Why it's hard to make fitness goals (and how to make it easier)

And why it's so hard to talk about it with your friends.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about “goals” this week, inspired in part by the fact that I’m in the home stretch of studying for my personal training certification (which will allow me to say some things officially that I’ve been saying unofficially for a long time), but also in part by this excellent Maggie Lange piece in The Cut about how uncomfortable it is to talk about exercise1, from her wonderful and thoughtful column Hot Bod. Why don’t we really talk about it? Why is it essentially a secret, who of your friends works out and who doesn’t? Why is it so hard to talk about? Why does exercise discussion feel INSTANTLY competitive? 

This is a question I’ve had for a long time. Why are we able to talk about other hobbies—books we read, dinners we cooked, video games we played—without it feeling like either a brag about ourselves or an indictment of whoever is listening?

This might not come out as profound as it has felt in my head all week. (And long-winded/tedious if you, unlike me, have a rich and deeply developed sense of self.) But a few days ago someone DMed me, “What should my balance be between cardio and strength training?”2 This is like asking “What should my balance be between becoming an astronaut and pursuing the dramatic arts?" 

I've written a lot about the importance of goals when it comes to working out. The short of it is you simply can’t go anywhere if you don't know where you want to go. Play him out, Cheshire cat: 

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

But. Part of what makes goals so hard is that to pick a goal, we need to know what goal we’d find meaningful. To know what’s meaningful, we have to know what’s important to us, which means we have to know who we are. All my surface goal discussion, I have realized, shortchanges the underlying ocean of “what it is you want in life."

I spent most of my life with a very lost sense of self, due to reasons we won’t get into here. But I didn’t have the first clue of how to think about “what I wanted”; I stand before you a graduate of engineering school who has never had an engineering job, writing a newsletter ostensibly about strength training. 

I don’t think a lot of us know ourselves, especially when it comes to our physical selves and how we relate to them. So we take on these received goals of “being hot and small” that are marketed to us, find it impossible to connect with them because they are ultimately empty, and often end up rejecting working out as a whole because the only way we know it is wrapped up in something most of us don’t actually, truly value intrinsically. 

I also came across this quote because I started Made For Love this week (whose author has an excellent Grub Street diary) and this epigraph from The Unbearable Lightness of Being is on the first page:

"The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us."

It was a “popular highlight” on my Kindle, meaning literally zillions of people have highlighted it, so  I highlighted it too because I read it and thought “Damn, it’s true.”

And then thought “but wait—is it?” 

It IS crazy that we mostly want things of which we have no firsthand knowledge. But look at marriage, for instance. There’s an absolutely insane industrial complex around weddings, to say nothing of the nuclear family unit. There’s a lot of pressure to get married, a lot of idealization because of that pressure, and historically, at least, a lot of secreting away of the things about marriage that are perhaps not so great, so as not to undermine the idealization process. 

But if marriage was ever the egg that birthed the chicken of the family unit and wedding industrial complex, it is, well, I guess once again the egg, but now the egg of that industrialized chicken. We want it because we think we know what it is and are trying to make a reasonable informed guess that it’s a good use of our time, which is not quite the same as the totally romantic notion of “knowing nothing about it.” 

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I think of this also in terms of the Marie Kondo method. The operative principle in Kondo’ing your belongings is holding each thing in your hands and asking, essentially, does this have value to me? The extension of that question is “What purpose of mine does it serve?” and the extension of THAT question is “What is/are my purpose(s)?" and “Are they the same purposes as I once had when I got this thing, or have I changed?” 

And that IS a kind of big question that everything comes down to—not only who we are, but maybe even who we have had to give up being, or who we thought we might be but realized it’s just not gonna happen. That’s the reason it’s much easier to read about Kondo’ing and imagine how satisfying it would be instead of actually doing it. If you don’t know your purpose, you can’t get rid of anything. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t have a goal. If you can’t fold a fitted sheet, you cannot work at Sheets and Things.3

Maggie’s piece on talking about exercise ends with the suggestion of talking about “joyful movement for its own sake,” or essentially, decoupling it from its competitive and/or metric elements (how many miles did you run, how much weight did you lift, how many hours did you work out, how much weight did you lose(!!)). There is a way forward in here; if you can’t already tell, I think the way we think about exercise for ourselves and the way we talk about it to other people are extremely linked (and at the root of it all is, of course, shame and embarrassment about our bodies). 

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Once I started trying to deliberately figure out who I am, I found it surprisingly straightforward, but embarrassing. It involved first admitting I didn’t know. Embarrassing. Then it involved trying some different things that revealed to others that I didn’t really know and was trying to figure it out (and also, it must be said, things that people presume are admissions of wanting to be hotter; nothing more embarrassing in this world). Really embarrassing. But I think this is a huge reason why starting to work out is so embarrassing: I didn’t identify with its goals yet, because I didn’t yet know who I was and couldn’t reasonably identify with any goal. I needed room to find out.

But if I never said “ok, so it’s fucking embarrassing” and found out that it was an activity where I could enjoy the joyful movement part, and not latch onto the attractiveness part or achievement part of it, I’d still be lost. I don’t know that I would have found out joyful movement was possible, I would have gone on my whole life hating and being mad at the people who claimed to enjoy “the endorphins” and so on, and who I was convinced harbored the need to be hot, and were pretending they didn’t, simply to make everyone mad. I would have gone on hating exactly the person I am now. Wait—what? Self…. hatred? Couldn’t possibly be me. 😊       

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To talk about joyful movement, I think at least slightly more people need to find out joyful movement is real and possible. Maybe then it can all feel a little less lonely.

