For most of us, the idea that exercise might be something that not only hones our bodies but also flips on our brains, arouses our senses, and connects us with others is just plain beyond belief. The notion that it might be something we crave rather than dread is downright absurd. No human, we think, actually wants to exercise. It’s awful. It’s hard, it hurts, it’s humiliating, it’s boring, it’s isolating, and it’s time out of the day that we just don’t have. And the places to do it, ugh! Big, cold, scary, intimidating, unfriendly, ineffective, cliquey, and judgmental. This is what we’ve come to believe exercise is all about.
At the same time, the science is crystal clear. If we want to live good lives, we need to move our bodies. Nearly every marker of vitality—from reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes to enhanced brain function, elevated mood, better ability to deal with stress, reduced anxiety and depression, and amped cognitive and physical abilities—is made better by exercise. Exercise is powerful medicine.
Problem is, most of us have come to believe exercise is something to be endured rather than embraced. That is tragic. Exercise done right adds to your life. Not just because of its many benefits, but because the very experience of it can be deeply enjoyable—when you do it right. Why the negative frame, then? Because much of the industry has been built around solutions that work for the industry, but not for the people it seeks to serve. Rows and rows of machines lock you into repetitive and astonishingly boring movement. Screens adorn every machine to distract you from how mind-numbing the experience is. To access your personal misery-distraction device, you need to put on headphones, further isolating you from the community and eliminating the possibility of conversation, friendship, and a sense of belonging. This all translates to dismal levels of long-term participation, terrible results beyond a small number of hardcore gym rats, and feelings of defeat, futility, self-loathing, boredom, and isolation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When we were kids, we ran around all day, climbed, danced, rolled, threw, caught, wiggled, jumped, cartwheeled, and kicked our way through the day. We worked hard, really hard, and loved it. The only reason we stopped is because we had to. Homework or dinner called us in. For those who played sports, there was the added experience of camaraderie, collaboration, shared effort, friendship, and belonging. We didn’t call it exercise back then; we called it play, and we couldn’t get enough. Our job today is to turn exercise back into play. To change repetition and boredom into novelty and engagement. To turn isolation and intimidation into friendship and belonging. To turn forced participation and futility into craved activity and transformative results.
Some in the industry have started to get it. They’ve realised the old way is broken and offered up activities, settings, and experiences that let us reclaim a sense of play, engagement, and community. SoulCycle turned indoor cycling into a near-addictive physical and cultural experience exploding across the country. CrossFit has become the fastest-growing phenomenon in the history of the fitness industry, reclaiming novelty, getting back to basics, cultivating a fierce commitment to community and progress. Its biggest challenge is likely not getting people to show up but stopping people from coming too often and pushing too hard.
There are, I’m sure, many other examples. You don’t have to join a facility to bring joyful exercise back into your life. Get outside, if that’s your style. Hike, ride, surf, trail run, Hula-Hoop. Join a group, team, or club. Take different classes. Whatever it is that makes you want to do more, find it, then do it. Look for things that demand not just physical effort but also mental focus and attention. When you engage your mind, time stops and effort becomes play.
Even better, do it with others. Find a partner, group or community or rally a bunch of friends and create your own group or challenge to do together. This adds the element of friendship and accountability, especially in the early days when you’re still getting fit enough to make it truly fun and desirable. Do this right and exercise becomes something you no longer fear and avoid.