Our fitness editor talks about finding deeper meaning — and personal connection — in workouts.
It’s hard to work out simply for the sake of it. No matter how much you enjoy your fitness regimen (and I sincerely hope you at least sometimes find pleasure in exercise), it’s easy to put off a gym session until tomorrow, until next week, until January 1.
You might go to bed telling yourself you should wake up early to go for a run. But how many times do you hit snooze and linger in bed for an extra hour? I’ve lost count of the number of times that knowing I should simply wasn’t enough.
When it comes to goal-setting in fitness, identifying your why is a common first step. And for good reason: If you can connect your actions to something meaningful — be it improving your health to live long enough to meet your grandchildren, accomplishing a lifelong goal of completing an Ironman, or having the strength to carry all the groceries into the house in one trip — you improve your chances of showing up and doing the work to achieve these goals.
Saying I should get up to run has set me up for failure and disrupted my sleep. But identifying my why — for instance, my love of watching the sunrise on a cool morning or building up the stamina to run a race two months down the line — is plenty to get me moving. This links my workouts to something beyond just working out; it takes me out of some momentary discomfort by focusing on something I truly want or believe in.
In recent years, though, I’ve found yet another powerful source of motivation: naming my who.
The first time I worked out with someone else in mind was in 2010, when my cousin Louisa asked if I’d run a half-marathon with her to celebrate her 50th birthday. I wasn’t a runner and had never imagined running a 5K, let alone a 13.1-mile course. Yet I agreed without hesitation.
The reality of training hit me only later, but by then I was committed. I often tried to convince myself it was OK not to run — because it was hard, because it was hot, because it was cold, because I was tired, because I was self-conscious. But each time, I remembered that every step leading up to the race celebrated Louisa. It was easier to show up for her than to show up for the training, or even for the race. By showing up for her, I ultimately showed up for myself.
More recently, I was invited to name a new who: Kelly Richards. You might not know Kelly, and neither did I, but as soon as I heard her story I felt connected. The manager of Life Time’s Target Center club in Minneapolis, Kelly is a triathlete who loves dancing, Bitmojis, New Kids on the Block, the Seattle Seahawks, and her friends. And back in August, Kelly was involved in a horrifying bike accident that caused serious brain injuries. In a moment, she went from a fun-loving, big-hearted athlete to a woman in a coma fighting for her life.
Her colleagues rallied around her to design a benefit workout with a party atmosphere. Rally for Richards — a triathlon of sorts, comprising an Alpha workout, a cycling workout, and a yoga session — raised money for Kelly’s treatment and hoped-for recovery.
Additionally, it gave the people in her life a chance to come together to support her and each other.
That night, dozens of us worked out side by side, breaking a sweat and pushing our physical limits. But the workouts were more than just exercise.
“Remember who you’re here for,” drilled one of the coaches leading the Alpha crew as we slogged through an interval circuit of box jumps, kettlebell swings, burpees, jumping rope, and rowing. It was an effective workout, a challenging combo of strength and conditioning moves.
We all showed up to work out, and work out hard, but none of us was there for the workout itself. We were there for Kelly. For her family. For her friends. For each other. For ourselves.
Since then, as Kelly has made slow progress, I think of her — still a woman I don’t know personally — every time I feel my commitment to my workouts falter. I remember that if she could, she would. And I know that every step, every lift, every rep is a shot of positive energy. For her. For the people who love her. And ultimately, for me, too.
When it comes to working out, who are you here for?