Do What You Want
I’ve been lifting weights for nearly 30 years. I started training when I was 12 years old. And excluding a few short periods over those decades, I pretty much worked out 3-4 days per week all of my life. You could say that lifting weights had become a part of my identity. I just did it.
But sometime in my later 30s I started to have some real motivation struggles when it came to getting out and doing my workouts. For whatever reason I just wasn’t enjoying it much anymore. It started feeling like an obligation I needed to fulfill – a should do, instead of an I want to do.
Workouts started getting inconsistent and I would literally stand at my back door and look out the window trying to convince myself to go outside and work out (my home gym is on my back patio btw).
My workouts had become an obstacle. And every time I pushed myself to do one, it didn’t make them easier to do, it made each time more difficult – essentially reinforcing the idea that I was starting to hate what I was doing.
Piggybacking off the idea of Permission-Based Eating, I decided to lower the intense feelings I was feeling around exercise by giving myself permission to do whatever exercise I wanted to do, in as much quantity, whenever it felt good to do it.
This permission, just like with food, brought up all kinds of limiting beliefs. I can’t not strength train… I’ll lose my muscle. Is walking really enough? Can I be healthy and fit just working out a few times per week?
The fear-based pull to run back to my strength training was strong. But instead of falling back into the cycle of negative workout experiences reinforcing my loathing for working out, I leveled my beliefs and started fresh.
What did I want to do? Was there anything I’ve always wanted to try but felt like it wouldn’t be good enough for some reason? How much exercise sounded good to me? Should I train every day or just a few times per week?
What I ended up settling on was to commit to 100 days of no strength training. Instead, I was going to do my daily morning walks, which I absolutely loved doing, and I was also going to try my hand at some daily yoga – yes… yoga, the thing I once arrogantly told people was just a warmup for my real workout.
I bought a mat and subscribed to a yoga app, and I went at it. And it lasted – a week. Why? Well for starters, I didn’t really enjoy yoga all that much. But more importantly, I was really missing lifting weights.
The absence of strength training from my life showed me just how much I actually enjoyed it. Giving myself full permission to do any kind of exercise I wanted severed the negative association I was having with strength training and allowed me to see it for what it really was – something I actually did enjoy, that helped me feel strong and empowered, and was a part of who I was and wanted to continue being.
That’s what permission does. It moves you away from shoulds and have tos and allows you to see your true wants and desires. Getting to that place is the key to staying motivated to doing something for life.
I went back to lifting weights feeling grateful that I had a home gym and was capable of expressing movement of my body in that way. And anytime I feel motivation waning to lift weights, I remind myself that I have full permission to do anything I want. With that mental framework, I know exactly what I want to be doing and what I’m going to enjoy most.
What Are the Benefits?
We’re a very results driven society. Most of the things we set off to do are because we want to achieve something in the future. That thing could be physical, such as money, weight loss, or better health, or it could be psychological in nature, like feeling more confident or more valued in society.
Essentially, everything we do is just a means to an end. The behavior we implement is something we put up with in order to get the reward at the end of the rainbow. It’s a necessary evil.
We even go so far as a society to attach certain meaning to this kind of mindset. We glorify this idea of discipline, and we shame the idea of instant gratification. We create sayings like “good things come to those who wait” – anything to help us justify the discomfort we feel on the journey to some promised outcome in the future.
Article after article touts the “benefits” of doing said thing. Because we think that’s what’s going to motivate us to tough it out and do what needs to be done to achieve those rewards. And why wouldn’t it motivate us? The benefits sound amazing. Who wouldn’t want reduced stress, less anxiety, more peace, better health, a more fit body, more muscle, more strength, a smarter brain, slowed down aging, or any number of the other amazing benefits of exercise?
No one reads those articles and all the touted benefits and says “no thanks, I’m good”. Instead, everyone says “I want that”, and then they proceed to engage in behaviors they really don’t enjoy, but are willing to tolerate to get those benefits.
This is what you call the “what are the benefits syndrome”. This syndrome actually takes you further away from the benefits, as it leads you to overlook the essential thing that best drives all behaviors and consequential outcomes – enjoyment.
Enjoyment is what gets you up in the morning to exercise. Enjoyment is what keeps you showing up day after day after day. Enjoyment is the gateway into more and different types of exercise. Enjoyment is what allows you to stay engaged with the process long enough to experience all the secondary benefits like less stress, better health, improved brain function, and more fitness. Yes… these are secondary benefits of exercise. The primary benefit? Enjoyment and how that enriches your life in the moment.
