Exercise does not need to be enjoyable

Posted on February 9, 2018

(Last Updated On: February 9, 2018)

“When people start viewing exercise as a duty or obligation, then that’s not a formula for sustained activity.”

Love or hate exercise? It may be in your genes.

One idea for getting people to exercise is to make it something people like. This is where many will go “I won’t go for a run, but I’ll play basketball for two hours.” That hopefully everybody can find some method of activity which gets the dopamine flowing. As the above quote indicates, some believe if a person doesn’t find this, then longterm, consistent exercise won’t happen.

Not true!

People consistently do all sorts of things which blow ass-

  • Commute to work
  • Their job
  • Watch five year olds play sports
    • “You’re doing great!” while thinking “Does my kid not realize their arms should move when they run?!?”
  • Med school & residency
    • Does anybody love 80 hour work weeks?
  • Studying
    • Nobody enjoys every class in college!
  • Cooking
  • Washing dishes
  • Cleaning one’s home
  • Practicing for sports

There is a well circulated quote which many college athletes comes across at some point:

“People don’t play sports because it’s fun. Ask any athlete, most of them hate it, but they couldn’t imagine their life with out it. It’s part of them, the love/hate relationship. It’s what they live for. They live for the practices, parties, cheers, long bus rides, invitationals, countless pairs of different types of shoes, water, Gatorade, & coaches you hate but appreciate. They live for the way it feels when they beat the other team, and knowing those two extra sprints they ran in practice were worth it. They live for the way they become a family with their team, they live for the countless songs they sing in their head while training all those hours. They live for the competition, they live for the friends, the practices, the memories, the pain, it’s who they are. It’s who we are.”

Moving past the fact we’re all crying now, I’ve written a lot about what seriously playing sports is truly like. Said with less words: few have spoken “I loved training camp. It was so much fun being sore and hearing coaches yell for three weeks!”

Steve Smith, after a hall of fame career playing 16 seasons in the NFL,

“Smith was then asked what he would miss most about football.

“I know I’m not going to miss practice, I’ll tell you that.””

Ed Whitlock, an 85 year-old-under-four-hour / formerly 73 year-old-under-three-hour marathoner:

“He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy.

“The real feeling of enjoyment,” he said, “is getting across the finish line and finding out that you’ve done O.K.””

One reason his training was “boring” and “something to put up with” is because he ran around a four minute loop in a cemetery close to his home. If you’ve ever done a long day’s run on a track, you know how ridiculous / boring / want to escape your own mind it can feel going round and round.

“Not five miles from Whitlock’s home is the parking lot for the Kelso Recreation Area. From there you can immediately be on an amazing network of wide trails through a forest and along the Niagara Escarpment. One option from the lot is the Bruce Trail, 800 kilometers long. In town, a bike path cuts through neighborhoods. So, why the cemetery?

“To drive somewhere to run? That would be too ambitious,” Whitlock says.”

The guy wouldn’t even get in a car to workout! A world record marathon holder is…lazy!

I saw Mat Fraser, CrossFit Games champion, say paraphrasingly,

“I wouldn’t say I enjoy exercise. I enjoy the results of it.”

Another from him, bolding mine-

“I just don’t find that I’m able to push myself as hard if I’m at all unhappy, upset, or angry,” he says. “When I go into a workout happy, with a smile on my face, I’m willing to suffer a bit more, I’m willing to dig a little deeper, push a little harder.”

Watch people play sports. How much pleasure during activity do we really see? During a marathon what’s the ratio of “I WILL PITCHFORK EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LIVED” to “I feel like I’m floating, look at me smile!”? A thousand to one? What’s the percentage of people who say they’re glad they did a marathon though? 90+?

marathon-pain-faces-> Paula Radcliffe is the women’s marathon record holder. Google her name. See how long it takes you to find the poop incident.

Therein lies the crux of the ridiculousness in thinking exercise needs to be enjoyable. We do tons of stuff not because the act of doing is particularly pleasurable, but because the results of it are.

If when commuting to work all one thought about was the act of commuting, then nobody would do it. But we understand it serves a purpose of getting us to work, so we can contribute to society / make a living / feed our kids. Put an unemployed person in the position of commuting vs not, and many would be happy to do an activity which is disdained.

Brushing our teeth is my favorite example. It’s something most do every day, multiple times per day. It’s monotonous, has damn near no way of being made more entertaining. It’s terrible. While most of us know somebody who enjoys cooking, cleaning, studying, their job, is ok with commuting because they listen to an audiobook, I don’t know if any of us knows somebody who regularly exclaims “I’m looking forward to brushing my teeth tonight.” Yet so many of us do it.

-> Brushing does take less time than exercise, but the “exercise takes too long” argument is nonsensical. We’re not time constrained. We watch television over five hours a day.

