The choices that make everything different.

smile | kourtney thomas fitness

I wear retainers to bed every night.

Yep, the removable plastic ones. They’re Spartan green, because I got them replaced while I was in college. (The originals were glitter bottom and hot pink top.) They even have my college cell phone number stamped on them. I would still keep them in the Spartan green plastic case, but I lost that years ago. For now, they live most of the day in a plastic cup with some denture cleaner.

I know, it’s super sexy. I even kiss my husband with those sexy retainers in the morning. Ahhh, love.

But you know what? My teeth are perfect. And it’s because I’ve worn my retainers religiously, nearly every night, for almost a quarter of a century. From sixth grade to current day, these pearly whites are in exactly the same spot they were all those years ago. Just where the stupid, painful brackets and wires pulled them into place.

My dentists and hygienists are always impressed. Every time I go to a new one (it happens a lot because we move a lot), their first comment, after, “Open wide!” is always, “Wow, you have beautiful teeth.” And I always say, in that awkward open-mouthed dentist office speak, “(t)hanks, I (w)ear (m)y (r)etainers e(v)ery (n)ight.” They’re usually pretty surprised, because not many people keep that up for so long, and I often get a little pat on the back for my dedication.

It’s a habit that really makes no impact on my life, other than the positive one of keeping my smile in line, which I really like. I love to smile big, smile for pictures, laugh big, show off to dentists. (I also floss every day.) It’s really not all that tough to remember to put in my retainers before bed, and the results I see are worth it. At this point, it’s something I don’t even have to think about, I just do it. And I actually feel weird when I don’t.

The other morning, as I popped out my retainers, I did think about it for a minute. And the first thing I thought was how similar this is to how I’ve built a habit of movement. One I’m equally as dedicated too, and one I don’t even have to think about.

In the beginning, just like when I got the braces off and had to wear the retainers full-time, I had to work at it. With the retainers, I had to consciously keep track of them, remember to put them in, carry the case with me, clean them, not forget them on my lunch tray. It was not yet a habit that came easily. I had to make an effort to stay on track, to get myself to do something I wouldn’t normally do.

With working out, I had to consciously schedule workouts, decide what classes I wanted to take and show up to them, buy workout clothes and wash them regularly, carry a gym bag and shoes and whatever equipment I needed, make or find training programs for what I wanted to do. I definitely had to make an effort to be consistent, because it was not something I was accustomed to.

Over time, remembering – and really, forgetting about – my retainers became easier. It was a normal part of my routine to keep track of them and to wear them regularly. Within a couple of years, it was natural. And the payoff was straight teeth for life and feeling great about my smile and the investment I had made in it.

Same went for working out. The more I did it on a consistent basis, the more solid habit formed. It became a normal part of my routine to always have a workout as part of my schedule, whether it was in the gym, a run, yoga, even time for walking. Within a couple of years, it was completely natural. Just like with the retainers, so natural that I feel weird when I don’t do it. And the payoff was feeling amazing in my body and having fun doing it, knowing I was making a good investment in myself.

You may or may not have noticed or reacted to the part about “a few years.” Yeah, that’s real. Sorry to burst your bubble. But as with those Spartan green retainers, fitness that truly improves your life for the long term is not sexy.

Again, it can be loosely compared. Think about all the people you know (maybe you’re one of them!) who had braces, never wore their retainers, and now you’d never know they ever wore the braces. Their teeth are kind of messed up, maybe spaces came back, maybe they just moved a little bit. But you can tell that there was some lost effort somewhere along the way.

Now think about those people who have started new fitness and health regimens (again, maybe yourself), pushing hard in the beginning, tapering off to more sporadic workouts, and finally giving up. Now, you see them in much the same place they were. Not feeling better, health markers at the same levels, physically no closer to their varied and individual goals of general health, weight loss, performance, muscle gain, whatever. The habit never took hold, effort lost somewhere along the way.

It’s one of those things where there’s a bit of a disconnect between how we talk about meaning, and how we actually assign it in our own lives. Improving health, changing body composition, feeling better – big, broad goals or statements like that don’t tend to mean much on a consistent, day-to-day basis. It’s all way too far off in the future, and it’s easy to lose track of at the first sign of inconvenience. That’s how the retainer thing manifests itself too – we don’t actually believe when we’re 12 that our teeth will move or change over time. Then, 20 years later, we’re embarrassed to smile with teeth.

If we had only seen the value of that small, consistent choice and effort over time, things would be different.

Yep, of course they would. And I completely understand that I’m drawing a picture here on a very simplified level. Of course, I get that the complicated relationships we have with our bodies, with our history of exercise, with our busy lives, families, work, and about a gazillion other things, cannot be boiled down to a simple comparison to retainers. (Shoot, even the reasons we may or may not wear retainers might not be all that simple.)

What I am saying is that the everyday choices we make in the face of daily annoyances, inconveniences, or things that make us uncomfortable, things that aren’t yet natural, are important. Over time, those choices are the ones that make everything different, often in the exact way we want them to.

It’s not sexy. At all. And it takes years. Not weeks or months. But all those stupid, painful workouts (OK, let’s hope they weren’t stupid and painful like braces. I’m just drawing parallel language here.) make it all worthwhile when you’re still climbing 14ers at 72 years old, or riding your bike on the beach at 85, or running 5ks with your great-grandkids, breaking Ernestine Shepherd’s records, or maybe just being able to walk on your own when you’re 80. (I mean, Arnold saw the value. I bet he would have worn his retainers.)

It’s only a pain in the butt if you look at it like it’s a pain in the butt. Retainers aren’t that awful. Not for long, anyway. And neither is movement.

Learn more about how to make the choices, and the movement, a little easier every day by signing up for my weekly emails. Get more frequent, totally customized support by working directly with me. Either way, you should probably go for a walk today.

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