62,000 miles of arteries, veins and capillaries and they are all controlled by a phenomenal network of muscles to help expand or contract those vessels in order for us to regulate our core temperature. With deliberate cold exposure, you will jump-start multiple systems and set the stage for a highly productive day. The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The Navy Seals have been using this tool for years. I honestly resisted this for months until the research, and my son, goaded me into trying it for a week. I’m now a believer.
(If you would like to take a deeper dive into strategies on how to effectively start your day, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist from The Stanford School of Medicine: www.hubermanlab.com.)
So, there you go … a bit of both permission and encouragement. No one on the planet has as much impact on your health, and your future, as you. Remember, time is an extremely valuable commodity, but much like our capacity to give, it is not infinite. This is not a dress rehearsal. If you want to feel better, have more energy, improve your health, and positively impact others … invest in you. You’re worth it!
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If you’re an experienced school leader and TASA member with some leadership perspective to share, email Dacia Rivers with a short description of your proposed article, and we may publish it in a future issue of INSIGHT and/or on the TASA website.