The fitness industry has a problem: exercise sucks.
Well, actually no. It doesn’t. And yet, we are constantly told that exercise means endlessly punishing your body in the gym. That a “beachbody” is the result of hundreds of hours of impossible workouts mixed with a carefully regulated diet.
I won’t claim that being super fit is super easy. It does take work. But, as any gym-rat will tell you, exercise can and should be enjoyable.
But for whatever reason, the media we are exposed to on a daily basis glorifies exercise that drives us to the breaking point, showing exercises we “love to hate” and an endless barrage of hard-ass trainers.
In other words, we constantly learn and relearn that exercise is an exhausting activity worthy of hate. Ever wonder “why do I hate exercise?” This is why.
Need some examples?
- How I Met Your Mother ran for 9 seasons, and regularly made references to the main characters’ laziness. Here’s a clip of Ted being beaten down by an aggressive trainer in the one episode they do work out.
- BoJack Horseman, the critically acclaimed animated comedy on Netflix, depicts its protagonist struggling on a run, proclaiming “running is terrible, everything is the worst.” Even the encouraging words at the end of this clip imply that exercise needs to suck at first.
- Famed fitness personality Jillian Michaels is absolutely brutal on the Biggest Loser. One highlight: “you’re not acting strong, you’re acting pathetic!”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be called a “worthless piece of crap” when I work out. I don’t like being called pathetic while I’m at the gym. I’ve been working out for years, but I would still probably quit if every workout knocked me on my ass while being screamed at by a “trainer.” Is it any wonder people hate working out?
And yet these examples are everywhere in pop culture. And it starts to affect everyday life.
This past New Year’s, I witnessed two women come in to work out every day. Every rep was precisely counted and tracked. The circuit workout they were doing was intense, enough that it caused me to look up and notice. And every time a rep wasn’t deep enough, one would shout at the other: “NOT GOOD ENOUGH! DO IT AGAIN!”
They were gone within two weeks.
The Flipside: Everyone Loves Fitness
The flipside of “exercise sucks” is that most people DO want to be fit. Given a choice between six-pack and potbelly, most people would choose six-pack. There’s a reason “lose weight” was the most popular New Year’s resolution of 2015.
The media and messaging around exercise take advantage of this in the most blatant way possible. And again, the messages around exercise make us feel terrible.
I once attended a marketing conference where the speaker held up “Get Bikini Body Confident” as a slogan that “[made her] feel like a pile of shit.” Similarly, this classy “beachbody” article in Cosmo claims that “You don’t need to bust ass for months to look like a goddess in a bikini.”
And men are hardly exempt from this treatment. Beachbody articles for men remind us that “our tops come off, imperfect bodies and all.” The tagline of this T-Nation article is “chances are, you’re either a fat bastard or a skinny slacker.”
An advertisement for Iron Gym’s pull-up bar depicts an oiled up, dehydrated, shirtless model and begins “Wanna get strong. Wanna get lean. Wanna get ripped.” Listen to the macho voice and music and ask yourself: did he really have to be shirtless for this?
Get ripped, get jacked, get slim, get sexy, get hot, get abs. The messages and images we see aren’t designed to make you feel good about yourself.
But is it even about feeling good?
At this point someone inevitably is thinking that exercise isn’t about feeling good. It’s about discipline. It’s about hard work. Exhaustion, even hating your body—that’s just part of the territory.
In his wildly popular BroScience videos, “Dom Mazzetti” (played by Mike Tornabene) pokes fun at this idea. In an often-quoted phrase, he claims that “The day you started lifting is the day you became forever small. Because you will never be as big as you want to be.”
A mixture of insecurity and hardassery leads people to believe that hating your body is just part of it. One client said to me that “I feel like you should always sort of hate your body. Otherwise you’ll stop wanting to improve.” Dr. Cox on the show Scrubs supports this idea, calling it the “key to his exercise program.”
