Starting your day with a deliberate movement routine that you repeat every single day can be life changing, because it creates the leverage and the power to become a more focused and disciplined person in all other areas of daily life. Contrast this with the disturbing stat from IDC Research that 80 percent of Americans reach for their phones as the first act upon awakening.1 Numerous studies confirm that once you activate the shallow, reactionary brain function in the frontal cortex with a smartphone engagement—especially first thing in the morning when you are locking habit patterns into place—it’s difficult to transition into high-level strategic problem solving mode.2 Julie Morgenstern, renowned productivity consultant and author of Never Check Email In The Morning, explains that when you reach for your phone first thing, “You’ll never recover. Those requests and those interruptions and those unexpected surprises and those reminders and problems are endless… there is very little that cannot wait a minimum of 59 minutes.”
The Dope On Dopamine
The reason you’ll never recover is because your morning foray into hyperconnectivity is creating a dopamine addiction.3 When work gets either challenging or boring over the course of the day, you are hard-wiring a reliable method of escape into the realm of instant gratification and instant relief from cognitive peak performance. As detailed in the excellent book by anti-sugar crusader Dr. Robert Lustig called, The Hacking Of The American Mind, we are chasing the dopamine high today like never before. We are doing this in assorted ways that are strongly driven by marketing forces behind Internet fodder (social media, pornography, click bait, and even email and text messaging), prescription drugs, street drugs, alcohol, processed sugar products, overly stressful exercise patterns,consumerism, and other sources of escape and instant gratification.
As a healthy living enthusiast reading this blog, you can acknowledge the great sense of self-satisfaction and peace of mind that comes from implementing self-discipline and persevering through challenges and setbacks to achieve meaningful goals. These behaviors stimulate the serotonin and oxytocin pathways in the brain, triggering feelings of contentment, connection and love. Bestselling author Mark Manson asserts that self-discipline is a key to a happy, fulfilling life.4 Alas, when you hijack the dopamine pathways too often with the aforementioned folly, you down-regulate the serotonin pathways in your brain so you become wired for quick-hit pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness.
The Magic Of Morning Movement
Extricating from this mess starts first thing in the morning! Since most of us have tons of sedentary influences during the day (commute, office work, evening screen entertainment), I’m going to suggest a mindful routine of exercises, poses, and dynamic stretches that build flexibility, mobility, core and muscle strength. Your morning routine will help you naturally awaken and energize (especially if you can do it outdoors), improve the fitness base from which you launch formal workouts, help prevent injuries, and boost your daily movement quota especially if things get hectic and you don’t have time for formal workout.
I’m not a big routine or consistency guy and never have been, so amassing a four-year streak of doing a template routine every single day may be more of a revelation to me than to big-time creatures of habit. If you’re already good at self-discipline and consistency, applying your skills to a morning movement routine will pay big dividends; you’ll likely increase your level of sophistication and degree of difficulty over time. If you are a “go with the flow” type of person, the morning routine will serve as a much- needed anchor for a focused, disciplined day—especially against the formidable foes of distraction and instant gratification.
The original impetus for designing a short morning movement routine was my frustration with recurrent and lingering soreness and stiffness after every sprint workout. I realized that I wasn’t adequately acclimating my body to doing all-out blasts once a week, because nothing else I did approximated what happened on sprint day. Perhaps many weekend warriors can relate: If you never approximate your most difficult workouts or do preparatory drills and exercises consistently, your big efforts are going to beat you up and require extended recovery time. I figured if I could raise the baseline from which I launched these tough workouts, via better core strength, hamstring and hip flexor mobility, and so forth—the workouts would be easier to recover from. I noticed these benefits right away and excitedly shot a video back in 2017 of my original routine. That’s when I learned the sequences actually took 12 minutes instead of five! I also did lots of the moves in bed (to make sure I’d do them right away) until I later discovered that the core stimulation is much more intense on the floor than on a soft mattress.
As I accumulated an impressive streak one day at a time, I started to realize some amazing physical and psychological benefits. My first few steps out of bed in the morning (that is, before starting the routine) were light and graceful—no more limping, creaking and cracking my way to the bathroom. My post-exercise soreness pretty much vanished—something I’d struggled with after every sprint workout for over a decade. Since I typically pair my morning routine with an ensuing chest freezer cold exposure session, the one-two combo gave me a sense of stability, focus and self-discipline that was missing, since I’m not part of rituals like rush hour commuting or an 8-to-5 office workday.
My routine has evolved quite a bit over the past four years. Buoyed by the confidence that I can carve out the time to execute every day no matter what, I continue to add more custom-designed moves to my template, increasing both the duration and degree of difficulty. Currently, the session lasts for a minimum of 32 minutes. Often, I will transition right into a proper strength training session since I’m so warmed up and fitness focused. This video shows the exercises and repetitions comprising my current routine, with an explanation of each.