When you focus your attention on achieving the primary benefit of enjoyment and experiencing instant gratification, the dozens of secondary benefits manifest naturally. And there’s no need to delay gratification. You stay gratified every step of the way of your journey. You don’t have to be a martyr. You don’t have to be miserable. You don’t have to waste away your life to improve your life. You realize your workout is the reward. It is the payoff. And it is happening now.
Ask yourself this question – “if exercise couldn’t change your body or your health or lead to any other secondary benefit beyond the 15 minutes to an hour you exercise, what would you do for physical activity?”
Some people would say nothing. And that’s understandable when you’ve been conditioned for a lifetime to believe you have to put up with something you don’t really like doing in order to get the benefits you want. But this just shows that there’s some healing to experience in regards to your relationship with exercise. And that starts right here.
Others will have a list of objections. They’ll say things like “well I like doing x, but it won’t do y for me”. They’ll think it’s not good enough, or that it won’t produce the desired benefits. The only problem with that thinking is that not enjoying what you do is a near guarantee that you won’t achieve those secondary benefits anyways. Why? Because you won’t do it consistently, long enough, to experience them. If you hate the process, you’ll never sustain your behaviors long enough to achieve your outcomes.
You don’t have to love exercise, but you do need to enjoy it enough that it will pull you to want to do it. All other goals, as we’ll get to next, are built upon the foundation of enjoyment.
You can’t get the long-term results you want doing exercise you hate, unless you’re one of the rare few who get pleasure from being miserable. And that goes for any benefit you’re trying to achieve with exercise. Instead, filter out the secondary benefits for a moment and start having fun again. Physical activity is meant to be enjoyable.
The Exercise Selection Pyramid
Enjoyment is the foundation of all your goals. Whether you want to get stronger, build muscle, lose body fat, get healthier, pursue sports, do a pull-up, or run a 5k, all of these outcome-based goals are predicated on you enjoying the underlying behaviors that will lead to them.
Picture a three layered pyramid. The bottom layer is enjoyment. The middle layer is performance, and the top layer is physique. You will use this pyramid to help you select the best exercise for you and your unique goals.
Every level of the pyramid is dependent on you fulfilling the level or levels below it. If any lower layer is not being addressed, then the layers above will start to crumble.
For example, let’s say you want to get stronger, so you start lifting weights. Strength is found within the middle layer of the pyramid – performance. In order for you to improve your performance, whether it’s strength gains, as is this case, or whether it’s endurance, speed, flexibility, agility, etc, the enjoyment layer must be built first.
The reason is very simple – if you don’t enjoy the strength training you’ll be doing to get stronger, then you won’t stick with it long enough to realize your strength gains. Sure, you can willpower your way through it for a little while. But consistency will eventually disintegrate, and you will be back to square one. Your strength training journey will be littered with cycles of extreme consistency followed by a sporadic workout here or there, or none at all.
If the performance layer has to do with all the action-based goals you’d like to achieve, then what is the physique layer? The physique layer incorporates any changes to your body, both externally or internally.
Externally this might mean weight loss, fat loss, weight gain, or muscle gain. Internally would refer to changes to the physiology of your body, such as a more energy efficient muscle for running, or a healthier body from reduced cholesterol or improved insulin sensitivity.
In order for these physique changes to happen, the two layers of the pyramid beneath it must be satisfied. If even just one is neglected, then the physique changes will not occur.
For example, if your physique goal is to build muscle, you will need a performance based goal of strength training (the middle layer), which requires you to enjoy that activity – fulfilling the bottom layer of the pyramid. You can’t build muscle without the strength training stimulus, and the strength training won’t consistently be applied to your life if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing.
All physique goals are natural byproducts of the two layers below it. They are outcome-based goals, which tend to happen when you are fully engaged with your journey.
This is why you can’t just mimic your favorite fitness influencer, health guru, or athlete and expect to get the same result. Yet that is what people do every single time.
They’ll see someone’s body that they admire and they decide they want that same body. So they see what they’re doing for exercise and assume they can just copy them and the result will be same.
What people don’t understand is that the people who have these bodies that you admire got them because they were fulfilling the exercise selection pyramid, whether they realize it or not. They’re in the gym lifting weights because they love to lift weights. And their bodies (the physique layer) are just a natural side effect of them fulfilling the two layers of the pyramid beneath it.
When you try to simply mimic what other people are doing, you are working the pyramid backwards. You are starting at the top layer. That’s like trying the build the 50th floor of a skyscraper without building the foundation or the floors beneath it. So you copy what they do, and maybe it works for a bit, but the foundation is so shaky that eventually you become inconsistent.
