Not enjoying physical activity?
My sister, Josee, recently started running and over the summer during a particularly hilly trail run asked, does this ever get better? Meaning, will I ever like this? I laughed at the time but thinking on it now, I realized that not everyone finds joy in physical activity like I and other people who really like to hustle whether it’s in the gym, pool, trails, blocks, courts, or elsewhere. I can also recall repeated defensive conversations in the past where I’d been asked what was my goal in going to the gym so much? It never occurred to me that I needed a goal, wasn’t it enough that I just liked doing it? It occurred to me that exercise and physical activity are still largely portrayed as something individuals should do, a chore and punishment for sedentary and culinary sins. Portrayed like this, no wonder so few people are active and find little joy in their movement. Rather than focusing on weight loss, form, function, and frequency, we could perhaps benefit from seeing physical activity as a psychological tool for greater happiness.
Physical activity and success
Older research by Kimiecik and Newburg (2009) suggested that individuals who engaged in physical activity experienced pleasure that stemmed from the discovery of something about the self, the body, and one’s abilities. Indeed, listening to my sister recount her first half marathon this year echoed this statement. She never considered it possible that she could do such a distance and her confidence grew within the post-race hours already planning to beat her time and excel in a future race. Indeed, Kimiecik and Newburg added that physical activity was a channel towards success and the mastery of challenge. The discipline, planning, and self-regulation involved in physical challenges led individuals to carry these skills in other areas of their lives too.
Flow and the activation of the senses
Engaging in frequent activity allows for the activation of the senses (I love running outdoors for this reason, the smell of rain, wet dirt and leaves, bumping into bees, and the smell of flowers are sensations you just don’t get in a car), as well as the experience of pain and physical striving, and modifications to one’s body shape, size, and strength. In this sense, the body can be a site of interest for what it can do, feel, and how it can be transformed through one’s efforts. Yet, people rarely use their bodies and consequently miss opportunities for the experience of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), the feeling where time stands still or is altered, where one is so focused, working hard towards an immediate challenge, blocking out all distractions, and simply doing with little thought involved other than that which is at hand, a rare treat when thinking can cause so much angst. The positive psychology concept of flow is one of the few states of mind where the world falls away and we fully participate and engage with our immediate environment rather than just inhabiting it and being a spectator in life.
The benefits of physical activity to the individual
For individuals heavily involved in physical activity, sports, and other forms of movement, training also represents a moral career, a lifestyle laden with richness, value and meaning (Crossley, 2006), as well as a form of self-investment (Smith Maguire, 2008) where a good, healthy, long, and functional life is possible. For me, physical activity not only structures my day and gives me a sense of achievement (a line off the to-do list, as well as the accomplishment of lifting extra weight, skipping one extra minute, doing one more push-up), but gives me time to be with myself and selfishly focus on my thoughts, needs and wants. It is my chance to be alone with the world without distraction or requests for my time, intrusions on my thoughts, or other things that take me away from myself. Physical activity gives me something to do each and every day; it fills temporary voids and comforts me with the familiar. Wherever I go in the world, I feel at home in a gym and no matter how awful my outside life is going, that is where I can always achieve positive emotions and meet new people outside of the usual realm of work which gives us something entirely different about which to talk.
Perhaps it’s time to start “selling” physical activity as something that makes us happier and beyond a state of health and fitness, can provide us with the well-known routes to well-being, such as positive emotions, engagement, achievement, relationships, and meaning.
Crossley, N. (2006). In the gym: Motives, meaning and moral careers. Body & Society, 12(3), 23-50. doi:10.1177/1357034X06067154
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Kimiecik, J., & Newburg, D. (2009). Runner as hero: The inner quest of becoming a runner or athlete or just about anything…at any age. Lanham, MA: University Press of America.
Smith Maguire, J. (2008). Leisure and the obligation of self-work: An examination of the fitness field. Leisure Studies, 27(1), 59-75. doi:10.1080/02614360701605729
What physical activity interests you that you might like to take up? What do you get out of physical activity? Does it increase your well-being or did it take a while before this happened? How did you have to see physical activity differently to be able to partake in it regularly?