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The #1 Thing I Wish I Knew When I First Got Into Fitness: I am not ornamental

Posted Apr 17 2012 12:20am

Totally unrelated but Gym Buddy Allison and I were noticing the other day how ridiculous song lyrics look when you have to read them close-captioned on the TVs at the gym. I still love Adele. End tangent. (Does it count as a tangent if I haven’t even started on the subject yet?) 

What is the number one thing you wish you had known 8 years ago, when you were first starting your health and fitness journey? During an interview for a magazine the other day, the journalist asked me a question that I have been asked in some permutation hundreds of times before. And likely you have too. If you could go back and tell yourself one thing to help you live a healthier life, what would it be?

Usually I answer something like find an exercise you love – fitness should be fun! – so you can make it a lifelong passion. And that’s not a bad answer. (Or if it is, feel free to disillusion me in the comments.) But this day I just couldn’t say it. Because if I could tell my pre-kickboxing, pre-yoga, pre-vegan, pre-assault self just one thing it wouldn’t be that saturated fats are not evil or that short-and-intense workouts are the golden ticket of fitness or even that ground flaxseed and water can be substituted for an egg in any recipe and have it turn out exactly the same! (Although all those things are awesome and I’m glad I know them.) No, what I would tell myself is this:

My body is a means to an end, not an end itself.

I realized the other day that I really don’t have any fitness performance goals anymore. I have a list as long as an unrolled roll of toilet paper (of which there are many in my house, thank you Jelly Bean) of fitness-y things that I think would be amazing and fun and rewarding to do. But I am not trying to beat a personal best or do X number of pull-ups or lose XX pounds or even, heaven help me, make a shot in basketball that isn’t an accident. Not that those types of goals aren’t great – they can be! – but right now in my life what I want most is to find happiness in the moment. Joy where I’m at, not at some specified time in the future. My goals are aimed more towards balance, gratitude and thriving instead of just surviving.

So fitness for me now is becoming more about training my body to be healthy so that I can do the things in my life outside of the gym that I want to do. My arms, no matter how cut or powerful, are only as good as how many kids, bags of groceries and rogue bicycle helmets they can juggle. My buff legs are only as good as how fast I can run to a friend in need.

And the more I have shifted my goals the more I find myself at odds with the health and fitness hegemony. There’s this whole attitude in the fitness industry that if you look good, then the rest of your life will fall into place. And while there is some small truth in that, personal experience has shown me that it more often works the other way. The more I focus on doing good things, the more confident I become and subsequently the better I look and feel.

This is why living a healthy lifestyle cannot be primarily motivated by wanting to look good. It’s so easy to get caught up in this self-perpetuating cycle of working out to look good and looking good to workout, especially because it receives so much public adulation. But in the end what are you? A living trophy? I am not ornamental! We are not ornamental!

This preoccupation with the surface is not just vanity. I do think it’s easier to measure changes in the body than in the spirit. A pants size is a much more concrete fact than, say, integrity. And it’s so much easier for other people to recognize an awesome six-pack than a forgiving heart. I’m not saying that the two states can’t go together – there are many people that are beautiful inside and out – but rather that focusing all my time on my outer aspects actually robs me of inner peace. The time that I looked my “best” (I even had a woman tell me I had “the perfect body”), I was never more confused, upset, fearful and self-hating. Because now that I had “it”, I realized I couldn’t keep it. (Let’s be honest, I wasn’t even entirely sure how I got “it” in the first place. Not to mention I was sick at the time.) No one can indefinitely, not even Giselle. And if your sense of self-worth is tied to that beautiful body then who are you when it’s gone?

All of which is not to say that being healthy and fit are bad things. The body and spirit are so intertwined that sickness in one inevitably produces malady in the other. What I think I’m trying to say is that despite all the slick monolithic marketing telling us otherwise, the more effective healthy changes come from the inside out, not the other way around. It’s about finding balance in a very unbalanced world. It’s about creating beauty instead of settling for just being beautiful.

All of this sounds terribly obvious now that I write it all out – call it a “duh” rather than an “aha” moment – and yet it’s taken me years to really understand it. And I’m not really sure what this means for me except that more I think about it the more my cognitive dissonance grows. I need to close the gap between who I am and who I want to be and no amount of situps is going to do that.

What’s the #1 thing you wish you would have known at the outset of your health adventure? Anyone else have these same mixed feelings?


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