“Health” Is a Dead End for Exercise Motivation

A fair argument could be made that you have to be a bit of a masochist to enjoy working out. It’s often physically uncomfortable, if not downright painful. That’s why exercise is seen as a chore, grudgingly done out of sense of duty to maintain a loosely defined state of health. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. By reframing how you think of it, you can change exercise from a job into a pleasure.

A Simple Definition of Exercise

Exercise is a way to stimulate our bodies into producing or maintaining physical adaptations. Depending on the form of exercise, the adaptation could be increased muscle mass, strength, power, aerobic capacity, specific skills, etc.

In general exercise tends to improve bodily function and minimize chance of pathology, while helping burn energy that would otherwise go towards building or sustaining fat stores. In other words it’s basically good for health, and thats the direction from which many people approach it.

That’s also precisely why so many drop it.

Health, Schmealth

New Year’s resolutions and unused gym memberships come and go every year, meanwhile likelihood of poor health increases through fat gain and other physical degradation. You’d think the seriousness of the situation would be enough to get everyone to undertake an exercise program to enjoy the health advantages, but instead we just feel guilty as we sit around eating too much and going to our desk jobs, covertly glad to be avoiding physical effort.

The upshot of all this is that a sense of guilty obligation to live up to a vague definition of health and ideal body composition is profoundly boring and uninspiring. Not only that, but the constant “should exercise” message coming from media and health authorities tends to inspire a perverse resentment. Thus if you do end up undertaking an exercise program, it’s powered by the thinest motivation, and is a poor basis for adherence. And without adherence of course there won’t be any bodily improvements anyway.

Real Motivation

The things in your life you’re most drawn to and likely to engage in have a pleasurable payoff; no one has to force themselves to do something they enjoy. So is it possible to turn an unpleasant chore into a rewarding, action-driving source of pleasure?


Reframing how we look at things can be extremely powerful, even to a therapeutic extent as in cognitive behavioral therapy. By examining thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs, a person can take control back from a mental disorder.

(Incidentally, I have another article about using reframing to generate an optimal mindset for dieting here.)

Using the same mechanisms we can pull exercise out of the resentfully undertaken chore box, and turn it into something to be enjoyed, if not the absolute highlight of the day.

Your Body Is a Playground

Stop and consider for a second. The fact our bodies are so malleable is a truly incredible thing, we’re talking about the gift of evolutionary processes that took millions of years. You have considerable power over the form you take, and your capabilities.

Your body isn’t an unchanging vessel for your sense of self to ride around in, it’s a piece of clay to be molded, a world to be explored, and a blank computer to be programmed at your whim.

The Rebrand: Exercise Is Art

There’s so much satisfaction and joy to be had in building, making, and creating. Personally I’ve done this in quite a few ways, including making music, painting, photography, and writing. These arts might seem quite different, but the overall creative experience is similar.

Exercise can be viewed as yet another endeavor in this vein, the creative aspect of which isn’t meaningfully different from the others listed.

By carrying out certain activities and controlling what we eat, we can transform our physical forms and take our pick of abilities to fortify ourselves with that we wouldn’t otherwise have. The only difference is that the body is the canvas, and a barbell (or other apparatus depending on exactly what you want to achieve) is the paintbrush.

The gym, road, or track is your studio, and each session is a paint-stroke, a shaping of your biological clay, and a brick in the wall of your ultimate physical goal.

The Glorious Struggle

If you’ve ever partaken in a creative endeavor, you’ll know it’s not easy, and nor should it be. Indeed, the most rewarding things in life are the ones you have to fight for and struggle through.

Just as with the experience of writer’s block for instance, there are bumps in the road of any creative process, and such is the case with molding your body. For instance, the pain of completing that last rep in the gym, injuries, and figuring out how to fit your exercise into your busy life.

But like the application of a few dabs of paint to a canvas that suddenly brings a work to life, overcoming obstacles and ticking off your fitness goals over the months is monumentally rewarding. The pain of a workout becomes something to be embraced—a sign that you’re on the right track and working towards making real change.

The Choice: Two Mindsets, Two Outcomes

I’ve experienced exercise through both of the lenses discussed. Seeing it as a means to improve health was profoundly uninspiring, lead to resentful participation, and ultimately repeated failure. Three separate occasions, three lapsed gym memberships that saw months of use at most, then back into the rut of body fat accumulation and degrading physical capability.

On the other hand, changing my base ideas about exercise and seeing it as a physical exploration of evolutionary ability and a kind of art project lead to unmitigated passion, and adherence that hasn’t flagged for almost two decades now.

Exercise settling into the mental box of grudging health chore is a tragedy. It needn’t be seen as a job to be endured on the way to some arbitrary minimum level of health. Rather it’s an incredible life opportunity—a way to imbue yourself with super powers, an exploration of the physical realm of your body, and a way to create a living masterpiece.

I’ll end with a quote wide attributed to Socrates. I’m not sure of its veracity, but I think it nicely sums up my ideas here.

What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.

Thank you for reading. Questions, comments, thoughts, and experiences welcome—just use the comments box below, or drop me an email.

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