Of Big Rocks, Little Rocks and Exercise


I’m sure you’ve heard this story before, but in case you haven’t I’ll sum it up quickly.

A professor walks into his senior level philosophy class the last day of school spring semester. He carries with him a giant, empty pickle jar and puts it on his desk. From under the desk he produces a box of large rocks and begins putting them into the jar. He manages three or four of them before he gets to the top of the jar, then he turns to the class.

“Is this jar full?”

Most of the class replies in the affirmative. He then pulls out another box. This one is full of medium sized rocks and begins pouring them into the jar. He shakes and jostles the jar until once again he’s at the top.

“How about now?”

This time there are fewer yeses. He pulls out another box with even smaller rocks and repeats the process. He keeps on each time bringing out smaller and smaller rocks and each time asking if the jar is full. He goes through the whole routine a few more times until he pulls out a bag of sand, pours some of it into the jar allowing the sand to fill in the tiny cracks and crevices between all of the other rocks.

“And now?”

Once again there’s a chorus of yeses, even the holdouts had to admit that surely now the jar was full. The professor reaches under his desk, pulls out a beer, pops the top and pours it. The foam crests at the very top of the jar. He turns to the class.

“This jar represents your life. It’s the amount of time, effort, and energy you have. You can fill that jar with whatever you choose, but it matters how you fill it.

Notice how I started with the big rocks and then managed to squeeze in a lot of other smaller rocks? Same with your life. The big rocks are the big things: family, work, spirituality. The smaller rocks are the lesser things: your social life, hobbies and other extracurriculars.

If you start with the big rocks you’ll find room to squeeze in the extras but start with the little stuff and you’ll run out of room for the big stuff before you know it.”

A hand raised in the back, “What about the beer? What is that supposed to represent?”

“That,” said the professor, “is to show that at the end of the day, there’s always room for a beer.”

Most of us get this. And we even practice it to a large degree. We take care of our jobs, we take care of our families, and, particularly here in the South, we’ve got a handle on church or some sense of our spirituality. But there is a rock I think most of us tend to leave out or least don’t recognize as a big rock — exercise.

One of the reasons I have such a beef with the fitness industry capitalizing on our vanities and making exercise more about being sexy than about being better is that by doing this we automatically reduce exercise to a smaller rock.

If exercise is all about looking better then that’s a fairly selfish motivation. In light of all the other things we have to do, the demands of our jobs, bills, social entanglements, spouses, children and the myriad things we have to do to maintain a household, going to the gym is easily relegated to, “I just don’t have time for that today.”

But what if exercise is more than just being sexy? What if your training actually prepared you to be better at your life? What if those three to six hours a week you dedicate to the gym paid you back in dividends you never considered?

What if that energy you spent working out came back to you tenfold? What if you found yourself with greater capacities: more focus in your work, more energy and attention for your loved ones, an increased sense of vitality? If working out made you a better you in every way would you find more time for it?

Here’s a secret. It does.

To our perfect imperfection,


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