Pushing the Envelope

Can you turn an OK situation into a surprising source of satisfaction? You never really know until you try.

Bahram Akradi, founder, chairman, and CEO of Life Time — Healthy Way of Life

It’s a phrase that originated in mathematics. Later, it migrated to the space program and the language of test pilots assessing the performance limits of their equipment. Today, the idea of “pushing the envelope” refers to seeing how far one can go in almost any context imaginable.

The idea of testing limits has always appealed to me. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the biggest challenges in life have nothing to do with external speed, power or risk taking. They have to do with our willingness to continually evaluate our own choices — and the results of those choices — and to see how they can be improved.

What aspects of our lives are going well? What elements of our performance or experience could be better? When is “good” good enough, and when is “OK” an invitation to step up to something more extraordinary? These are questions I’d encourage anyone to consider and act on at least a few times during the course of each year.

In 2010, for example, I’ve been experimenting with upgrading various aspects of my own health and fitness. Although I’ve always been in pretty good shape, I was feeling a desire to ramp up my efforts and improve my focus. I also felt a curiosity about just how good my 50-something body could feel.

So I set some big fitness goals and started training. And I conducted a major cleanup of my diet.

Specifically, I made it my objective to eliminate all of the following:

• Enriched, bleached white flour
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Refined sugars
• Artificial flavors and colors
• Artificial preservatives

I didn’t think this would be a particularly big deal, since I already avoided most unhealthy foods as a matter of course. But once I started really digging into the labels of all the foods I ate, I was amazed at how many places these ingredients were lurking — even in many foods masquerading as “healthy choices.”

Taken aback by just how ubiquitous unhealthy additives were, I made it my mission to push even further by striving to remove those same five ingredient categories from the foods on the Life Café menus in all Life Time Fitness clubs. That, too, turned out to be a bigger undertaking than anyone anticipated, but I’m happy to report we recently got the job done.

Now, though (and this is typical of inveterate envelope pushers), I just want to keep going! I’d like to see us put all the packaged edible products we sell through the same filter — a massive undertaking we’ve already begun but won’t likely complete until well into 2011. And in the meantime, I’ve started working on an even bigger dream: to collaborate with a local school to clear unhealthy ingredients out of the menus served to students.

I realize that one is a major undertaking — mired in bureaucracy and politics — and thus could take a while. But I believe in thinking big and jumping high, so I’m not likely to be swayed. At the same time, I also believe in starting small. The experimental efforts I made with my own eating, and the extraordinary results I experienced from them, were the spark that gave these larger endeavors their start.

So I encourage you to conduct some envelope-pushing experiments of your own. Maybe you’d like to start with pushing health-sapping ingredients out of your diet. Or maybe you’d prefer to challenge yourself in some other realm.

It doesn’t really matter where you begin — your fitness, your career, your finances, your relationships, or your own attitudes, habits and thoughts. Just look for the places that are good but asking to get better, and you’ll find no shortage of rich limits-testing opportunities.

And if there’s an area of your life that isn’t so good right now, don’t let that bog you down. Either you’re willing to address it, or you aren’t. But if there’s a challenge you don’t feel up to right now, look for one that you do feel up to, even it seems like a tiny thing.

If you’re not making your bed, make your bed. If you’re not flossing your teeth, floss your teeth. If you’re not drinking enough water, slug some down.

My guess is that you’ll find you feel a little bit better than you did before — if only because you made a conscious effort. There’s power and potential in that feeling. Remember it.

Every day is a new day, rich with new choices, new adventures, and new trajectories to explore. The envelopes you push are entirely up to you.

is the founder and CEO of Life Time Fitness.

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