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Why You Should Reconsider the “Workout” Mentality

The workout. It’s funny how we talk about it. We “check in” at gyms to register our efforts with Facebook friends. We dramatically label everyday exertions as “quite the workout.” It even becomes a game of equivalents. We’ll lug ten bags of groceries to the house or mow the lawn and publicly declare, “I think that counted for my workout today!” The term is even applied to sex [1], which we’re told is a “major calorie burner.” (Do we seriously need to quantify or justify this?) The problem, as I see it here, is we approach activity with a quota mentality. As handy as pedometers and other fitness gadgets [2] can be, they encourage this mindset. We judge (and track) our activity in terms of allocation rather than immersion – “this” amount of hours, sweat, pounds, steps, calories, etc. To be honest, we view it in terms of points to earn rather than enjoyment to be had or actualization to be fostered [3] in a day. How much do the semantics impact our outcomes – let alone motivation? Much more than we’d imagine, I’d say.

Let’s back up here for a minute and admit something. The fact is, for nearly all of human history no one ever really “worked out.” Grok himself [4] would’ve been utterly confounded by 90% of what we do (let alone wear) at the gym. He probably would assume you’d gorged on fermented fruit [5] if you asked whether he’d done his cardio or resistance training.

As humans through the ages, we certainly played [6]. We even competed – at everyday antics or in communal games of course. We’re wired for physical and creative play [7] throughout our full lifetime. As hominids, we also naturally relish a good competition – whether it’s racing Big Wheels down the street or fighting adversaries (or older siblings). As kids, we trained ourselves to run up the backyard hill faster. Later, we revel in the challenge of bettering our 5K time. This is the good stuff [8] – the stuff Grok would get and jump in on.

However, there’s a distinct difference between the likes of play and personal accomplishment (or even training toward that) compared with the standard, obligatory “workout.” I belong to a gym [9] and almost always have, but even I acknowledge there’s something strange about crunching dozens if not hundreds of people together in a building on various machines and tracks. It conjures the lab rat comparison if we’re completely honest. But let’s not blame it on gyms. For every person having the time of their lives laughing (and sweating) their way through Zumba with friends, there’s a miserable individual grumbling his/her way [10] through a regularly scheduled outdoor run. The point here isn’t the activity or even the place but the attitude and role we assign to it in the course of our days.

If you go to other countries today – even many European nations, the concept of “workout” doesn’t translate for the most part. A Slate article [11] a few years ago offered a look at exercise around the world – what people did for activity and in what ways (if any) different subsections of their populations pursued anything akin to American style workouts. To this day, I love this observation offered in one of the descriptions: “The main reason French people practice sports is not to maintain their health (though that comes a very close second), nor their looks. Nope, according to a 2003 study, French people practice sports because they enjoy them.” What a novel concept…

In most places around the world, people still bike to local markets. They walk to work [12] and/or perform significant physical labor for pay or to maintain the home. (This applies to more people than we might think in this country, too.) They walk to get water perhaps. Are these people looking to quantify their lifestyle in terms of workout “points”? I don’t think so.

Clearly, it’s important to move [13], and devoting an hour or so a day to intensive gym time or a solid run confers handy benefits, no? However, what if we thought less about “fitting in” our day’s movement and started identifying our lives with it?

Identifying with movement… Imagine for a minute what that would be like [14]. It would mean seeing movement not as the exception to be scheduled (or measured in equivalents throughout the day) but a default lifestyle to simply align with.

It would mean viewing movement not as logistical chore but as a means of physical actualization [15]. How have you actualized your physical self today? It would mean shifting our thinking and living to revolve around our natural need and instinct for movement. Have you lived a natural life today?

So what does this mean for us? If we surrender the workout mentality, what does it (or should it) actually end up changing in reality? When we can get over the hump and choose to lead an active, primal life, I think many if not most of us do better if we don’t try to parse it out. Our activity is more than our fitness tracker’s graph at the end of a day. It’s the pleasure we took [16], the life we lived, the thrill we felt [17], the accomplishment we achieved, the connection we made with the environment [18] (or person/people) we were active with.

When we surrender the workout mentality and create a primal mindset around it, I think activity becomes a value [19]. That shift then invites us to mold the rest of life around that value.

How would our choices differ if we made physical activity a value rather than a measure? What would home life look like if movement (including lifting heavy things [20]) was a value? Would we swing our kids more? Roughhouse more? Have sex more often? Leave the house more? How would our home environments – and yards – be different? What would our work of choice or work environment or schedule look like? Would our commutes [21] change? How would our social life [22] or social circles change if activity was an infused value rather than a schedule conflict?

I’m curious what you think. Where do you see the “workout mentality” operating in your own life or in the lives of others you see? What do you feel could change with an emphasis on value over measure? Thanks for reading today. Have a great week, everyone.

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