For a greater part of my exercise life (and even now, if I’m honest), the primary motivation was to look good. Not that’s it’s bad in itself; looking good is not only a socially valuable trait, but it also improves your self-esteem. The problem is when that’s your main motivation. Of course, I would not be so quick as to admit that. My mind would be thinking “alright, I’m just doing this for health reasons” but my heart will go “ahhh my shrinking biceps!” and compel a dozen sets of poorly executed bicep curls. So at any given time, if I were really honest, I would be able to notice a bit of contradiction between my personal narrative, and what was really going on in my heart. I would be telling myself that I wanted to be fit, an intrinsic goal, while really I was pursuing an extrinsic, superficial one. I wanted to look good so that I can be well-liked and feel good about myself.
Well, first and foremost, as you would guess, I came to the conclusion that this sort of inner contradiction is extremely problematic. It is absolutely critical that you feel good about yourself before you rely on exercise to help you look better, otherwise it’s just like filling up a bucket with a hole in it; the external can only get you so far.
And so I resolved to get something done about the superficiality of my motivations – what really helped though, was simple awareness. Just knowing that I might have the tendency to let what people think about me get the better of me helps to purify my intentions.
Another thing that might help is to consider the cost of unhealthy motivations. Whenever my exercise is driven by a fear that I’m going to get out of shape and people won’t like me anymore, I tend to get mildly abusive of my body; I push it too hard, and ignore warning signs. I won’t be able to tell where the healthy threshold of pain is, mostly because the pain of self-rejection becomes greater than the physical pain of abusive exercise.
And that’s a terrible place to be in. Well, to be honest, we can use this fear-and-pain drive to get us off our butts quite effectively, however, to persist in it for too long is tantamount to self-destruction!
The main principle though, as I realized over time, is to simply be loving to yourself, and the proper actions will follow. Remember that there is absolutely no real change until that change comes from a strong, grounded, and stable source within – self-love. If this resembles your journey, you’ll realize too that exercising out of intrinsic desire will feel incredibly different from exercising out of that extrinsic anxiety-push that we are all too familiar with.
Without further ado though, let me get to some examples of healthy motivations that still drive me today. Not all of them are intrinsic reasons, as you’ll see, but they all arise from self-care and genuine love.
The Instrumental reason
Firstly, function! The modern office worker’s job doesn’t call for much exercise, and as a student, I don’t exactly have to do much of any heavy lifting either. So all the more is it necessary to keep up deliberately practice, especially if you want to maintain a viable level of functional movement. If I let myself loose and get all lazy, when I do need my muscles for some heavy lifting, well, it’s just not going to come out at a moment’s notice.
Furthermore, the standard fundamentals like aerobic fitness are always useful. Even as a student, I find myself walking and standing quite a bit – unfit joints and poorly coordinated limb muscles are just not going to cut it. If you enjoy playing a sport, that’s even better. You’ll need your body in good shape to have even more fun on the field. For me, while I haven’t indulged in sports for a bit, I still play music, and certain standard of muscular dexterity is required.
Whatever the case, function is a good reason for you to get your body moving! Exercises that build up your physical capacities for functional purposes will not overstretch your body, and it should not be too taxing on your joints and muscles. In fact, too much stress will lead to injury, and that’s just contrary to building a fit and functional body.
The Intrinsic reason
But well, as some of you might say, “that’s still all instrumental and non-primary. Am I supposed to move my body just because I want to achieve that?” That’s a question I asked myself too, especially on days when exercise just felt so dry.
The answer came one evening when I decided to abandon that session’s silly routine and do what feels right instead. And I learned on that very evening, that I wanted to move my body because it feels good. Yes, let me repeat that. I wanted to move my body because it feels good.
When was the last time you exercised, and during (not after!) the exercise, you actually thought to yourself – this feels really good! Has it been too long? That could be a problem then! Because if it doesn’t feel good, then why are we even doing it?
Of course there are all the instrumental reasons above, and those are good for revving ourselves up when the usual dopamine reward circuitry ain’t working right, but asides from that, there’s got to be an intrinsic reason every now and then, and this is as intrinsic as it gets: you move your body because it feels good.
So next time you start your exercise routine, play around a bit more and feel your body. Be present. Be thoroughly, magnificently, and completely present. Sometimes, just paying attention to the sensations of your own body is sufficient to put that necessary bit of pleasure into your pain.
Learn what feels good, what doesn’t and move instinctively – regain the pleasure of your own body! Moving because it feels good will structurally define the kind of exercises you do engage in. You will trim down on the standard, brainless exercise repetitions, and begin to include more complex, spontaneous, and fun movements into your routine.
Passion for growth
Finally, I’d say that one other reason which keeps me going every week is definitely that nice feeling you get when you notice how slowly, but surely, you’re getting stronger and stronger, more and more flexible, and gradually fitter too! Growth creates a snowball effect that makes you want to come back for more. Plus, chasing growth transforms the way you do your exercise; you don’t want to exert so little that there is no growth, nor too much, injuring your body in the process.
The key to getting that sweet spot is in the inverted U-shape. Now, what’s this swanky U-shape thing that Reuben’s talking about? The upside-down U-shape is a symbol of effectiveness as we scale up the pain threshold.
[For those who are interested in the mildly technical explanation:
Imagine pain/effort on the horizontal x-axis, and effectiveness/growth on the vertical y-axis. Now place an inverted U-shape on the graph. Notice how past a certain point at the tip, more effort and pain results in negative negative returns? While not the perfect model, this represent injuries and undue muscle damage caused by over-strain.]
An easy exertion has very little pain, but also sends just as little signals to your body to grow. While it may not be that effective for growth, this level of hurt is good for warm-up. Right now you’re at the side of the inverted U, and it’s pretty easy to ramp up the effort to get up to near the curve at the top.
Once you reach that curve though, things start to get quite painful. When you stretch, do push ups, lift weights, or any other kind of exertion you’ll notice this growing sense of resistance. Your muscles protest, and your mind must push through the pain if you want to continue exerting. This is good pain.
Pushing harder will get you near to the peak of that U shape pain scale, and that is ideally, where you want to get your body to, and spend as much time in as possible during your exercise.
The trick though, is to push as close to the tip of the U as possible, without crossing the peak to the other side. At the other side, further pain is destructive. You may start hurting your joints, nerves and pulling muscles – not exactly productive to your goals. So when you reach the point past the tip, resist the temptation to “work it out” harder; it’s counter-productive. Slowly de-exert your muscles if necessary, and stop. Get ready for the next set instead!
How do you know when the pain becomes bad pain? Well, for this, you’d really need to be physically aware of your body while performing the exercise, which is a simple thing that we too often neglect once the routine sets in. Pain that comes in a manner that feels biting, scraping, grinding, incisive, and tearing -or any other way that feels destructive- is likely to be bad pain.
But that U-peak is quite an elusive zone to keep within; every bit of focus you can channel into bodily awareness while pursuing that ideal will be necessary. Plus, another good reason for exercising is really to help expand your ability to feel your own body too.
Realistically, you’ll find out that quite a bit of time spent on exercise is on warming your body up to the start of the pain-curve and beyond. Once you do reach the tip, it is fairly tiring to sustain. Hence, every exercise session has a limited period of U-peaks. Centering your routines around a selected number of U-peaks is one way to structure your exercises, something I’ll go a bit more into in part III of this short series.
Ultimately though, this is just a cultural tool to help you conceptualize your exercise and pay attention to your body in new ways. Discover your own U-peaks and don’t be too obsessed with “hitting the spot” immediately – everybody learns better with a bit of exploration first!