Be more tortoise

If you were optimistic at the beginning of the year, but are now losing ground and wondering where to turn, do not despair. As a counterpoint to all the New Year health and fitness hype you’ll have been wading through this last month, I’m going to offer you some wisdom by way of the tortoise, or in fact by way of two tortoises called Bob and Penny.

Establishing new habits takes a great deal of energy, so often the beginning of January is perhaps not the ideal time to make big changes. Many people will have dragged their exhausted bodies into January with great resolution only to struggle and be overwhelmed by feelings of failure by the end of the month. In contrast, at the coldest time of the year when there is little food around and not a lot of natural heat or light, the tortoise goes into hibernation, (or rather we put them in the fridge) waiting out the worst weeks until things get a bit better.


Being confronted by a tortoise in a tupperware every time I open the fridge has got me thinking about the absurdity of New Years resolutions and whether in fact the tortoise has a better idea. The longevity of the simple tortoise is in itself a lesson, and part of the attraction of the little beasts. They live in a way so straight forward that spending time with them, or observing them alongside our own hectic life can be a relaxing and calming experience. Nothing much happens in the world of tortoise, and so long as their basic needs are met there really is nothing to worry about. Days and seasons come and go and the years pass easily with relatively little stress.

We would do well to remember that at the base of our more sophisticated and evolved bigger brains we still have a reptilian brain just like that of the little tortoise. This ‘reptilian’ brain still runs in the background dealing with many of our survival needs such as safety, sustenance, and sex. It regulates our sleep/wake cycles, drives our hormonal systems and can establish our ritualistic habits, both good and bad.

One advantage and disadvantage of our more intellectual and emotionally developed minds is that our basic needs can be overridden, scrambled by a complex web of seemingly more important motivational drives. Safety and security can become defined by finances, social hierarchy or popularity. Food choices can become emotional or addictive, and sex can become complicated.

Working with clients on their health and fitness goals I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time re-establishing the fundamentals of healthy daily circadian rhythms, healthy and timely food choices, and essential relaxation time. For anyone looking for improved performance, weight loss, reduced stress and a happier life, we can all take these basics from the fundamentals of tortoise wisdom, reduced to these bullet points below.

  • When the light goes on, get active, when the light goes off, go to sleep. Tortoise doesn’t stay up late and party into the night. Tortoise winds down when the lights go out.

  • When there is food there, eat it. When there is not, don’t worry about it. Tortoise eats until its full whenever there’s food there, but isn’t worrying about food when its not there.

  • Intermittent fasting and hibernation is healthy and natural. Tortoises easily go for days without food. You can leave them for the weekend and they will be fine (but hungry) when you return. It’s a normal part of tortoises life cycle to hibernate during several weeks in the winter. This natural detox allows them to clear their gut, and rest and recover. They don’t DO a detox, they just don’t do anything.

  • Going up and down the stairs and climbing over rocks is fun. Once awake a tortoise is energised and wants to go exploring. Climbing is a particularly fun activity, as is going in and out of the pool. There’s no point to it, they’re not ‘going anywhere’, its just fun for the sake of it.

  • Sunbathing is good. Ok, so we humans can’t easily replicate this one in winter, but a tortoise knows how to relax and balances burst of activity with blissful relaxation.

As health and fitness plans go. I think we would all do well to be more tortoise.