Why do you exercise? Ask 100 people this question and you’ll get 100 different answers. Sure, there’d be some similarities, but each person’s real drive to exercise is unique to them. I’ve explored my own reasons for exercising over the years and discovered that certain reasons serve me well and others don’t serve me well at all.
I call these my life-affirming and life-defeating reasons for exercising. My life-affirming reasons reinforce my perspective that I’m fundamentally well and that life is fundamentally awesome. My life-defeating reasons hurt me. They come from fear and from beliefs of not being good enough. They weaken me and they take me away from being my true self. At this point, I’ve fully embraced my life-affirming reasons for exercising and fully dumped my life-defeating reasons for exercising!
As you see my lists below, reflect on why you exercise. What reasons are serving you and which are not? What do you need to let go of and what do you need to embrace?
My Life-Affirming Reasons for Exercising
1. To play.
There’s a handful activities in life that can boost your mood better than exercising. According to a 2019 study by Massachusetts General Hospital, exercising has an elevating effect even for people recovering from substance abuse.
Throughout my life, there has always been a part of me that gets giddy to get out and play. At one point in my life, it was shooting baskets and fielding ground balls. At other times, it’s been getting out to run (or swim or ride).
These days, I get giddy over Vinyasa yoga, hiking, lifting weights, and some other activities. The common thread is the pure joy I feel. I feel it in almost every yoga class these days. When 4:00 p.m. rolls around, I’m excited like a golden retriever who’s about to get to go to the dog park. In class, I often find myself spontaneously smiling. I really feel in my element.
2. To stay well.
The key word there is: stay. You see, we are born well and we are inherently well. We don’t have to swim upstream to be well. Wellness is not a battle. Doing some regular exercise that you really enjoy helps you to stay well.
The truth (and this is coming from an exercise physiologist) is that we don’t need exercise. We do need to do something that uses energy. We are designed to store energy and use energy in a cyclical fashion. This is the way of all plants and animals. We store energy from the food we eat when we sleep and rest. Not that long ago, most people used energy in their work and home lives.
People were farming, building things with their hands, doing laundry without machines, walking as their primary form of transportation, preparing all of their meals from scratch, etc. With the advent of more thinking-based jobs, we simply don’t use as much energy, or use energy in all the ways we need to in order to stay well.
Just look at how childhood obesity has grown by ten folds over the past forty years and you’ll understand why you need to exercise to stay well. When I exercise now, I’m celebrating my wellness
3. To use my mind, body, and heart in a way other than thinking-based activity.
Like most people, my job involves mostly thinking, reading, writing, speaking, listening. I’m mostly living in my cerebral cortex. Of course, my whole mind, body, and heart are with me while I’m working, but the other parts are sort of ordered to “sit down and be quiet,” much like children are instructed to do in school. But the older you get, the more you discover new reasons to exercise, not just physical, but also mental.
One recent study by Maryland University found that exercising for as little as a single session activates the hippocampus which is one of the first brain regions attacked by Alzheimer’s. Exercising also makes you sleep like a baby, or at least get better sleep than without it.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a short session of moderate aerobic exercise can increase your total sleep time and sleep efficiency by 37 and 40 percent respectively which can reduce anxiety.
When I exercise, I get to be alive in another way, with my whole mind, my whole body, and my whole heart involved. I feel really alive.
4. I love it.
I do exercise that I truly love. Do I need a better reason that that? It seems to make sense, but I know many people who exercise because they feel they are supposed to. They feel guilty if they don’t. They don’t really like it at all. If you can’t find some exercise you love to do, find the love in the exercise you do—it’s there. It’s only drudgery if you decide it is. It’s pure bliss if you decide it is.
My Life-Defeating Reasons for Exercising
1. To win trophies and gain praise.
This was one of my former reasons—consciously at times, subconsciously at others—for exercising. Instead of making me happy, this stressed me out. I would win trophies, then I’d want more. It was never enough. I found, for me, that this pursuit was a zero-sum game. It never added up to anything but very fleeting happiness. This is a seductive path for sure. Many in our society will tell you overtly or covertly that this is the only path to happiness. Being the best.
We see the one smiling Olympic gold medalist and we decide that if he/she can be smiling after winning a gold medal, then this must be the way we get happy. But for that one gold-medal winner, there are millions of humans pursuing a happiness they will never find. For a beautiful commentary on this mistaken belief, check out the movie Peaceful Warrior which details the experience of world-class gymnast Dan Millman.
Pay particular attention to the effects this pursuit has on his happiness. It’s also very enlightening to see the effects this pursuit has on his “friendships” with his teammates/classmates.
2. To shape my body in specific ways so as to get attention from other people.
As far as I can tell, it’s based deeply in our genetic roots to be attracted to people who are well. Not just as romantic partners, but for all kinds of relationships. That said, my experience is that we can be well and look well without trying to shape our bodies in certain ways. For example, you might believe that you need to do presses to have muscular shoulders and arms.
You may believe that you need to do endurance exercise to be lean. You’re whole reason for going to the gym might be to gain muscle or lose fat. The great news is that there are tons of people who just move and play/work and they look great from head to toe. Take a construction worker, a surfer, a rock climber, a farmer. They just do movement they love and they get all the benefits of exercise, they are well, and they look the part, all without trying to look the part. That’s the key takeaway. For me, giving up my need to shape my body in some way freed me to really enjoy exercise.
3. To get the endorphin rush to cover up difficult emotions I felt.
Exercise can truly be an addiction. It was for me. Anything that feels good can be an addiction. It’s not the substance or activity that creates addiction. How do we know this? If alcoholic beverages were inherently addictive, then every one of us who ever had a beer would be an alcoholic.
Every one of us who ever had sex would be a sex addict. Every one of us who ever exercised would be an exercise addict. The truth is an addiction is formed when we have painful emotions that are very difficult to feel. When we do something that feels good and feels opposite of the painful emotions (and has the opposing chemical reaction in our bodies), we want to do it again. And again. And again.
The endorphins from exercise are great. But if you’re using them to cover up something you should be dealing with, you’ll be much happier and healthier in the long run if you do what you need to do and deal with it. It worked for me.
Originally published at Goodmenproject.com