The top of the pyramid starts with the foundation. Your physique goals start with enjoyment. Decide what it is that you like to do and build upon them. If you don’t like strength training, then don’t expect to achieve a muscular body. If you don’t like exercising at all, then don’t expect to achieve your healthiest body. If you don’t like running, don’t expect to complete a marathon.
But here’s the kicker, when you understand the pyramid, you can work it. If there’s a goal you want to achieve that requires you to do exercise you don’t enjoy, you can work on improving your relationship with that particular exercise. Because more times than not, enjoyment is a byproduct of the meaning you’ve attached to physical activity. So if you can heal your relationship with it and create some empowering experiences from it, you can learn to enjoy it. We’ll be working on that in the next chapters.
Be forewarned. There are many coaches, influencers, and credible people with initials after their names that will try to tell you that you don’t need to enjoy exercise to do it.
They will tell you that they don’t love exercise – that they just tolerate it because they want to look and feel better. They likely will have also experienced a lot of weight loss holding onto this belief.
This will be music to your ears. You will feel validated and think – “I don’t like exercise either, but I want the results just like him/her, so I will just put up with it and tolerate it too.”
The only problem with this mindset is that through the process of trying to tolerate exercise, most people actually aren’t able to tolerate it. They hate it, so they don’t do it. Turns out that influencer succeeding wasn’t the norm and that you once again confused the possible with the probable.
This is a very hidden form of Diet Culture thinking. Many people who don’t like exercise have come to accept that it’s OK so long as it gets them to the end. This idea of a miserable means justifying an ends has become so normalized, that some people will even laugh at the idea of people saying a very common sense thing such as you should enjoy moving your body.
You absolutely should enjoy something that consumes upwards of 10% of your waking life for the rest of your life. Why are you willing to go through life not enjoying something that takes hours of your days?
Look… you don’t have to love exercise. You don’t have to romanticize it or make it a passion of yours. Although that would certainly make motivation and consistency very easy for you.
All you need to do is find a way to make it more enjoyable – enough so that you feel a pull to do it. Because simply tolerating exercise, and especially hating it, will not be enough for the majority of people to feel motivated to do it. You will not consistently do what you don’t enjoy. How often, when given the choice, do you do things you don’t like to do? Regardless, what’s the point in having a miserable journey just to have a chance at a future payoff that may or may not ever materialize?
You don’t have to put up with something for the rest of your life because you think you have to in order to be happy and fulfilled. This is not a healthy relationship with exercise. You wouldn’t tolerate a toxic relationship with a person for the rest of your life, so definitely don’t do it with exercise.
Remember… just because you know someone that has achieved the results that you want while not enjoying exercise, it doesn’t mean that will be the likely outcome for you. Nothing is impossible. There will always be evidence out there to validate your struggles or desires. And you will find it and choose to overestimate its application to your own life.
Anyone can learn to enjoy moving their body. And the first step is to break this mindset of tolerating exercise that is rooted in Diet Culture thinking. It’s based on the idea that you must delay gratification, that you have to be disciplined, or even that you’re not supposed to like it.
Break the association that exercise is a tool to manipulate your body – to so-called “look better”. Sever the idea that exercise’s payoff is in the future. Find the joy in mindful movement, the exercise experience, and feeling better right now. Stop doing exercise you hate just to get the body you want. Stop choosing exercise based on what it will do to your body, and start picking physical activity that actually sounds enjoyable to you independently of whether you think it’s good enough. If you enjoy it, then it’s good enough and it’s serving its purpose.
Diet Culture is what teaches you to shun the idea of being content with being happy. It’s what brainwashes you to believe you need to be doing more and more of the things you like less and less. It sells you the idea that exercise is the tool for achieving value in society.
If that’s what you want, then by all means go and tolerate exercise for the rest of your life. Continue in a toxic relationship that reinforces the idea that your body is your worth. Keep believing that enjoyment is only for the few lucky people.
Or, start believing that you were born to enjoy moving your body. Believe that your body serves as a vessel for you to have enjoyable life experiences. Believe that exercise’s payoff doesn’t need to be delayed into the future, but that it can serve as a way to enrich your life – right now.
Is It Enough?
Diet Culture teaches you that there are only two types of exercise – strength training and cardio. Never was this more apparent to me than when my new coaching clients would do their initial questionnaire.
One of the questions I asked them was what their favorite kind of exercise was, and 90% of the time it was either strength training or cardio. When I’d follow up with them and ask them what they would enjoy doing for physical activity if weight loss wasn’t their goal or if they were the only person in the world, they would usually answer that question much better.
