There are three primary feelings motivating our desire get or keep fit: Fear, guilt and pleasure. Most of us only consider the first two, fear or guilt, when we think about fitness. When it comes to fear, many people start an exercise program after a health scare that fuels our thoughts of pain, illness or death. It's often from this space of fear that people sign up at a gym or purchase a piece of exercise equipment. This is the point where guilt most commonly comes into play. We feel guilty about the money were spending on an unused gym membership (the average price for a gym membership in the US is $500+/year) or about the expensive ($500-$3000+) exercise contraption that is gathering dust in the corner or we feel guilty because we told our friends and relatives that we were serious about getting fit and the heaviest weight we've lifted was a bag of chips.
The problem is that fear and guilt may motivate us, particularly in the short term, but they rarely create the sustainable lifestyle changes that will bring us the physical AND emotional benefits of getting and staying fit. The reason why this is a problem is because operating out of fear or guilt requires us to live in the future or the past rather than in the present.
When we're exercising out of fear, we are exercising due to anxiety that if we don't get or keep fit, something bad will happen to us in the future. Not only does exercising due to fear require a lot of will power (because the "something bad" is usually not immediate), but it also requires us to exercise harder because anxiety produces stress hormones which cause the body to store fat. Additionally, because getting fit isn't instantaneous, we fear that we won't reach our goal before the "something bad" happens. This is especially true when it comes to a serious health scare.
Exercising out of guilt also requires a lot of will power because we're focusing on a past action that either cost us money or credibility. Often, operating out of guilt breeds resentment (for ourselves, the sales person at the gym or equipment store, our friends/spouse/relatives, etc.) and that's demotivating. Additionally, as with fear, we usually have a stress response to guilt, which causes the body to store fat.
In both cases, the negative psychological state that comes with constantly bullying ourselves, actually makes it more difficult to perform the acts that will get or keep us fit. This leads to lower self-esteem, lower success rates and a learned helplessness which becomes self-perpetuating.
My friend loves to exercise... Why can't I?
We all know someone who seems to love running, cycling, swimming, aerobics classes, boot camps, lifting weights, etc. Most people wish that they had that internal spark that would give them that intense motivation to move and sweat and build their fitness. Depending on our relationship with the person we know who has the spark, we may even ask (or be asked) to tag along, hoping that some of it will rub off on us. But, unless our "role model" is either selfless in waiting for us to catch up or we're able to suppress our egoic urge to compare ourselves, it's unlikely that the internal flame will start to blaze as a result of proximity. In the end, we have to realize that the spark that ignites our passion for fitness has to come from within ourselves if it is going to last. What I and many others have found is that friends and relatives can fan the flames of our passion to exercise, but we have to start and maintain the fire on our own.
Why is exercise such a drudge?
What does exercising mean to you? For the majority of the population, exercise means hard work. It means accomplishing something--running X miles, lifting X pounds, riding X hours, etc. If you've noticed the emotional response that just these thoughts brought up, you might have noticed the idea that this article started with: Fear and guilt. Most people, even those who have the will power to exercise regularly, are doing it for all the wrong reasons. Think about this: who in their right mind would get on a treadmill and run for an hour? I really think that epitomizes the drudgery of exercise. Likewise, what kind of person is going to go and do the same weight lifting workout week after week, year after year, sometimes decade after decade? Are these the type of people who truly have a spark, a passion, or the ability to fan the flames of your motivation? I doubt it. These are people who may have will power, but they lack the creativity to inspire anyone to fitness greatness. My guess is that their level of fear or guilt is so high that they exercise not because they're passionate but because they're stressed. There is a better way and it's right in front of our eyes. It's not the gym rat or the obsessive/compulsive marathon runner that's going to show us how to find motivation to exercise. It's children!
Why do children exercise?
That's really a silly question. Children, especially before the age of 10, don't normally exercise. What children do is called play. They run and climb and skip and hop and ride their bicycles and do all manner of physical activities without ever thinking "I need to workout for 60 minutes today." Children run to avoid being tagged. Children climb to get up or down from the playground structure because they're on an imaginary mission. Children skip and hop because they're keeping time to a rhyme. Children can play for hours, in fact all day long, until they're tired and sweaty and ready to fall asleep standing up for the simple reason that they're having fun. Unlike adults, children are not trying to accomplish something by playing. They're playing because they're developing and engaging their imaginations, bodies and social networks. They're playing because they're having fun.
Why we stop playing
At some point in our lives most of us stop playing and start getting serious. Instead of developing and engaging our imaginations, bodies and social networks, we start challenging them. We start needing to be the best at things and prove ourselves to those around us. We start needing to win. We start needing to accomplish things. It's at this point that we stop riding our bicycles because it's fun and start riding because we need to train or get someplace. We stop running to avoid getting tagged and start running because we're being graded and ranked on how fast we can get around the school track. We stop swimming because we're playing dolphin and start swimming laps for time or distance. We stop playing games and start "playing" sports. Unfortunately, few of us have the natural talent to be Olympic contenders, or for that matter, the talent to be contenders for the top spots in our school. And in an effort to avoid embarrassment, we told ourselves we're not athletes and we stoped engaging in the activities we used to enjoy when we did them for play.
Now, as adults, most of us have no idea how to have fun any more. What we think of as fun is a far cry from the way we had fun when we were children. What we think of as having fun usually has a competitive component to it. As a result, we move our bodies to beat a clock or beat a competitor or beat the bathroom scale. Sadly, even if you made it to the top of the Olympic podium, you won't always have the best time, the strongest finish or a fast metabolism. With this, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with competition. I am saying that it's the wrong way to go about fitness.
Bring back the fun
Pleasure, or fun, is by far the better motivator for fitness. At Proactive Evolution, we've always promoted the idea of Strenuous Play. By bringing playfulness into our exercise, we bring our minds back into the moment. And by making that exercise strenuous, we don't give our minds the opportunity to wander into demotivating thoughts. Here's an example. For about 8 years, I commuted 18 miles each way by bicycle, four days per week. There was a steep 2-mile hill near the end of my ride to work. If I hadn't brought playfulness into that commute, I never would have been able to bring myself to ride over 1500 times. I always pushed myself to keep myself from thinking about how difficult it was to ride up that hill. And, to make it fun, I played mind games. One day I'd alternate sitting and standing the lengths between the bike lane signs. Another day I'd sit one length and stand two lengths. Another day, sit one, stand one, sit one, stand two, sit one, stand three, etc. Another day I'd try pedaling 100 strokes with my right leg and then 100 strokes with my left leg. Other days, I'd chase another cyclist who was very far in front of me and the next day I'd go just fast enough to encourage someone else. Ultimately, I made a game out of climbing the hill.
Here are some ways to bring fun back into fitness:
If you have anything that you like to do to make your workout more playful, put them in the comments!