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Bahram Akradi, founder, chairman, and CEO of Life Time — Healthy Way of Life

If there’s one thing I love to see, it’s people being pleasantly surprised at their own strength and endurance. Every year at the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, I get to watch dozens of first-timers crossing the finish line with huge smiles on their faces. To witness people of all ages, shapes and sizes accomplishing such an ambitious athletic goal is inspiring. And to hear their families and friends cheering them on in the home stretch is moving enough to bring tears to a grown man’s eyes.

I particularly look forward to these scenes because it is such a great testament to how energizing and fun physical activity can be, even (or maybe especially?) when it presents a challenge and a change of pace.

I don’t just see this at our triathlons, of course. I get to see it in our clubs every day — the flushed, happy faces coming out of group-fitness classes, the satisfied looks on the faces of people just getting the hang of free weights or interval training, the intensity and focus that emanates from the basketball or tennis courts when a serious game is underway, the glee of little kids splashing around in the water on a hot summer afternoon when they could just as easily be inside playing video games.

It’s easy to forget, looking at scenes like these, that exercise is not something that everyone considers fun.

The fact is, exercise is something that a lot of people dread. And frankly, I can understand why.

First, the cult of perfection around fitness has made a lot of people feel like if they don’t already look like an athlete, they have no business breaking a sweat. For people who are heavy or out of shape, going through the motions required to become more fit may feel incredibly awkward and be anxiety producing. Even a locker room can feel like a gauntlet of self-doubt and embarrassment.

Then there’s the fact that most of the time we see people exercising on TV or in the movies, they are highly trained, superfit people who make whatever they are doing look easy — even if it’s not. So when we first try something similar (say, running or weightlifting or power yoga) and we find it a little (or a lot) harder than that superfit person made it look, we may feel overwhelmed and disinclined to ever try anything like that again.

And finally, there’s the whole problem of progress: In order to get stronger, you have to challenge yourself in some way, but challenge inevitably creates moments of doubt and discomfort. These are moments that most of us aren’t properly prepared for or coached through. So when we first feel them coming on, we may be filled with dread that those feelings — the burn, the breathlessness, the fear of “what if I can’t?!” — will simply never go away unless we stop right now, which we are then naturally inclined to do.

The reality of exercise is that its biggest fun potential often stays just out of reach until we’ve gotten invested enough to begin overcoming the stereotypes, fears and limitations that have previously kept us at bay. Initially, new types or levels of physical activity may feel hard or awkward or just plain weird. But after a few weeks, or even a few days, the layers of that “not for you” disguise start sloughing off and the excitement of being in an increasingly strong, capable body starts shining through.

This is where the magic happens, when challenging yourself ceases to feel like a burden and starts to feel like a grand adventure: What will I be able to do today? How much has my skill or strength grown since the last time I tried this? What do I want to try next?

If this isn’t a brand of fun you’ve experienced yet, I urge you to give it a try — no matter how much you weigh, no matter how long it’s been since you last exercised, no matter how little you think you know or care about fitness, no matter how busy you are with things you think are more important. There’s an article in this issue that suggests some excellent strategies for designing an activity program you can truly enjoy. But whatever you end up doing, remember this: Even if you’re not a huge fan of exercise, even if you don’t fit the athletic mold, activity can still be a rewarding experience. And if you don’t believe it, come join me at the finish line of the Life Time Fitness Triathlon in Minneapolis on July 11, 2009, and see for yourself.

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