Thinking of ‘working out’ as a privilege, not a chore

This is one of those posts that I wrote and rewrote a couple of times before I finally just said “fuck it” and decided to say exactly what it is I wanted to say.  I had initially started out thinking I’d write about all of the reasons I felt privileged to be able to “work out” – and by the way, I use the phrase “work out” as sort of shorthand, even though I don’t really like the phrase because it makes physical activity seem like a chore, like cleaning bathtub grout or scraping the litter box – but for the most part I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said before.

I mean, yes, I am extremely grateful to have a healthy, functioning body, and I am flabbergasted on, like, a daily basis over the fact that I have made it to the age of 34 without ever having been hospitalized or undergone surgery or been on medication for an extended period of time or even broken a bone.  (Not even a toe bone!  No bones at all!)  I also know that I am stupidly privileged.  Like, when I think about how easy my life is compared to the lives of so many other people, and for no other reason beyond I got lucky, my brain starts to hurt from the galactic unfairness of it all.

But I also feel like there’s another way in which I’m very privileged, and that is that I get to make the choice to take care of my body by basically having fun.

The more I learn about bodies and fitness and health, the more it becomes apparent to me that physical activity isn’t some optional thing that people can just decide to do if they want to have a firm ass or big biceps or whatever.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that our bodies have evolved over time so that regular physical activity is required for our bodies to be healthy and functional.  Absent regular physical activity – and I don’t just mean the recommended 30 minutes a day, but moving about pretty regularly – people have a higher risk of all kinds of health problems, regardless of what they weigh.

For most of human history, though, people got their quota of physical activity by doing really hard work that, quite frankly, sounds pretty awful.  Like, take laundry in the days before laundry machines existed.  It was a whole day of hard labor for housewives and domestics.  And that’s not even taking into consideration people who work in mines, who farm, who do construction, and so on and so forth. In fact, it’s hard for me to find a period of time when it didn’t seem like the majority of people in the world weren’t spending most of their time engaged in difficult physical work.

Even persistence hunting – where people basically run their dinners to exhaustion – seems like a pretty rough way to go through life. I have to say, I like that when I go for a run it’s a generally a pressure-free way for me to relax, and not something I have to do so my family doesn’t starve.

My life of relative leisure means I have the ability to choose how I get my body’s required physical activity, and the way I choose to do this is by engaging in activities that give me a lot of joy and pleasure.  I’ve said it repeatedly, that I would not do the things I do – running, cycling, lifting weights, etc. – if I did not enjoy them.  That I get to spend a bunch of my free time basically engaged in play – and that in doing so I am taking care of myself – strikes me as a pretty serious privilege when compared to the entirety of human history.

I think there’s a tendency among people in the U.S. to think of working out and physical activity as this mind-numbing bit of drudgery and that you just grit your teeth  and get through your recommended 30 minutes a day so you can cross it off your “Responsible Adult” checklist.  And then because it’s considered so horrible and because no one is actually forcing you to do this item on your “Responsible Adult” checklist, it’s easy for it to fall to the bottom of the list and maybe fall off altogether.

I can draw a pretty clear parallel between this and the way I used to hold my nose when eating green vegetables when I was a kid so I didn’t have to taste them, and then when I became responsible for my own food I decided not to eat them at all. But then what I realized as I got older was that the problem wasn’t with the vegetables themselves but rather the way they had been presented to me, often boiled and without much in the way of seasoning.  When I learned how to prepare vegetables in ways I found appealing – steamed or roasted, with olive oil and sometimes even with bacon – I found that I not only liked them, but that I actually wanted to eat them.

I feel that way about physical activity.  I don’t doubt that the idea of spending 30 minutes on the stairmaster or the treadmill is horrible for a lot of people, but the awesome thing is that those aren’t the only options available.  Just like I can eat my brussels sprouts caramelized with bacon and dried cranberries, people can get physical activity by playing in a recreational softball league or taking belly dance classes or trying out DVDs in their living room or climbing mountains or riding your bike around the neighborhood with your best friend or going for walks around the neighborhood to check out Christmas lights.  There are as many ways to be physical active as there are people in the world.  (And of course, if you don’t want to be physically active at all, you don’t have to. That’s your right. You don’t owe it to anyone.)

None of this is meant to say that I think the role of technology in modern society is beyond critique.  Rather what I’m trying to do is make the argument that those of us who find ourselves facing increasingly sedentary lifestyles don’t have to see this as a catastrophic trend, nor do we have to accept the belief that the only way to deal with it is through embracing drudgery and boredom. I’d much rather look at it as an opportunity to bring more fun and pleasure and playfulness into our lives by giving us the choice to do things we enjoy.

