5 Things Living in China for a Year Taught Me About Fitness

It’s Saturday 15th January 2018.

We’ve been travelling for over 24 hours, covering more than 5,600 miles, when the captain announces that we’re making our descent.

The plane is lively and vibrant, full of locals who every now and then break from conversation to glace over at the 2 foreigners with mild curiosity.

I look over at Tash who is somehow still fast sleep amidst the noise and rub my eyes hoping it’ll help me stay awake.

No luck, I find myself falling asleep again only to be awoken by body’s inability to keep my head upright.

When I’m not sleeping fitfully, I smile politely at the friendly looking old ladies, wondering if the day will come when I’ll be able to chat with them.

15 minutes later we touchdown, and the journey begins.

The Journey Begins

Stepping off the plane I feel no sense of time.

The trip was long, noisy and exhausting…but we finally made it. We’ve landed in Guilin, a small city located in Guangxi Provence in the South China.

We’re here to learn Chinese but right now all we want to do is sleep.

We stumble through customs with surprising ease and are left waiting to see if our luggage is as worn out as we are.

Our bags arrive looking better rested than us and we drudge out of customs, our 30kg cases trailing behind us, to look for the driver the school said they’d send.

We find him and after a bit of gesturing and pointing we head off.

An hour passes, and we arrive at the school.

There’s more gesturing and pointing as we’re shown around our new home, before being left alone to unpack and adjust.

Sitting on the bed I’m feeling a range of different things; from out of my depth to nervous excitement at what lies ahead, but mostly I’m just grateful that I didn’t make this trip alone.

We sit down for a rest, which turns into a nap, waking hours later to fading daylight.

We decide to venture outside in search of something to eat, and just like that Day 1 of the next year of our lives is over.

Why China, Why Chinese?

You might wonder what learning a language has to do with fitness and I wouldn’t blame you.

When I left home nearly a year ago to China and learn Mandarin, I had no clue of the challenges I’d face and the lessons I would learn.

Lessons that translate to fitness more clearly that you might expect.

But before we get to that let me first explain how it is that I ended up on the other side of the world learning a notoriously difficult language.

There are several reasons we decided to do this, and they stem from a few different places;

  1. We’d been talking about going away ‘somewhere’ for a few years and this is the plan that came together over time

  2. We got married last year and knew that doing a trip like this would be more difficult in the future when we have kids

  3. We both love to travel to new places, experience new cultures and try new foods, this seemed like the perfect way to combine all of those things

However, the overriding factor is the fact that although Tash was born in and grew up in the UK, she has Chinese heritage with her roots extending from China, through Malaysia to the UK.

With a lot of her family living in Malaysia and all of them speaking Mandarin, learning the language would allow us to communicate more deeply with them.

Beyond this, growing up in the UK Tash was reluctant to learn Chinese as a child (something she now regrets) and this seemed like the perfect chance to nullify that regret.

With all of this in mind we signed up for the intensive Chinese learning course; 4 hours of one-to-one class a day, 5 days a week.

Which is how we found ourselves on the other side of the world, in a bitterly cold winter, learning a notoriously difficult language from scratch.

Stepping off the plane in China I had no idea of the parallels that I would end up drawing between learning a language and fitness.

Nor did I realise how these parallels would really drive home a handful of key lessons that I believe can help you shape your fitness journey.

These are those lessons.



Stay The Course And You’ll Achieve More Than You Can Imagine

It’s 8:20am and time for my first of 310 classes I would do over the year.

I thought I was prepared but looking back now the reality is this…

I sat across from my teacher, confusion written across my face, wondering how the hell I was going to do this.

Learning felt impossible.

I had very little idea of what was going on, but my teacher was relaxed and comfortable, clearly having been in this position hundreds of times before.

Whilst I was scrambling, nervous and worried she was calm and collected sure of the progress I was going to make in our coming lessons.

2 hours later class was over, and I was exhausted.

It was only 10:20am.

By lunch time I’d done 4 hours of class and my brain felt like mush.

I still had no idea how I was going to overcome this seeming insurmountable challenge…

In the end, the answer was, little by little.

Like a climber ascending the peak, progress came one step at a time.

I gradually moved away from gesturing and pointing and started being able to say basic sentences.

As more time passed, I was able to chat with people in the local coffee shop, renew my gym membership and not panic when a stranger initiated conversation.

It was incremental, but what at first seemed out of reach eventually became the norm.

