One of the core thoughts that I feel compelled to share came from listening to Alec Baldwin interview Jerry Seinfeld. Alec asked Jerry whether he ever wanted to do dramatic acting, and Jerry's response was a somewhat incredulous, "To what end?", meaning that, effectively, doing it doesn't satisfy anything that Jerry actually wanted to do with his life.
Upon hearing that, I started to think about all of the things that I have read about fitness and diet over the years, and I realized that I skipped past the most important question implied, but not necessarily spoken, in all of these texts: to what end?
Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to get in shape?
The answers seem obvious - I want to live longer, I want to look good naked, etc. - but the reality is that many of the obvious answers are inherently flawed.
"I want to live longer"
This is a nice, straightforward answer, but it fails at one of the most basic requirements that humans look for: instant gratification. Yes, everyone wants to live longer, but the benefit of exercise and your lifespan are totally obfuscated, for a couple of reasons.
- Many factors can affect your lifespan. Excellent physical fitness contributes to a long lifespan to be sure, but it does not guarantee anything. So you lose the connection between effort and result. If I live to be 95, will it be because I ran on a near-daily basis? I don't think there is a doctor in the world who would stake their reputation on that fact. Most likely, they'd say, "Probably." But there have been plenty of top-tier athletes who have died well before that age for who knows why.
- The beneficiary of this goal is different from the person actually performing the effort. What I mean is, me at 50 is a different person from me at 40, 30, and so on. So it's hard to imagine my 50-year-old self looking back and thanking my 39-year-old self for getting up and running on August 3, 2015. As a result, thinking about my 50-year-old self is less internally motivating to get my butt up in the morning.
So in the end, getting up and running 30 minutes or performing a 4-minute Tabata or whatever, is hard to get up for if your goal is simply to live longer because the benefit, while real, is hidden and therefore has a much harder time competing with instant gratification goals like sleeping in.
"I want to look good naked"
This is another nice, straightforward answer, and it seems as though it may be inherently closer to delivering immediate gratification than living longer. I work out for several weeks, and I can see some results. However, there are some key problems with this as well.
First, let's break down what this means, to me at least. Looking good naked means, effectively, that someone is looking at me. I really don't care all that much about what I look like in the mirror; I care that, when my wife looks at me when I come out of the shower, she says, "DAMN!" If she speaks in tongues, that would be the ultimate. And if I take this to the next step, it would mean that I would probably be getting lucky in the near future due to the fact that I look good naked.
But if that is your next logical step, you have run into a core failing of this goal which is that it is dependent on external factors. Even being super fit, getting lucky depends entirely on what your audience sees and whether it matches their expectations or desires. You have no control over that. Furthermore, let's say you're relatively shy. You would still have to overcome your fear to approach someone in order to get to the point where they'd see you naked, and what if their response to seeing you naked wasn't what you had hoped?
The second failing is that it's not really measureable. How do you know whether you look good naked? For men, is it having less than 10% body fat or being able to bench press 225 pounds? (I feel it's important to note here thatc women have a much rougher time of this because some factors that men look for are entirely out of their control) You could pick any number of factors that would define it, but ultimately it all depends on who's looking at you and what they want.
Letting Ourselves Down
The final problem with most goals is that, even when we want to solve the problem with all of our might, we can still let ourselves down, and we can do it with pretty excellent regularity. So if we don't exercise and die young, we've let ourselves down (and our family and friends to a lesser degree), but we're dead, so what are you gonna do? If we don't exercise and continue to look as we do in the mirror, we'll be disappointed with ourselves, but it's just us, so what are you gonna do?
So What Then?
I have gone on for a while, so I'll just conclude here by saying this: find a goal for exercising and eating right that comes from inside you rather than from the outside world. Your doctor saying you need to exercise in order to live longer or that you want to look good naked is inherently a goal that you can fail because it's external to you.
For me, I have three key goals that drive me:
- Playing with my kids. This sounds noble, but it is probably the least motivating for me. My kids have two speeds: stop and full. I want to be able to run with them at their full speed and pick them up as long as I can, so that means aerobic activity and strength training.
- Why is it less motivating? If I am unable to run with my kids or pick them up, does that really hinder our relationship? How would you measure that? In that way, I have a general sense of what it would mean and that keeps me going, but it would be easy to fail and not lose too much sleep.
- Finishing marathons. In my view, this is one of the behaviors that I feel makes me unique. I have some friends who run marathons, but I was usually the fastest (although not this year, dang it. Now I have to up my game. :)) . But even though I'm no longer the fastest marathon runner I know, I still take a lot of pride in my ability to finish them on a regular basis. If I skip a workout, I know that I'm running the risk of losing this part of my identity.
- Having women say, "DAMN, you're how old?!" This is absolutely the most vain goal I could possibly have, but I'm owning it. You know why? Because it keeps me going. And I should not lose any sleep over whether someone approves of my goal to stay in good physical shape because being in good physical shape is an inherently good by itself. I have said that this kind of goalis inherently flawed, but I think it's important to note that I'm not thinking about women in the abstract. I'm thinking about women I knew from high school and college who will compare me to other men with whom we went to school. For whatever reason, I feel a ton of motivation when I think on this idea, and so that keeps me going.
I will ask here that you do not try to apply any of these goals to yourself. I came to realize these goals through circumstances (#1 and #2) and my own crappy dating experience (#3). Your own goals have to follow whatever path you have developed to get you through your day-to-day. It's not to say that these goals will not work for you; rather, it's just that they have to originate from within you in order to be real. And you really have to test whether they will stick and whether they'll get you up in the morning when you'd rather be sleeping.
If you have stuck with me for this long, congratulations and thank you. This post was a long time in the making.
I'll continue to explore some of these areas over the course of the next months and years, and I hope you'll come back.
Please feel free to leave comments below or contact me directly if you have any additional thoughts.