46 responses to “Thinking of ‘working out’ as a privilege, not a chore

    • Same here. Well, most of the time. Sometimes I want nothing more than to put on my pajamas and sit on the couch, but generally speaking, I love the times of the day where I get to enjoy just being with myself and my body.

  1. Unfortunately, for many people, and for many legitimate reasons, doing exercise may not take priority in a persons life. However, I do feel, if a person can’t exercise, they should definitely watch their nutrition. Sometimes people just don’t know how, or do not think its possible to have fun and exercise. Very sad.

  2. True dat. All of dat. I only started exercising (it has the same overtones as ‘working out’) a couple years ago, and while I’ve also made it safely to 34 (no broken bones too!) largely by dint of the fact that I was extremely slobular once I hit my teenage years, what really struck me early on was what a privilege it was to actually have the time and ability to exercise.

    When I started running it was on a little track next to a condo construction site, and 7 a.m. was when the builders would turn up for work, often sitting on the scaffolding and watching the people on the track before they got started.

    I always felt guilty – these guys are all poorly paid immigrant labour who live in pretty squalid conditions and spend up to 12 hours a day hauling stuff around and being exposed to toxic chemicals for a living, and there I was exerting myself just for the sake of it. But along with the guilt was gratitude, for being able to move simply for the joy of it.

    • I hear you. I have often had similar thoughts whenever I see people who do hard physical labor for their job, and I think about how fortunate I am that I can work in a safe, protected environment and then get my physical-activity needs met doing things I love and enjoy.

      The other day I had to take a work quiz for OSHA that was all about being able to recognize and understand the new labeling requirements for hazardous chemicals, and the entire time I was like, “I am so grateful that my job requirements do not include being exposed to chemicals that could melt my hand or turn my future kids into mutants.”

  3. Great article. Coming at exercise or working out from a place of respect and gratitude sure does help. Taking breaks can help too. I recently had an out patient surgery that required at least ten days off. When I started back in again, I was reminded how very much I enjoy the tighter feel and stronger function in my body, a result of my workouts! I think it is really important to write down these little moments, so that when we falter and step away from exercise, we have somewhere to check in and remind ourselves why/how we enjoy working out.

  4. Caitlin, great to hear others have problems rethinking and rethinking posts and hesitating to publish. I do that often when the actual subject of “fitness” comes up because people do get really defensive about their reasons for not doing it. One thought I have had lately about it is even beyond us as people with “health” as a choice. We are mammals right? We have a lot of pets in our house and all of them have “care sheets”. If you have a dog, they require exercise or you are not a good owner and are neglecting this animals needs.If you have a horse and never let the horse out of the stable to run, then you are neglectful. If you are a human, you require movement, a certain amount every day, and if you don’t do it, it’s neglect, and you are doing it to yourself. . People think of movement and exercise as a choice but honestly, I don’t think it is…it’s a basic requirement. Of course, I wouldn’t say this in my blog and annoy my readers but it’s truly how I think. Anyway, you are so right that we can choose fun things for exercise–It took me awhile to find what I like, I used to say I hated exercise but it was only a matter of finding what I really like….

    • I am not nearly as prolific as I could be because I write and rewrite my posts quite a bit, and also I wait to speak until I have something to say that I feel is worth reading. I don’t want to waste people’s time, you know?

      I hear you on viewing movement as something that is an essential part of our function as human beings. I think more research is bearing that out, that it’s just not an optional thing if you want to maintain a healthy body. What I do try to avoid is what I’ve heard termed “healthism,” where I attach some kind of moral superiority to the pursuit of health and wellness, and so I find that writing about these things as they apply to me while refusing to make categorical judgements about everyone else is maybe the most effective way I have of avoiding that way of thinking.

      • I’m the exact same way…and the fact you are like that is one of the reasons I love your writing…I find there is a lot of the “you should be just like me mentality….” in many fitness blogs and they tend to leave me flat..nobody is inspired by that…. thanks as always!

  5. Thank you for writing such an inspirational post. As I am in my late forties, I am grateful for continued good health and also no broken bones or really any health concerns in my life. Working out has been a thing of the past, but it is due time to get moving again. Thanks!

  6. I agree with the post. I especially like the list with the activities that you count as “working out”. I think often “exercising” or “working out” has such a negative connotation because people do not allow themselves to “ease into” physical activity. As far as I know one of the most common mistakes of beginners is to start running (as an example) at a pace that is to fast and then are discouraged. If they just trusted the fact that their body will adapt with time and take it more slowly, it might be a lot easier to stick to “exercising”. It is a trap I still fall into. When I manage to just let go of my expectation of the speed I “ought to be able to run” and focus on the scenery, the light and the joy of a healthy body it is much more fun – even if I happen to have a “slow day”.

