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Fitness passion

They say that love can move mountains. Well, if you discover an activity that you love, it can convince you to move more, too — even if you’ve never enjoyed exercise in the past.

When it comes to careers, relationships and hobbies, most of us understand that if we’re going to stick with something and get good at it, we need to have some passion for it. Yet few people apply this concept to their fitness pursuits: Instead, they slog through routines that bore or frustrate them when they could be enjoying fun, active pastimes that engage their bodies and minds, and stoke their spirits.

“I think most people define exercise far too narrowly,” says fitness instructor Tim Haft, MA, CPT, whose specialty is helping people find their fitness passions. “People assume that enjoyment is irrelevant, and that exercise is like medicine — you just have to grin and bear it,” the former New York University career counselor explains. As a result, he notes, people rule out fun activities that in fact are probably ideal exercise for them.

For the Fun of It

“Maybe in the past you loved gardening, playing outdoors or riding your bike,” says Michelle Cleere, PhD, an exercise and sports psychologist who helps clients overcome anxiety, burnout and other obstacles to reach their fitness goals. All those hobbies, she says, count as exercise if you do them deliberately and at an intensity that gets your heart rate up and your muscles working. “It’s easy to overlook fun activities because you don’t consider them fitness related,” she adds.

“Say you go out for a run, and you find it painful and boring,” says Charlotte Hilton Andersen, author of The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything. “You’ll assume you hate exercise because you hate running.”

This, she asserts, is the mistake many people make when it comes to fitness: People assume they dislike all exercise because they haven’t found that one thing that really inspires them. And that’s a shame, says Andersen, because “life is too short to hate what you’re doing.”

Of course, if finding the perfect exercise match was easy, everybody would  have done it by now. Typically, it requires both self-reflection and experimentation.

After her second son was born, Andersen began a quest to discover her own active inclinations. After scouring research studies, fitness magazines and blogs, she embarked on her Great Fitness Experiment, trying (and blogging about) a different activity every month.

Since Andersen began five years ago, she estimates she’s tried 60 different exercise routines, including karate, CrossFit, the Tabata Protocol (a high-intensity, interval training program) and circus training.

Eventually, Andersen’s blogs evolved into two books. She now uses her experience as a fitness guinea pig to help others find fitness activities they can love.

Not everyone has to go to the lengths Andersen did to discover his or her own fitness passions. “In many cases,” she says, “you just need to take a close look at who you are and what inspires you.”

For those interested in a more in-depth approach, Haft recommends an evaluation process not unlike the ones career counselors use to help people get clear about their best job options. These experts use assessments, personality tests and questionnaires to help clients predict what jobs they’ll be most successful in, says Haft. “Why not do the same when it comes to fitness?

With Haft’s suggestion in mind, we enlisted the help of sports psychologists, physiologists, personal trainers, life coaches and other experts to develop the five guiding questions that follow, as well as this downloadable flowchart. Work through each area of inquiry at your own pace, and you’ll come away with a better understanding of where your own true fitness passions might lie.

1. What were you passionate about as a child?

Were there sports you enjoyed playing when you were little? Did you dance? Climb on monkey bars? Swim? Jump rope? Perform gymnastics? Try to recall what active pastimes gave you the most satisfaction.

You may not be able to replicate the exact activities you did as a child (say, Little League), but you can probably find something similar that brings you pleasure now (slow-pitch softball, tennis, golf, visiting the batting cages).

“When I work with clients who have previously attempted and failed at maintaining an exercise regimen, I first ask them to close their eyes and reflect on how they’ve moved their body in the past and whether they ever found physical activity pleasurable.”

“When I work with clients who have previously attempted and failed at maintaining an exercise regimen, I first ask them to close their eyes and reflect on how they’ve moved their body in the past and whether they ever found physical activity pleasurable,” says Haft, who is also the founder of Punk Rope, a fitness program that centers around jumping rope.

For many, the joy of physical movement is first discovered at a young age, says Solomon Gold (a.k.a. Dr. G), athletic alchemist for the Bartendaz, a New York–based physical-fitness and self-empowerment team that utilizes urban playgrounds and natural movement to build strength and character, especially among underserved youth. “Movement is humanity’s birthright,” he says. “We understand this intuitive desire more when we observe young children who instinctively use movement to explore their environment as well as themselves. I think people need to rediscover the essence and joy of moving, as opposed to merely ‘exercising.’”

2. What obstacles to fitness have you encountered in the past?

Looking back on your life, consider what stood in the way of you enjoying exercise — from childhood asthma to teenage body-image insecurities. Consider, too, what messages and values you learned about exercise when you were younger.

“Maybe you grew up in a family that didn’t really value being active, or that emphasized sports and activities that weren’t your natural strengths,” offers Cleere. “It can be helpful to be aware of these things and to get some guidance from a coach or personal trainer in working through them.”

