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The Stockdale Paradox and Exercise


By Michelle Wieber PT, ATC

The first month of the year has come and gone and the television commercials about how to lose weight in the new year have started to decrease in frequency. Every year I set goals and some of you may set New Year’s resolutions around health and wellness too. So how do we keep up our motivation for a healthier year all year long? In the next few blogs, I am going to share some inspiration that has helped me since I turned 39 (which was 10 years ago). Yes, I am still inspired by these insights after ten years and I hope you find something to help you in your journey as well. The first profound truth I turn to when my motivation in lagging is the Stockdale paradox.

I first came across the idea of the Stockdale paradox while reading Jim Collins’ business book “Good to Great”. Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years. The paradox he discovered was that POWs that held false hopes about release did not survive while those with a different mindset did. His discovery is summed up in the following statement: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.


Dave (my husband and fellow Physical Therapist) and I became enamored with the simple truths that are put forward in the statements Admiral Stockdale made. We now use a saying in our family based on this paradox. When confronted with a hard truth in life we look at each other and say “well, those are the cold harsh facts of our reality”. We then move forward in acceptance of that “reality” and work on building a plan to address that issue with faith that it will eventually resolve. Simple but powerful is the only way I can describe the effect of the Stockdale paradox in my life.
I had one of those reality moments at the age of 39. I had had a busy week at the clinic and work as a physical therapist can be physically demanding. Dave wanted to go water skiing on that Friday after work so when my turn came I hopped into the water. I could not get up that night on one ski and I refused to try with two skis. In fact, I think I tried to get up on one ski about seven times that night in 2006. I have always been able to get up on one ski. I rationalized all the way back to shore. I must have been too tired from the week. The water was a little too turbulent. Maybe this is why I don’t see women in their later life skiing… it is just too hard. If I am honest, I was mad and a bit confused about what had just happened to my very capable body.
The next morning, I got up and went on the treadmill for the first time in months and walked one mile at 3.4 miles per hour and knew that the “cold harsh facts of my reality” were staring me in the face. I found that silly one mile challenging. I had let my leg strength go. I had let my endurance go. I had been relying on a base of strength that came from an active lifestyle that had somehow ended when I started having children in 1998. I had told myself that working as a physical therapist was active enough. I had prioritized the dishes, laundry, bills, entertainment, children and paperwork above my health. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
That morning was the beginning of a new journey for me. I wore a pedometer for a while just to understand the facts relating to my body movement at work and it turned out that I only took about 2500 steps a day seeing my clients. The reality was that my arms were in good shape but my legs and my cardiovascular endurance were not.
So I encourage you to consider beginning a new journey for yourself. I challenge you to take an honest look at the “brutal facts” of your wellness reality and begin moving again. Just reading this blog and thinking about exercise is the start of changing that reality.
If you want to begin exercising but have concerns about doing it correctly and have some underlying health issues, please give our clinic a call. Physical therapists are movement analysis experts and we would love to help you in your next steps toward health.
And yes, I am 49 and I can get up on one ski!



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