They’d say things like they’ve always wanted to learn how to dance. Or they like to walk or hike. Or they enjoy swimming. Or they like to ride their bike, rock climb, kayak, play basketball, or ski.
I loved hearing these answers, as it really brought to the surface my clients’ passions. They lit up when they talked about them. It excited them.
But then they always had a follow-up question for me – “is that enough though?” Diet Culture had reached back up and snatched them from the good dream they were having.
As they were floating up in happy land actually enjoying moving their body, Diet Culture was casting out limiting beliefs in the hopes it could pull you back into the daily drag of exercising to change your body.
That’s when all the doubts would come up. Will doing that build muscle? Will that make me healthy? Will I be able to lose weight if that’s all I do? Does that burn enough calories?
So they’d burst their little dream bubble of actually doing physical activity they’d enjoy, and instead opt for the exercise Diet Culture teaches them that will shed the fat and build muscle in the least amount of time possible. Ironically, they keep trying to create the perfect workout program they’re never going to follow.
It’s tough to break these limiting beliefs. We have studies proving to us that one kind of exercise is better than another for losing fat. We have doctors and organizations saying you need a certain amount of intense physical activity to be healthy. You have weight loss coaches plugging you into their standard meal plan plus strength training plus cardio template.
But none of these things consider the psychological influences enjoyment has on your motivation to be active, nor do they consider one of the most fundamental aspects of choosing physical activity – does it make you happy?
How much happiness are you denying yourself in the pursuit of Diet Culture’s beauty standards? Physical activity is meant to be fun. It connects you to others. It puts you into a flow state. Its purpose isn’t conformism. It’s not meant to be reduced down to a tool to manipulate your body and self-worth. So break the exercise / weight loss association and start moving your body in a way that puts a smile on your face.
Will that “be enough”? No, it will never be enough for Diet Culture standards. You will always be striving for some future benefit you don’t have.
But is it enough to improve your quality of life? It absolutely is. And isn’t that why we’re doing this? Any physical activity makes you healthier. Any physical activity burns calories. Any physical activity builds muscle. Any physical activity makes you more fit. But not all physical activity is enjoyable. So why not do what makes you happy?
Seeing Exercise As a Burden
For many people there is a negative association with exercise, and this can happen for many reasons. For starters, many people start exercising when they start dieting. And due to the failed nature of diets, they begin to associate exercise with failure and misery.
Exercise starts off fun while you’re motivated, but the dieting and calorie restriction slowly but surely result in less energy and less drive to exercise. It’s like trying to drive more on less fuel. Eventually, you just don’t want to, or can’t, exercise anymore.
Another reason is we’ve been conditioned to view exercise as punishment. In schools growing up, we were forced to run laps or do pushups when we were bad. One day my daughter came home and said if she didn’t get something signed that she would have to run laps. I asked her what’s wrong with running laps? And she said she hated running.
Now, before she started school she used to beg my wife and me to come with us to the stadium track. As a 5 year old she was doing sprints down the track with us and running stairs. I’m not even kidding. She thought it was fun. But once school associated exercise with punishment, she didn’t like it any more. Suddenly, exercise hurt.
Many of us still have the associations with exercise from our childhoods. Maybe your parents told you to exercise because you were overweight, or maybe you do it because you hate your body. Whatever the case, when exercise takes on these negative connotations, it makes it less likely that you’ll willingly do it.
If you have a negative association with exercise then your first step is to create a more neutral environment surrounding it. You’ll do that by not thinking of it as exercise anymore and instead start seeing it as movement. That’s all you’re really doing with exercise anyways – expressing movement of your body, and hopefully there’s an enjoyment component to it too.
And then you let go of the ideas that you have to do a certain amount of it for it to be worthwhile, or that you have to do a particular type of exercise for it to be effective. You’re going to do whatever sounds good to you, for however long you like, as many times as you want to.
Exercise is about you. No one is forcing you to do it. You don’t even have to do it to lose weight. Your only goal is to work towards finding joy in physical activity again. Once you get to the point that you’re moving your body consistently again simply because it feels good, that’s when you can visit those performance and physique goals.
In the meantime, the priority is breaking the negative associations you have with exercise. Look at this relationship closely and with an open mind though. Most of us do have remnants of past negative ties to exercise. Old or even current experiences that involve exercise and punishment, no pain no gain mentality, injuries, lack of results, or simply not liking what you’re doing can all be subconsciously influencing your relationship with exercise.