Why Fun Became Exercise And Exercise Stopped Being Fun

When we were kids, “exercise” existed purely in the form of “fun”. Then we became older kids and for many of us, that “fun” took on the shape of “sports” and “winning”. But, as we get older we start replacing fun (henceforth, sports and exercise) with our studies, career, and family. In other words, we do exactly the opposite of what sports teach us: we quit.

What are our reasons for quitting exercise?

  • Other things are more worth the time.
  • Competition, losing, etc. took all of the fun out of it.

Essentially, we quit because “exercise” is no longer fun enough to prioritize. It’s usually only after we put on weight and realize how out of shape we are that we think, “I’d better start exercising again!”

What’s interesting is once people make the decision to resume exercise, they don’t typically go back to the games and thrills of their childhood, but start doing things they feel they’re “supposed” to do such as running on a treadmill, lifting weights, and swimming. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things to do, but have you ever wondered why we pick up something that we’ve never done before?

In my opinion, advertising is in part to blame. It’s by advertising that we’re constantly “advised” what to do. Health clubs are a multi-billion dollar industry, making it appear that people are actively filling up gyms and generally being healthy. The interesting thing is that the majority of members stop using their health club memberships within several months! Makes sense, right? We’ve all seen the post-New Year’s resolution rush, only to see the crowds thin out as the weeks and months go on. People sign onto these memberships with the hopes of improving their shape and health, but quickly drop off when going to the gym feels like a chore, utterly lacking in fun.

Also, we do our “exercise” for the minimum amount of time possible. If something were fun, we’d do for as long as possible, right? But not only is “exercise” as it’s commonly perceived not fun but as we’ve all seen and probably experienced, it’s also not sustainable. Over time, and as long as exercise isn’t fun, we will quit.

The most horrible thing I’ve seen people do with exercise is when exercise is used as a punishment for eating. A common example is, “I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of pumpkin pie at lunch. Now I’ll have to tack on another 30 minutes of cardio to make up for it.” No wonder people hate exercise.

So, what’s the solution?

We have to play! We have to have fun again. That’s the only way we can keep doing something for the rest of our lives. Here are some ideas to help you get and keep going.

  1. Be happy that you even get to exercise. There are many people who cannot run on a treadmill because of physical limitations. So start with revising your mind—have gratitude. A great race idea is the Wings for Life World Run. People all over the world run, walk, stagger, roll as fast as they can to try and outrun a Catcher car. If the car—after giving you a head start—catches up with you, you’re out of the race. It’s put on to support spinal cord injury research; it’s a race to support those that cannot race.
  2. Don’t “exercise” – train! Take running as an example. I love running, but the idea of running for 30-60 minutes a day just to lose weight or to be healthy is brutal. Total torture. On the other hand, the idea that I get to train for a marathon (or any other distance) keeps me focused and makes me want to train so that I can try to improve my times. I know that I’m probably never going to win any race I enter, but I still get to try and improve myself and hopefully set a new PR / PB (personal record/personal best).
  3. Be social, join the right tribe. Bike riding groups, running clubs, boot camp, cardio tennis, regular tennis, pickle ball, and yes even Cross Fit. These are all examples where it’s fun to exercise because you’re doing it with others. When I was younger I hated to ski with people who were slower or worse than me. Now, I’d pay them to ski with me. It’s not fun to have a great run and not have anyone to share it with. Social connectivity is not only good for your health, but it actually reduces the effort of exercise. It also adds a level of accountability that helps you keep on the program. Team sports are even better at this. You not only play together, but you have to practice together, too. You often eat together, travel together, and become close friends. I know the NFL is controversial now, but a great speech about teammates (not just teamwork) by Bill Curry, a former NFL player, entitled “The Huddle” puts it well:

    “It is in this process that the miracle occurs. Men who have been raised to hate each other’s guts become brothers. I’ve seen racists reformed. I’ve seen the most unlikely hugs after victories or losses. I’ve seen inner-city kids invite country boys to the mountains to go home with them for Thanksgiving Dinner, and I’ve seen those invitations accepted and reciprocated, thus affecting parents’ lives. Our players become brothers for life. It is what America is supposed to be, could be and might be in our best dreams.”

And it’s true. When it comes to the people I run with, I’ve never met another group of people who are so supportive and happy for each other’s accomplishments. It’s not always about yourself, but about the rest of your team, the rest of your tribe.

  1. Recreation, or is it re-creation? Oftentimes, we focus on “exercise” as a way to lose weight, get slimmer. What we are really doing is remaking ourselves on a molecular level. What you eat, do, and even think changes which genes get expressed and made into protein. So, when you lift weights, you’re telling your muscle cells to transcribe more RNA for proteins that make up muscle, thus building muscle. Recreational exercising/playing/having fun is, in fact, rebuilding yourself into something stronger and better!
  2. Start with a little, it’s better than nothing. Recent studies show that running slowly for 10 consecutive minutes makes a difference in your cardiovascular health. Walking for 15 consecutive minutes reduces your death rate. Being a weekend warrior, hiking or doing general exercise on the weekend, has now been shown to be better than doing nothing at all. So it’s okay to start small and watch things change. I once asked a patient of mine to just start walking, just to see how he felt. He started to do so and, little by little, he started walking longer. He liked it so much that he kept increasing his distance. Last year, he walked over 1,000 miles! He broke 1,000 miles again this year and feels great. All from just walking.
  3. Focus on how you’ll feel after you train. Everyone would rather stay in bed. The first mile is always the worst, the first set is always the toughest. But it feels so good after you’ve done it. It’s a great, unparalleled feeling to have done something hard—run fast, run long, lift heavy, hit the bag hard. In fact, exercise is the most effective, but least used therapy for enhancing mood, gaining more energy, treating depression, and getting better sleep. Have you ever wondered how people manage to enjoy exercising so often? It’s actually that post-workout feeling that gets them “addicted” to exercise!

So get out there, do something you like to do, do it with some friends or family, and keep doing it. You’ll be thankful that you did.

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Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC
Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

1 Comment
  1. I usually feel pretty terrible after exercising.
    I’m never picked for teams, and hold other people up.
    Trying to be grateful I’m not one of ‘those people’ who can’t walk makes me feel guilty and very depressed.
    If exercising was bad…’training’ sounds 10x worse.

    In short—it’s a meaningless actvity to all but professionals and Olympic-level athletes. It serves no practical purpose in most people’s day-to-day lives.
    Think I’m wrong? Right. And watch the next exercising campaign fail.

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