But a century of psychology tell us that isn’t true. When actions have positive consequences, we are more likely to repeat those actions. This “Law of Effect” was discovered by Edward Thorndike around the turn of the 20th century, and has since become the subject of extensive study in the field of behaviorism (spoiler alert: it holds up).
If we turn exercise into a shameful, degrading, negative experience, why would anyone want to work out? Despite Breitbart’s claim that “science” backs up fat shaming as an effective motivation for exercise, study after study shows that a focus on improved body image and internal motivation proves more effective over the long term.
Where does that leave us?
The Strange Triumph of Laziness
On one hand, pop culture tells us that exercise is a brutal sacrifice. On the other, marketing tells us that we need to get ripped, get lean, and get abs. There’s a dread or fear of exercise. We are caught between our need to avoid pain and our desire to be in-shape. So what do we end up doing?
Remember how weight loss is the most popular New Year’s resolution? Only 8% of resolutioners achieve their goals.
Not only do we do nothing, we glorify it. We take pride in it. A joke like “I was going to work out, but this nap isn’t going to take itself” becomes more than just a joke—it becomes a method of rebellion against what society says we “should” be. We make so many jokes about choosing Netflix over the gym that Buzzfeed wrote a whole article describing the Netflix couch workout.
One of the fittest people I’ve ever met likes to say that she is “the laziest fit person [she] knows.” Hell, I regularly downplay the amount that I like to work out. For all that being in shape is desirable, talking about workouts in conversation only makes things uncomfortable. “I don’t work out,” “I hate going to the gym,” and “I hate exercise” are proud statements.
Even when we do work out, we minimize and degrade it. We look for alternatives to working out. Do a quick Twitter search for #IHateExercise, and you’ll find plenty of people disparaging their own workouts. Other relevant hashtags include #solazy and #noworkout.
What would happen if we changed how we thought about exercise? Everyone “knows” that exercise is healthy and has all kinds of benefits. But what if we really appreciated that, embraced exercise, and incorporated into our lives as a pleasurable pastime?
We need to reclaim exercise
For starters, research and several major organizations suggest we’d see pretty substantial changes to our quality of life. The American Heart Association supports cardio as a means of improving heart health and a variety of related conditions (and heart attacks are the leading cause of death in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control). Strength training, on the other hand, is linked to greater bone density and prevention of osteoporosis.
Extensive study demonstrates clear effects of exercise on mood, and more recent exploration suggests that exercise could actually help you grow new brain cells. The medical benefits of exercise are clear.
But clearly that isn’t enough to get most of us moving. It certainly isn’t what helped me (and nowadays I love working out). We need to learn how to like exercise.
Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to find accounts of the personal effects of exercise. With a little searching you’ll find that many members of the business and political elite have strict exercise regimes. But you’ll also find incredible, heartwarming stories of everyday people whose lives have been touched by exercise:
- Exercise literally prevented this Elliott Hulse reader from committing suicide
- Exercise helped this woman manage clinical depression and OCD
- Exercise helped these top trainers transform their lives in a variety of ways
- Exercise helped this man improve his confidence and life in subtly important ways
And of course, my favorite story is Arthur’s, the formerly immobile veteran that used exercise to cut his weight in half and regain the ability to walk. I literally cried the first time I watched the end of that video.
Exercise has an incredible power to transform lives. I know it changed mine.
We live in a society that vilifies exercise, glorifies fitness, and encourages laziness. We are constantly exposed to messages that make us feel insecure and inadequate. Every day, people are treated poorly because of their weight, despite a culture telling them that working out is next to impossible. Movement does not need to be miserable; the human body is an incredible machine with incredible capabilities. We need to appreciate that.
What if, instead of shaming ourselves, we took pride in our accomplishments?
What if, instead of melting into a puddle of sweat, we exercised in healthy, energizing moderation?
What if we developed a positive relationship with exercise and our bodies, and learned to enjoy them both?
We need to reclaim exercise.
To get started on a healthy, consistent exercise routine, download my free guide and learn how to use psychology to stop skipping workouts.
You’ll also get the free eBook “51 Fitness Motivation Tips.”
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