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Where Do We Get Our Ideas About Fitness … and How Can We Change Them?
Learn three ways you can flip the script on your own fitness narrative.
“I just don’t understand why … you have to run so much.”
I could see the look of distress on my mother’s face when she said these words to me during a family visit several years ago. It was the same look she gave me when I became a vegetarian—a look of bafflement, distaste and genuine concern.
For a long time I didn’t understand this reaction. Why would my mom want me to quit something that I genuinely enjoyed and that most people in this day and age consider healthy and, dare I say, admirable? It was only when I started doing research for our most recent Practically Fit podcast episode that I finally understood.
My mom came of age at a time when fitness was not considered particularly healthy for women. A review in The Atlantic of the book Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World by Danielle Friedman puts it this way:
“Women were corseted and girdled in ways that restricted movement. They were warned of the dire health consequences of running more than two miles at a time, and told that strenuous exercise might impair their reproductive organs and even cause their uterus to fall out.”
Yep, my sisters and I heard that last one, too.
But these misconceptions about physical fitness are not confined to women. I’ve had guy friends tell me that sadistic high school coaches ruined the concept of running forever. Running was punishment for failure to perform. You missed that layup? Fifty half-court sprints. Not listening to the coach? Run three laps around the track. Blogger Greg Lawlor has a great post about why you shouldn’t use exercise as punishment in youth sports, but apparently generations of coaches did not get the memo.
So where do we get our ideas about fitness? There’s a great article in Slate that explores this idea in depth, but I think the short answer is that it’s complicated. We get ideas about fitness from our parents, our peers, our friends and culture at large, but the good news is that we’re not stuck with those ideas forever.
Changing Your Fitness Narrative
While I’m certainly no expert in fitness psychology, here are three concepts that have helped me change my own ideas about fitness.
Don’t start a sentence with “I could never.” This is one I get a lot as a runner. “Well, that’s great for you, but I could never …” I thought the same thing at one point in my life. It never occurred to me that I could do anything athletic until I was well into my 30s. I have flat feet and asthma, two things that generally contraindicate running, but I tried it, and while I’ll never be a world-class athlete, I’ve been running for over two decades and am still going strong. What’s more, it’s brought an incredible amount of joy to my life, which brings me to the second concept …
Find something you enjoy. If you really and truly hate running (and not just because it was once used as punishment), then don’t do it. Find something you love. It could be dancing, or walking, or gentle stretching or silent disco. Respect your limitations, listen to your body and find something that you truly enjoy, because if you love it, you’re more likely to stick with it.
We were all beginners once. This one can be the hardest obstacle to overcome. I know that when I started running, I felt out of place and outclassed. I could barely run five minutes on a treadmill, and my first 5K was a disaster. I had the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes and the wrong vocabulary, but over time it got easier. I found friends who encouraged me, I got better shoes, and, in the end, I was so glad I took that first step.
These are some of the things that have helped me, but I would love to hear your story. What concepts about fitness have you learned (or unlearned)? Reprogramming your brain is never easy, but it can be worth the effort.
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