This got me thinking about how every journey is the same, whether it’s learning a language or changing your body.

Everything feels alien and strange to begin with, but regular practice breeds familiarity and competence. Then over time you become more skilled, more confident and more successful.

All you have to do is keep going.

No matter how difficult it may seem or how far you feel from the finish line.

Just. Keep. Going.

You’ll get there in the end, trust me.



Progress Is About Making Daily Incremental Changes That Add Up Over Time

I can’t tell you how many times I felt like I wasn’t moving the needle only to suddenly notice a change.

Days, weeks even months passed by and I felt like I was treading water, still unable to communicate effectively or get my point across.

I’d continually make mistakes and forget words I’d already been taught.

Then just as I began to accept the idea that I couldn’t do it.

Everything would click into place and the progress I’d been waiting for would arrive, seemingly all at once.

The reality is, it had been building up, step by step and piece by piece, it had just taken me longer to see it.

If you’ve been in the fitness game for any amount of time you should be familiar with this incremental nature of progress.

However, if you’re just starting on your fitness journey or are struggling to see the progress then you need quickly learn that progress doesn’t come in a neat and tidy package.

It’s messy and inconsistent.

One day you feel like you’re going nowhere and the next you feel like you’re right back on track.

Often you can spend weeks or even months unsure if you’re gaining any momentum only to notice a big change overnight.

The reality is, when you’re doing something day in, day out, whether it’s learning a language or changing your body it’s often difficult to see and appreciate the tiny daily changes.

It’s not until these changes have had a chance to accumulate that the overall change is big enough for you to notice.

If you’re consistent in the effort you give to reaching your goals then whether you feel like it or not, you ARE making progress.

Stay the course, don’t give up and the results will amaze you.



The Majority Of Your Results Will Come From Focusing On A Few Key Things

This is not a new idea.

In fact, it was first developed way back in 1896 by a man named Vilfredo Pareto.

Vilfredo was an Economist and university professor who first described this idea after discovering that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

Intrigued by this idea he went on to conduct additional research in various countries worldwide and consistently found the same distribution of wealth.

From here the 80/20 rule, also known as ‘the law of the vital few’ and ‘Pareto’s principle’ was born.

Since this time the 80/20 rule has been documented in a wide range of fields; from business and taxation to sports and athletic performance, leading to the idea that 80% of your results will come 20% of your efforts widely known, documented and accepted.

However, despite all of this I learned it the hard way.

To say I hit the ground running in China is an understatement with my start more akin to something like hitting the ground, face first.

It took me a while to get up and from there it was a slow increase of pace until eventually, I was running.

The reason I struggled so much to begin with was a lot to do with my time management (see lesson #5) however, more importantly it was to do with how I was spending my time.

Here I was in a strange, new country learning their language and instead of excited I felt lost and overwhelmed.

My aim of being here was to learn Chinese but at the same time I wanted to keep working on this website, hit the gym and explore Chinese culture.

I didn’t want to anything to take a backseat, so I worked hard at doing as much of everything as I could.

As a result, everything suffered.

I went on like this a while until I finally realise this year would be a waste if I didn’t get smart about it.

I took the time to identify which of my efforts were bringing the majority of my results and which were giving me little or nothing in return for my efforts.

Once I knew this, I double down in those areas;

  • Consistently creating, publishing and promoting new content

  • Prioritising heavy compound movements in the gym

  • Hitting my calorie and protein goal daily

  • Practicing speaking Mandarin at every opportunity I got

Of course, on top of this I was still doing some of the things that bring about a smaller percentage of results. However, the time I spent doing these things was severely reduced.

What does this mean for you and how does it relate to working out?

Instead of looking for the next fancy tactic or exercise (the 80%) to help you reach your fitness goals, focus on doing the basics (the 20%) really well.

For example, if you trying to build muscle and are spending most of your time looking for the ‘best muscle building exercises’ or the ‘best foods to build muscle’ you’re too concern with the 80%.

What you need to do is focus on the 20%, things like;

  • Consistently building strength

  • Training regularly with intensity

  • Getting adequate recovery

  • Hitting your calorie goal

  • Getting enough protein

It’s so easy to get caught up in things that just don’t matter in the hope that you’ll get more results, faster.

When the reality is the opposite.

The key is to identify which actions are the 20% that give you 80% of your results then double down in these areas.

You’ll soon notice the other 80% either doesn’t matter as much as you thought or simply doesn’t matter at all.