Yeah, it’s time consuming and some of these moves—especially the grand finale Bulgarian Split Squats—are not easy! It’s important to note that I’ve progressed naturally and gradually from a modest starting point four years ago. If you are ready to take action, here are the important parameters to honor:
Design a routine that is simple and do-able every day. Don’t make it too strenuous or too long in duration out of the gate. You must strive for consistency, convenience, and low stress. If five minutes is all you can spare right now, start with that. Over time, when the routine has become integrated into habit, you may choose to increase the duration and degree of difficulty in a manner that feels natural and fun.
Place extreme importance on doing your routine as soon as possible upon awakening every single day no matter what. The goal is to establish a streak that will become as natural as current streak of brushing your teeth every day. If you typically have to visit the bathroom, brew coffee, tend to children or pets, or check the stock ticker as your first acts upon awakening, insert the movement routine into a recurring slot in your morning pattern: bathroom, coffee, hit the deck sounds great! If a particularly hectic morning prevents you from doing your routine, perform a makeup session later in the day to honor your commitment to the project.
Perform the same exact sequence of movements and repetitions every time. You don’t want to have to apply any creative energy or waste precious cognitive resources deciding what exercises to do or how many reps to complete. Repeating the same sequence will make it easier to program your routine into habit. Over time, feel free to modify your template by adding or subtracting exercises, but always have a working template in place. Don’t listen to the folklore that you need to confuse your muscles with ever-changing exercises. Let’s check back in 20 years and see how not confused your body is from completing a great routine every day.
Doing the same thing every day adds a meditative aspect to the experience. I focus entirely on proceeding through the rep count for each exercise, which is synchronized with my breathing on many of the moves. I’ve made the mistake a few times of trying to listen to a podcast or take a phone call during my routine, and it invariably causes me to lose count during one of the sequences. That’s when I established a penalty of having to start the reps of that particular exercise over if my mind wanders. That will keep you focused! Now my morning routine is a time to enjoy the view of the trees, the sound of birds, and the mind- body connection that comes from sequential movement—as you might enjoy in a guided yoga class.
Outdoors (Sunlight, Fresh Air, And Maybe Even Cold!)
Research suggests that exposing your eyeballs to direct sunlight as soon as you awaken can have a powerful effect to entrain your circadian rhythm. The sunlight hits your retina, travels down the optic nerve to the all-important suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. The SCN is considered the master clock of your circadian rhythm, and directs all manner of light-driven hormonal processes.5 Direct sun exposure in the morning (no sunglasses, no window barriers) triggers a spike in energizing and mood elevating hormones like serotonin, cortisol and adenosine. Kick starting these sunlight-driven hormonal processes is actually the first step toward getting a good night’s sleep, as you will optimize the timing of the evening conversion of serotonin to melatonin to help transition into sleep.6 In the winter months, my routine doubles as cold exposure as I’ll wear only shorts in temperatures freezing or below.
Design exercises that support your fitness goals, address any muscular weaknesses or imbalances, and counter sedentary lifestyle patterns like being hunched over at the car and computer. My leg swings and hamstring extensions are contemplated with sprinting and high jumping in mind, since these muscles take a lot of impact trauma when sprinting. The difficult yoga wheel pose is directly applicable to bending over the high jump bar!
There are all kinds of expert-recommended exercises that I’ve tried and discarded since I didn’t enjoy them or they don’t work for me. I did the familiar “pigeon” stretch from yoga for a while but I believe I sustained a knee injury from it, so it’s out. I have a few other cool exercises not shown on the video, such as monster walks and shuffles with Mini Bands. I’m tempted to officially add them to the routine, but I prefer to keep them as optional add-ons. With my current routine at 32 minutes, I occasionally experience a bit of time stress to get it done if I have a busy morning planned. I don’t want that feeling to happen more than occasionally, so I’m hesitant to add anything else at this time.
At first, it will be very helpful to write down each of the exercises and number of repetitions as you strive to lock in an ideal template. In particular, you want to discover a rep count that’s a bit of a challenge, but not too strenuous to have you fretting and sweating over it. As I mention on the video, when I first integrated the challenging Bulgarian split squats, I took each leg to the point of mild muscle burn that occurred at 20 reps. Today, I experience that same mild burn after 45 reps. So the degree of difficulty and mental strain have not changed, but I am validating my fitness progress over time. All of your progress with increasing reps and increasing the overall duration and degree of difficulty of your routine should happen gradually and naturally. Today is a good day to start your streak, so try stringing together a few of your favorite moves and get on the books! Good luck, and let us know some great suggestions in the comments section.