My Good, Bad, and Ugly Reasons for Exercising

Why do you exercise? Ask 100 people this question and you could 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 and discovered that certain reasons really serve me well and others don’t serve me well at all. You could call these life-affirming reasons for exercising and life-defeating reasons for exercising. The life-affirming reasons affirm how I want to live. They go along with my view of myself and the world that I’m fundamentally well and that life is fundamentally peaceful and joyful. The life-defeating reasons go against how I want to live. Essentially, they hurt me. They take me away from my true self. And if I’ve learned anything in this life so far, it’s stop doing things that hurt me and to live from my true self. As you see my lists below, reflect on why you exercise. What reasons are serving you? Which are not? Can you let go of the ones that are not serving you? Can you get more into the ones that are serving you? I’d love to hear from you on this. Post your thoughts in the I THRIVE blog.

My Life-Affirming Reasons for Exercising

1. To play. 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 hot 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. I 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. 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 in nature. We store energy when we sleep and rest. The energy we store comes from the food we eat. 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. So in this sense, we do need exercise to stay well.
3. To use my mind, body, and heart in a way other than thinking-based activity. Like most people, my job involves mostly thinking-based activity. 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. When I exercise, I get to be alive in another way, with my whole mind, my whole body, and my whole heart involved.
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.

My Life-Defeating Reasons for Exercising

1. To win trophies of various kinds for and gain the praise that comes from this. This was one of my reasons—consciously at times, subconsciously at others—for exercising. This one I’ve let go of. Instead of feeling happy with this reason, I felt stressed. 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 that will look certain ways that will get me 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 squats or lunges to have a great butt. You may believe that you need to do endurance exercise to be lean. You’re whole reason for going to the gym might be broader shoulders or leaner legs. The great news is that there are tons of people who just move and they look great from head to toe. Take a construction worker, a yogi, a surfer. 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 exercising.
3. To get the endorphin rush to cover up difficult emotions I feel. 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 I 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 a person has painful emotions that are very difficult to feel. When they do something that feels good and feels opposite of the painful emotions (and has the opposing chemical reaction in their body), they 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.

Photo 38--Woman Rock Climbing

Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.

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