Get Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable To Make Progress

In every single one of my 310 classes, from the first to the last, we were learning something new;

  • The next chapter in the book

  • The next article to read

  • The next recording to listen to

  • New words

  • New grammar

There was rarely a chance to go back over the material we’d already covered (I was meant to do that in my own time).

The books were often structured in a way that the old words and grammar would crop up in new chapters, but for the most part it was full steam ahead.

Never a chance to plant both feet on the ground, catch your breath or find your balance.

This meant that every class was mentally awkward and uncomfortable.

However, it also meant that every class was challenging and engaging. I was rarely ever bored, distracted or thinking about other things, the level of difficulty kept me focused.

I believe that this was key to the speed and depth of my learning.

I also believe that to succeed in the changing your body you need feel the same way.

If you’re not continually challenging yourself in the gym you won’t grow. Now this doesn’t mean you must constantly change things up, you don’t.

Muscle confusion is a myth and not something you need to think about.

However, progressive overload is definitely something you need to think about.

Progressive overload is the act on putting your body under a greater stimulus that it has previously experienced and can be achieved through a variety of methods with the most popular ones being;

  • Increasing the weight lifted

  • Increasing the number of sets

  • Increasing the number of reps

  • Decreasing the rest time

If want to see results in the gym, then you need to keep progressing over time and this means pushing yourself to achieve a little more in every session.

It means doing hard things, feeling uncomfortable and often working near your limits.

It also means working out when you don’t feel like it, sacrificing other things (time, sleep, TV, etc) so you can get in a workout and eat appropriately for your goal.

In the end it comes down to this…

If you want to achieve everything you’ve set out to achieve then you need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.



Time Management Is Key To Accomplishing Your Goals

Probably one of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that you HAVE to make time for what’s important even if it means sacrificing other things.

More than that, sometimes you don’t need to ‘find’ time, you need to CARVE it out and then protect it ferociously.

When we first got to China, I sucked at this.

I was overwhelmed.

I was trying to balance my class schedule, homework, this website, the gym and more.

I was trying to wing it and I failed big time.

For the first 3 months I was all over the show and ended up neglecting everything important to me.

I knew I needed a change.

I knew if I didn’t then I’d spend this whole year treading water or worse…drowning.

It was time to get my shit together, get organised and protect my time so I could work on what was important to me.

This meant having priorities, a clear idea of what was important to me and then making sure I had time to do these things day in and day out.

I did this a few ways;

  • I either woke up earlier or went to sleep later

  • I organised all my lessons in the morning, so the afternoon was my time

  • I went to work in places where I wouldn’t be distracted

  • I used any spare time (5 – 10 mins lulls here and there) to do homework or a read book

  • I went to the gym when I knew it would be quiet and empty

  • I went to the closest, quickest place for lunch almost every day

  • I carefully choose when to be social depending on my workload and whether I was genuinely interested in doing something

As a result, no one tried to cut into my time and if they did, I wasn’t afraid of saying no.

I came to realise that if you’re not careful it’s easy to get distracted, overrun and worn down by the things that aren’t truly important to you.

You end up giving in to other people’s wants and needs or simply slipping into the monotony of watching TV, Netflix or YouTube.

Remember, your time is precious

If you don’t respect it, then you can’t expect anyone else to.

Make time for what’s important to you and then protect that time like your future depends on it…because it does.


The Adventure Is Over

It’s Saturday 15th December 2018.

As the plane hits the tarmac in London, I’m reminded of how quickly time passes us by.

How 11 months ago to the day I was making the same journey in reverse.

Now I’m queuing to buy coffee, searching my memories and wondering if I’m still the same person I was when I left all those months ago…

I decide that at the very least I’m a little older and a little wiser.

But it’s probably more than that.

I’m a little better prepared, a little more rounded and clearer on what I want from life. With these thoughts echoing around my head I pick up my coffee and walk outside.

The air is cold, the sky still dark.

The year is drawing to an end and the adventure is over.

It’s time to go home.

As I start walking, my 30kg bag trailing behind me, I think about how the lessons I learned in China were not all new, but they were all valuable;

  1. Stay the course and you’ll achieve more than you can imagine

  2. Progress is about making daily incremental changes that add up over time

  3. The majority of your results will come from focusing on a few key things

  4. Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable to make progress

  5. Time management is key to accomplishing your goals

These lessons reminded me of what it really takes to hit your goals, fitness or otherwise, and I hope they can help you do the same.