Rethinking: Fitness Part II

Word Count: 1550 |  Time to Read: 6 minutes

Note: This is the second part of a two-part piece on fitness motivation.

I began part one of this piece with an image that is commonly found when one searches for ‘workout motivation’ on Pinterest or Tumblr. Among the search results, I also found the picture above, which summarizes the view I think more women and men should take regarding their fitness.

(The photo reads, “I don’t want another girl’s body. I want my body, but leaner, stronger, and healthier.”)

By taking this approach– improving the bodies we already have– fitness can begin to serve as the basis for sustained health and well-being. Moreover, this view does more to spurn long-term motivation and commitment as well as produce healthy habits in other areas of one’s life.

TL;DR

Far too often we see fitness as a mechanism for gaining something else. We should instead try to make fitness a normal part of our lifestyles by incorporating it into a habit. This is made easier by focusing only on one habit at a time, committing to doing the habit consistently, and being mindful when performing the habit. What seals the deal are the body’s release of endorphins and working out with others.

Fitness’ benefits increase a wide range of physical and mental health benefits as well as forming bonds between individuals who work out together. In addition, exercise is a ‘keystone habit’, which can promote other good habits along with it.

Fitness as a Lifestyle, Not a Mechanism

Even for those who work out for reasons other than appearance, exercise is usually held to be a mechanism: a process by which we hope to bring about something else. We work out so that we can have a skinny waist or avoid heart disease or win a competition.

Undoubtedly, having a goal in mind will help one maintain a fitness regimen, but that initial motivation will gradually decrease. Exercise can increasingly be seen as a chore– another item on a checklist to get done. Additionally, there must always be a vision to strive towards. Inevitably, constantly pursuing that desire will prove tiring. Even worse, it will suck the fun out of fitness.

In the simplest definition, ‘fitness’ means moving your body, engaging your muscles, and improving your skills. To a certain extent, all of us already exercise on a daily basis– we take the stairs instead of the elevator; we play a pick-up game of our favorite sport; heck, we even jog to make the bus once or twice a week.

Fitness is not only going to the gym and lifting weights or spending an hour on the treadmill. Undoubtedly, there are people who gain enjoyment out of going to the gym seven times a week and always doing the same routines to prepare for a bodybuilding contest. But for the vast majority of us, there needs to be variety and diversification. There needs to be fun!

Thus, I advocate that fitness should become a normal part of one’s lifestyle instead of being a requirement for a loftier prize. Not only will one begin to actually enjoy working out, they’ll be motivated to stay active for a lifetime. But how?

Exercise is the Key(stone)

Exercise is what journalist Charles Duhigg terms a keystone habit. In “The Power of Habit”, Duhigg describes exercise as

[A] habit that, over time, can transform everything

His book highlights several studies in which normally sedentary individuals began exercising on a regular basis. Without being told to do so, an overwhelming amount of people in the test group began watching less TV, eating healthier meals, and sleeping more consistently. What researchers concluded was that exercise enabled it all.

Under the fitness-as-mechanism paradigm, working out becomes a chore– an unpleasant but necessary task. A habit, of course, is very different. It’s a tendency that is, for all intents and purposes, automatic. Something that you do without thinking.

The key to the successful implementation of a habit, according to Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, is to focus on one habit at a time:

It’s easy to start a habit, or even 5 of them at once. Sticking to them is another story… One habit only. Do not break this rule.

That one habit could be something simple, like doing ten push-ups in the morning when you first wake up or taking a brisk walk right before lunch. In addition to focusing on just one habit at a time, the act must be consistent and mindful. Carve out a special time during the day for your fitness habit and be able to honor that commitment day-in and day-out.

But even with consistency, the fitness habit can still end up feeling like a chore. This is where mindfulness comes into play. Don’t ‘just do it’– feel it, think it, breathe it, live it. When performing the habit, raise your level of awareness up a few notches. Be conscious of how your body feels and moves as well as how fast you’re breathing and your heart is beating. Over time, though, the habit won’t require the same intense mental focus, which is a good sign!

As the habit becomes more automatic and a part of your normal lifestyle, there is no longer the need for that concentration– you do the action largely without thinking. According to Duhigg, with this habit secure, other healthful aspects will begin to improve.

Let Exercise Be Thy Medicine

I could on and on about the health benefits of exercise, but you’ve likely heard most of them. To summarize, here are several of them:

  • Prevention of obesity and weight-related diseases
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decreased chance of heart disease
  • Improved mood, energy, and sense of well-being

I want to especially highlight the last bullet-point. When we’re exercising, our bodies release endorphins, inhibitory neurotransmitters that provide relief from pain and produce a somewhat euphoric feeling. In fact, endorphins are so similar to opiates that exercise is often incorporated in therapy for drug addiction.

In addition, endorphins provide another benefit: they are highly addictive. Although the age-old maxim of “Too much of a good thing…” holds true, this characteristic of endorphins is what helps catalyze the formation of a fitness habit. Your body begins to crave the feeling that endorphins provide, which subsequently prompts you to repeat the routine that led to that good feeling.

If You Exercise, They Will Come

Among the wide range of choices for gyms and athletic centers, there exists a special breed called ‘CrossFit’. Love it or hate it, CrossFit has caught on like wildfire. Ten years ago, there were only 13 CrossFit locations, all within the US. Today, there are over 9,000 locations, which devotees call ‘boxes’, across six continents. The annual CrossFit games, which features CrossFitters from boxes around the globe, has also gained popularity over the past several years.

Now, I’m not going to advocate or condemn CrossFit. There are plenty of other articles on the internet which do just that.

Instead, what I’ll call attention to is CrossFit’s exponential growth in a very short period of time. What makes this expansion more confusing is the structure of CrossFit boxes and the price for membership. Boxes pride themselves on their lack of equipment– there are no Smith machines, treadmills, or ellipticals to be found– despite still charging far more than a gym does for membership.

For instance, the CrossFit location in upscale Bethesda, MD costs members $280 a month for unlimited access to the gym. The Equinox in Bethesda– a fitness organization dedicated to the “art, science and style of living well,”– charges $140 a month and offers members free classes among a wide range of equipment options. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that most CrossFit locations don’t have mirrors either. Equinox has those.

So then what gives?

For most people, choosing whether or not to go to the gym is an emotional decision. ‘Do the people behind the desk know my name?’ ‘Is that bulky guy who always grunts going to be there?’ ‘Will I be able to catch up with the goings-on in town while I use the treadmill?’

The experience at CrossFit is, for the lack of a better word, intimate. Week-in and week-out, members lift, sweat, grunt, and nearly die alongside one another. As their growth has shown, these actions do more to form bonds than chatting with the cute girl at the welcome desk. A true sense of community forms as the adrenaline pumps and the endorphins release. People are drawn to stick with each other– it keeps them consistently coming back and makes what can be a grueling routine enjoyable. This is also why people can stomach the exorbitant amount for gym membership.

This is yet another benefit from exercising. Depending on who you’re exercising with, a bond can begin to form and a feeling of community can be fostered. In addition to the endorphins, being accountable to others and wanting to share your time with them will make fitness into a habit.

Final Word

I’ve touched on the benefits of fitness and how to begin to implement a fitness habit, but I want to introduce one last thought.

I purposely kept my examples of fitness somewhat vague. I don’t want to assert that there’s a right or wrong type of fitness– there’s not. The best type of fitness is the one you’re going to do. So go do it!

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