Because many of us appreciate the pain of not brushing will outweigh the pain of doing it. Certain mornings one might wake up with that “Oh god, if anybody is within 50 feet of me breathing right now I’ll be thrown in jail. I need to brush my teeth now,” but that’s not regular. Instead, we know if we don’t brush now it’s only a matter of when the pain of a cavity, the pain of a root canal, the pain of thousands of dollars, the pain of dirty looking teeth, the social consequences of chronic halitosis, will be greater than the pain of brushing regularly.

One -big- reason people don’t exercise like they should is because the pain awareness isn’t great enough.

These aren’t well known benefits of being physically active.

Perhaps the greatest evidence we’re not aware enough is how many of us are overweight who don’t realize it. Even worse, even more indicative we’re not doing a good job with this, the gap between being overweight and knowing has widened. This is concerning because it puts a great deal of our effort back to square one. “The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging there is one.” Never mind the school of thought people aren’t exercising because it’s not enjoyable. A case can be made nearly half of overweight people aren’t exercising because they don’t think they’re overweight! 

I’m sitting at a bar with my girlfriend. The ugh-you’re-going-to-talk-to-us-because-you-talk-to-everybody-even-if-we’re-staring-straight-ahead person chats us up. Somehow she gets on this rant about how her doctor said she should lose X amount of weight.

“How’s he going to tell people what they’re supposed to weigh? Nobody can tell you that but yourself. I told him I’m comfortable with my weight, so it’s good enough.”

That’s not how it works! Who knows what her doctor really said, but it wouldn’t at all be surprising if he was that blunt, and didn’t take the time to tell her what’s really going on.


“Well, all he’s doing is looking at this chart. We’ve found solid relationships between being at a certain weight and having better health. For instance, based on your height, being above a certain weight can mean increased risk of cancer, heart disease, dying sooner, those types of concerns.”

This woman actually had a cancer history. This meant something to her now. While initially dismissive, she asked me some questions about weight-loss, and clearly became more open minded. I doubt the five minutes of conversation was enough to turn the switch, but it at least flickered the light bulb.

People like to have a reason to do something.

“Your teeth won’t rot.”

“Oh, ok.”

Is enough for some.

“What do you mean rot?”

“When we eat bacteria gets on our teeth….sugar does this…teeth have this thing called enamel which can wear away…a cavity costs this much money…”

“Oh, ok.”

For many young people, though not enough, the pain of not being in shape is painful enough- sexual rejection. After settling down this becomes less motivating. General health, playing with one’s kids, being alive to see grandchildren, tends to take priority.

People will do A LOT for those abilities. A lot which is non-enjoyable. If you’ve gone through a pregnancy you know all you hear every other day is how little sleep you’re going to get. But how many of us say “I didn’t have kids because I didn’t want to lose sleep”? Most of us have seen the insanity raising kids can be, yet we keep having them, and so many parents say “Look, it’s hard, but I can’t imagine my life without them.”

Saying exercise has to be enjoyable is like saying a job has to be enjoyable. Should your job suck every day you go to it? Probably not. Are there going to be rough times? Questioning whether you should even be doing this anymore? Wanting to go drink because that’s more enjoyable? Does society need people to do the unenjoyable? Definitely.

Same deal with exercise. There will be times you don’t want to do it, being sore, being bored, feeling lazy, but similar to how you get your ass in the car because you don’t want to lose your job, we need to still get our ass moving to decrease our risk of cancer, so we can run with our kids more, so we look better, so we save energy, so we have more rooms on airplanes, so we’re not as reliant on our kids to take care of us when we’re 70, so we can decrease healthcare costs and free up money for other causes, the list of potential motivation is endless.

Now it can take some grit to get through those times. Where you have to remind yourself why you’re doing it, remembering we don’t only get to do what we want in life, maybe you need to hire someone to get you out of a rut (similar to how many switch employers), you remember even Jerry Seinfeld has to remind himself to trudge his ass in,

One day I was watching these construction workers go back to work. I was watching them kind of trudging down the street. It was like a revelation to me. I realized these guys don’t want to go back to work after lunch. But they’re going. That’s their job. If they can exhibit that level of dedication for that job I should be able to do the same. Trudge your ass in.

-> Even telling jokes isn’t all fun! If you watch the documentary Comedian, you can see some serious frustration.

But humans aren’t that dopamine focused. We wouldn’t have evolved this far if we were. (Being an animal in the wild ain’t always a good time!) The majority of us understand we can’t merely go around chasing a cocaine high every day. In fact, most know that approach often ends badly.

It’s well appreciated what working out and eating a certain way can do for one’s looks and sporting ability. With general health, to help our trudging, we have a lot of work to do. But it can be done.

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