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Fitness is...Personal
By Blair Morrison   View more articles by this author
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August 24

Take it personally.

Your fitness is not the gym you join or the site you follow. It’s not the shoes you wear, the weights you lift, or the nutrition book you read. Fitness is not your yoga mat. It’s not the Workout of the Day.

An individual’s fitness is, essentially, his or her decision. And it goes beyond deciding to surround himself or herself with the various tools mentioned above. They help, certainly. If I want to cut down a tree, I’m better off using an axe than an icepick. But I still have to go out and chop the thing down.

Sadly, unlike in the lumber industry, we can’t hire someone to chop this tree down for us. Fitness depends on two things: agency and ownership, and they span disciplines. Look at any sport and compare athletes of similar natural ability. The engaged athlete following an average program will outperform the dispassionate athlete following an exceptional program. Every time.

I was at my gym last week, and I watched a guy do twenty-five minutes of triceps extensions, proudly flexing in the mirror between sets to evaluate his work. While most of me was screaming objections based on my belief in functional training, useable strength, etc., another part of me was humbly acknowledging his right to train his way, and respecting his effectiveness in doing so. He had pretty big triceps, after all.

Now, if I were to go up to this individual and say, “Listen, I know a better way to train. It focuses on the whole body, both structurally and cardio-vascularly. It will produce measurable gains in strength, endurance, recovery, flexibility, coordination, and balance, and it will contribute to you living a longer and healthier life.” He might say, “Wow, that sounds great. How do I do it?” Or, he might say, “What’ll it do for my triceps?”

This is an example of agency. I decide what is important to my fitness. I can be told a million times the best way to train my heart and lungs, see over and over the correct technique for a deadlift, have listened to lecture upon lecture about the right foods to eat; but if I don’t choose to put those ideas into practice, they will remain just that: ideas, and nothing more.

The second part is ownership. Gym classes, as a culture, have largely been created to avoid this very concept. Most people who consistently do step class, or spin, or body sculpt either don’t know what to do for their fitness, or they can’t motivate themselves to do it on their own. So, rather than taking ownership of the problem, finding the answers, and implementing them, they schedule and attend a series of weekly classes to diffuse the responsibility (This is not true for all situations. Some people have found that they perform better in group situations and have actively chosen class settings as the best way to facilitate this performance. These people, however, are in the minority. Most do it because they don't want to face the fact that fitness is hard and no one will do it for them). Watch any one of these classes and it will become quite evident who is truly engaged and who is just there to punch the clock.

Yoga is a great example. Consider the individual who goes to a class because someone told him it was a good idea, and is now blindly following the directions of the instructor. He is the one looking around at everyone else, distracted by his sweat, forcing himself into positions that his body cannot handle. This person will not benefit in the same way as the individual who has internalized the teachings and taken ownership of the practice.

Now, granted, ownership is a process, and people need to learn skills somehow. Just be wary of the chronic user, showing up each week without fail, blindly following the leader, and offloading the responsibility for his fitness to a series of instructors and classmates.

Fitness, in the end, is a result. It’s the byproduct of the interaction between me (my physical tools, my mental capacity, my personal creativity) and the resources at my disposal (information, food, weights, etc.). As should, by now, be clear, the me is integral to this equation. As soon as I lose agency or ownership over this process, fitness ceases to be personal, and it is no longer mine. This is when training starts to feel like a chore. It’s when you burn out, resent the program, or lose interest all together.

The truly fit individuals stay conscious of their motivations and are actively involved in, and take ownership of, their programs. They relish the fact that no one can do it for them, and use this fact to push themselves harder. Zoning out, getting into a routine, or going to a class for class’s sake doesn't make sense to these people. For them, “Just doing it” just isn’t good enough.

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