One of the best things that trying lifting taught me is that it’s not who I am. Well, ironically, now, it sort of is. But who I am is a dog who needs my regular “roll in the dirt” time.

So when it comes time to pick a new program, I think about my goals. What is best in life, to me? Enjoying moving around. What does that look like? It can vary. Sometimes it’s going for a big PR. Right now it looks like investing in some movement variety after many months of keeping it very basic. That means less achievement—I’m not going to PR anytime soon—but also less time spent on warming up and honing technique, and more flitting from two sets of kickstand Romanian deadlifts to two sets of hamstring curls in my homegrown setup, feeling a new combination of tired and lightly sore muscles, feeling my body learn and re-learn to move in these ways. At this time I do wish I had a big honking leg press or hack squat machine. But part of the fun is putting that little-used engineering degree to work.

Eat

Could robots from Boston Dynamics beat me in a fight? No, and for the same reason self driving cars don't work: Computers cannot deal with unpredictability. I’m sure they can beautifully block a roundhouse kick, but I think we have a long runway with the “going loco and just charging into them.” Nonetheless, another good reason for me to remain surprisingly strong.

Fitter people drink more alcohol. Hell yes we do. There are dark interpretations of this, but I like to think about it in this way: " A 2014 study from University of Houston researcher Leigh Leasure, for example, linked both exercise and drinking behavior to higher levels of sensation-seeking—a trait that, in turn, is influenced by how your brain’s reward circuitry processes dopamine.” In other words, athletes live más. I drink less than I used to, though.

This guy set a planking (no, not that kind) record by doing it for nine hours. Nine hours!! Despite my disdain for core work, I was still feeling thrills at the end of this video. I simply love a physical triumph!

Drink

Fitness influencer Shona Vertue caught heat from other accounts I respect (Deadlifts and Red Lips and Miriam Fried) for attributing gym harassment to, among other things, “IN THE REPTILIAN PART OF THEIR BRAIN MALES ARE HARD WIRED to do this.” The comments were a who’s who of people with bad opinions in influencing, all of them clapping and saying “so true, bestie.” And then she turned them off! Interesting! Earlier this week I recorded an NPR spot (stay tuned!!) where we talked about “gymtimidation," and while we covered a range of angles I want to stress two things:

  1. Begin from the assumption that it is unambiguously rude for the Self-Appointed Form Sheriffs or Equipment Wardens to bother someone in the gym for any reason other than risk of mortal harm. They should not.

  2. You have a more than reasonable expectation of the gym staff to handle these people. To the gym staff reading this: Be responsive in these situations.

Planet Fitness started an ad campaign parodying clueless fitness influencers with online at-home programming (presumably their current biggest enemy). Team no one here, but I will watch anyone strive, popcorn in hand.

I REALLY enjoyed this article on people feeling threatened and/or insecure about their partners’ Pelotons. The range of textures that it has: People feel inadequately fit by proxy; people think their partners prioritize their fitness over too many other things; people are jealous of the way their partners’ Peloton instructors make them laugh coquettishly at the Peloton screen. Nothing not solvable by communication and compromise, but entertaining nonetheless. One woman relayed that “the breaking point comes when her husband pads his workout time with stretching during the busiest part of their day.” Tag yourself; I'm the guy stretching during the busiest part of everyone else’s day. 

Sweetgreen’s CEO milkshake ducked with fat shaming and Nazi memes; RIP the salad. 

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Rest

I undoubtedly have cave syndrome, which was a big reason I went to every party I was invited to this week. I’m so tired. The cave syndrome is probably terminal, though.

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Do you ever look at jeans and assess the ass, and decide that the jeans will undoubtedly flatten yours? This reminded me of my best jean tip: get some men's jeans from a thrift store for like $5 that fit your largest part (butt, thighs, whatever it might be) and get them tailored. Tailoring feels painfully expensive but even if it’s $50 (it probably won’t even be $50) it's still less than most midrange jeans, and they will fit you PERFECTLY. As someone whose bone structure/body mass distribution means I’ve spent a lot of BT (before tailoring) time hoisting up the waist of my pants and/or wearing belts—the strongest of recommends.

I fucking loved Pareene's jaunt through an old issue of TV Guide, mostly because I read TV guide cover to cover as a small child in our living room. Me and my dad’s “thing” was watching Seinfeld, and later Frasier, and Jeopardy every night between 7 and 8 p.m. In 2001 I was still on a pretty strict Nickelodeon diet, and wasn’t really interested in the Gilmore Girlses and Dawsons Creeks (if you haven’t seen The Orange Years doc but were, like me, raised by Rugrats and All That and Doug and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, please watch it.) The Other Two is back finally and the first season was GOLD, the jokes are PEAK, so I can’t wait to dig back into it.

I love you, thank you for reading, let’s go—

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1

Proviso that it’s not uncomfortable in our community Discord, where we’re aligned on our goals (to enjoy life and be jacked and strong).

2

A larger reason I’m saying all of this is that I want everyone to know at the end of the day that I think you should do what makes you happy, and if that’s not lifting, that’s okay. I would be overjoyed if *more people gave lifting a chance,* because I think still not many do, for unfair reasons. While I might talk about lifting specifically a lot in here, and bring a lot of my thoughts back to lifting, you should do what fulfills you, even if that is not working out at all. 

3

This line from the Glee pilot has been stuck in my head since I first heard it. I don’t even like the whole show that much, but if you’ve never seen it, it’s a perfect episode of TV.