Do you have a fitness identity? Perhaps you’re a runner. A powerlifter. A tennis player. A pickleballer. A cyclist.
Maybe you’re a recovering high school athlete, finding your stride in a new phase of life. Perhaps you’re a gardener, a swimmer, a dancer.
To me, all of these identities — and the fitness modalities they represent — are beautiful.
My list only begins to scratch the surface of possible personalities we assume when we move our bodies. But what all such identities have in common is that they are nouns: They can fill in the blank at the end of “I am a ______.”
“I am” is a powerful statement. Framing an action this way can help someone stand in their truth. In fitness, being a thing can help develop a sense of seriousness, of belonging, of consistency, of community.
I dabbled in different “I am” statements over the years until I found one that really resonated. In high school, I tried “I am a dancer.” Later, it was “I am a yoga practitioner,” “I am an indoor cyclist,” and “I am a runner.”
None of these identities quite fit — not because there was anything wrong with the activities, but because I could never get over the hump of what I thought being a dancer, yoga devotee, cyclist, or runner meant. Each of these activities had a stereotypical look and level of performance.
By buying into the stereotypes instead of discovering each movement for what it was, I put up barriers. If I didn’t look a certain way or perform at the highest level, I couldn’t let myself claim “I am” any of these things.
The first time I truly identified with a particular physical activity was in my late 20s, when suddenly the answer to every question — “What do you do for exercise?” “Who are your friends?” “Where do you like to hang out?” — could be summed up with the phrase “I am a CrossFitter.”
I stopped looking for an activity that would define me.
Instead, I began exploring all sorts of different activities just because.
Everything in my world and worldview began to revolve around District CrossFit, my “box” in Washington, D.C. I relished it. For the first time in my life, I felt like an athlete.
I fell in love with lifting weights. I developed a consistent workout routine. I grew stronger and fitter. I became happier and more connected socially.
I hope that if you’re rolling your eyes and getting ready to knock CrossFit, you can take a deep breath and mentally swap it with another activity. The point here isn’t that CrossFit is great. The point is simply that for the first time ever, I could say “I am a . . . ” with regard to fitness.
As you may have guessed, the “I am a CrossFitter” phase came to an end. I moved halfway across the country and found a new, non-box gym in Minneapolis. I began testing out a revised version of my statement: “I am a lifter.”
Just as it started to stick, however, I slipped on ice and hurt myself badly enough that I couldn’t lift anything.
It felt as though the rug — er, lifting platform — had been pulled out from under me. Who am I if I can’t lift weights? I wondered. This inevitably led to a more existential question: Who am I?
On a human level, I realized I didn’t really know myself. And that changed the tone of how I would work out from then on.
I stopped fixating on a specific goal. I stopped looking for an activity that would define me. Instead, I began exploring all sorts of different activities just because. I was unfettered by the worry that one sport would interfere with another.
I tried stand-up paddleboarding and flying trapeze, kettlebell training and long-distance hiking. I stopped nominalizing my activities and focused on enjoying and benefiting from the actions themselves.
Instead of I am a runner, I would think I am running now. Instead of I am a lifter, I tried I am lifting this weight now. As my longtime coach, Mark Schneider, described it, I began “verbing” my life.
Today, I live an active life. Movement certainly is part of my identity. But what I do for exercise no longer defines me.
This article originally appeared as “Identity Crisis” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.