It’s important to develop an awareness of early exercise barriers, she adds, “so that you can avoid running into them again.” In other words, if you had a bad experience on the soccer field or doing pushups in grade school, don’t focus your energy there, at least initially. You can find other things to enjoy — without the emotional baggage.

3. Where are you most happy?

Think about places you like to be. “Are you more comfortable outdoors or happier at home in front of the TV?” asks Leslie Seppinni, a doctor of clinical psychology and regular contributor for Nancy Grace as well as many other media outlets.

Nature lovers might find their fitness passion on local hiking or biking trails, or working out in a park with friends. If you are happier alone watching TV or listening to music, you might be happier at a gym on a cardio machine that faces a bank of plasma screens.

If you like to exercise indoors, you also might consider what parts of the room make you most comfortable. Do you like being able to gaze out a window? Or are you more at ease exercising out-of-sight in a corner of the gym?

“It’s counterintuitive, but I’ve found that beginners taking classes should go to the front near the instructor so they can’t compare themselves to the others working out around them. They can then focus on themselves and their instructor,” Seppinni says.

If you’re not aware of the places and times you’re most happy, keep a journal for a week or two and make notes of how you feel in certain situations throughout each day, Seppinni suggests. You’ll start to see a pattern and can model your fitness routine around that.

4. What’s your personality type?

Even if you’ve never taken a personality test like the Myers-Briggs, you probably have a sense of whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, or whether you’re goal- and numbers-driven or more free-spirited. Understanding the basics of how you’re wired will help you find your fitness passion and allow you to succeed, experts say.

“Research suggests that people who engage in personality-appropriate activities will stick with those activities longer, enjoy their workouts more and ultimately have a greater overall fitness experience,” says Susan Davis-Ali, PhD, a researcher who has developed a fitness-interest profile test.

Certain personality types are naturally drawn to certain activities. “Introverts tend to like activities that involve high concentration, precision, low arousal and a focus on individual performance,” says Cleere. Examples of activities suited to introverts include swimming, cycling, walking, archery, weight training and tennis.

“Extroverts, on the other hand, prefer high-arousal levels, team sports, fast-paced activities,” she says. Examples of activities suited to extroverts include soccer, rugby, volleyball, basketball, group fitness classes and circuit training.

“If you’re a rugged individualist, you might prefer changing your routine regularly, taking new classes, trying new workout gear,” says Debbie Mandel, MA, author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. “If you’re process-oriented or going through a hard time like job loss or divorce, then one of the martial arts is a great way to get through to the other side at your own pace and ability.” (For more on personality types, see “Your Fitness Personality”.)

But beware of typecasting yourself too tightly, says Andersen. She’s noticed through her blog interactions with readers that people can be drawn to activities that are counter to their personality because it offers them an escape or outlet for less frequently expressed characteristics.

Andersen, for example, who describes herself as mild mannered, says she was surprised to discover that she really enjoys karate and kickboxing. “It lets out my hidden aggression,” she says.

Mandel adds, “If you are someone who tends to feel shy or a little lost in the crowd, weightlifting can be perfect. It empowers you and lifts your spirits, and the results are noticeable.” Seeing and feeling your own developing strength, she notes, helps breed new confidence.

5. What are your fitness goals?

Give some thought to your reasons for exercising. Are you interested in building strength, or dropping weight? Do you have a specific goal, like running your first 5K, benching a certain weight, or doing a pull-up? Are you just looking for enjoyable activities that get you moving?

Knowing your goals, and gearing your activities toward them, helps ensure that your workouts are both satisfying and successful in their outcomes.

Knowing your goals, and gearing your activities toward them, helps ensure that your workouts are both satisfying and successful in their outcomes. Because if you’re trying to lose weight, but pursuing a low-intensity routine more geared to general health, your outcomes are unlikely to feel 100 percent rewarding. If you’re trying to manage stress, training for an ultramarathon may not be your best bet.

Not sure what you need to do to achieve your goals, or where to begin? Consider working with a qualified trainer who can help you design a program that syncs with your current fitness level and your interests. See “Feeling Groovy: A Fitness Primer” for more.

Finding the “It” Factor

So how do you know when you’ve found the right fitness-building activity?

For some people, it’s a lot like falling in love: Suddenly, they just know. For others, the discovery is subtler, just a sense of “maybe.” For this reason, Seppinni advises to “give a new activity three tries before you rule it out.”

This is especially true for group fitness classes, notes Andersen. “You won’t know if you love it on the first visit, because you’ll probably be nervous and learning the new routine.” After three tries, you’ll have a sense of whether you’re excited to go back.

If a passion starts to fade, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and search for something new, says Andersen. Your fitness tastes may change as you enter new life stages such as parenthood, moving to a new climate, or retirement. “My No. 1 measure of success with any new fitness routine is how much fun I’m having now,” she says. “I don’t look at numbers like weight, heart rate or calories anymore. It’s about how good I feel.”

Illustration by: Rick Peterson

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