    • Oh, for sure. I feel like a lot of people go right into running because it’s considered THE activity of the super-fit without understanding that running is deceptively simple and that it takes time to work your way up to it. It took me a few years of run-walking before I was strong enough to run an entire half-marathon without stopping. Running is a tough thing to do!

      And then I think there’s also a real glorification of the “work til you puke” mentality, which is great for some people but terrible for a lot of other people. I’d rather have a more inclusive way of looking at things, you know, so you don’t have to be hardcore and obsessed to get the benefits of an active lifestyle.

  7. I’ve spent the last couple of months watching amateur athletes competing. One of the things I’ve noticed is just how focused they become on the activity. It’s a place to be free and in the moment, like meditation. I did a post today just on facial expressions in a crossFit work out and you can see the intensity in their faces. They’re not worrying about kids or mortgages or whatever. A great release. Love the post.

    • Thanks! And also I’m checking out your blog right now, and it’s very cool. Your photos are beautiful.

      What you said reminds me of how sometimes people will question amateur athletes (myself included) as to why we spend so much time and energy invested in the pursuit of our sport when we aren’t going to win or make money from it, and my response is generally that I do it because I love it. It’s one of the few times in my life when I can feel the presence and intensity of being a kid again. Nothing else matters but what I’m doing at that moment. It’s as close as I come to meditation.

  8. Wow, I never thought of it that way. That we get to exercise in a way that is pleasurable when if I had been born before the washing machine was invented, I would be spending my days doing that! Funny, but true!

    • Oh, dude. Read Bill Bryson’s “At Home.” I wanted to hug my washer and dryer, and really every single appliance in my house, after I read that book.

  9. Back when I was unloading trucks and working in kitchens, I dreaded that one more pallet or being on my feet for just one more hour. The concept of “working out” or “exercising” was foreign to me, I didn’t understand why people felt they needed to. I went to bed exhausted and sore every night. I was skinny and bony, couldn’t gain weight, and caught colds all the time. Now I pick up barbells that weigh as much as I do. I walk 16 miles in a day with a backpack on. For fun. Because I like to. I didn’t realize, at the time, that some people actually work jobs where they get to sit down all day, and have energy left at the end of it to do something fun. Now I have one of those jobs, and it’s all too easy to take it for granted. Sometimes I get caught up in dreading workouts and seeing it as a chore. Taking time for fitness is necessary, and it’s not always fun, but it is also a great privilege to choose how to do it.

    • Yep, it really can be easy to take it for granted, because I think people tend to be really good at becoming absorbed in their current circumstances, but I imagine that your previous job history helps you keep it in perspective. I haven’t had a physical job since high school and I have to go through a deliberate process to remind myself that, hey, people aspire to white-collar desk jobs for a reason, and it’s not only because of the pay. The work itself has its own challenges – I personally have a tendency to develop wicked headaches as a result of staring at a computer monitor while sitting under fluorescent lights – but with a bit of conscious effort those challenges can be mitigated. They aren’t inherent to the work itself, you know?

  10. I couldn’t agree with you more. I live with RA and depression and though I didn’t eat well and smoked for 20+ years, I tried to take walks and, bear with me, work out with Denise Austin, like since she was on ESPN. During my bad marriage, as depression and anxiety grew worse, causing me to neglect my health severely, my only respite was Denise Austin’s two exercise programs on Lifetime each weekday morning. Yes, I did it to outwardly show I was “fine” to those around me, but I also did it because for that one hour, I was taking care of myself in one of the beautiful locations Austin filmed her programs. They comforted me like a bowl of vegan “chicken” soup.

    Turns out, once my marriage collapsed and I was forced to regain my health as much as one can with my illnesses, all those hours spent with Denise was time well spent. I was slender and stronger (and younger) than most when it came time for knee replacement surgery. Yes, recovery hurt like hell but it didn’t take as long and I took my PT (pre- and post-surgery) seriously. My wonderful orthopedic surgeon was thrilled, which grew my confidence in taking care of myself. He said all those years of Denise Austin made a big difference. And I was doing it mainly for comfort and escape.

    I’ve since begun a daily meditation and yoga practice and walks around the local lake most days, though the latter’s tougher with the cold weather. Four years smoke-free, vegan (healthy vegan) for almost two years after a decade of being vegetarian, and the above activities have become essential for peace of mind and pain management, both emotional and physical. Like you, I consider myself fortunate to move the ways I can with the lot I’ve been given. It’s a foundation for building a better, more fulfilling life as a newly divorced woman. I asked for dancing lessons this Christmas. May not be able to do all the moves but I won’t know unless I try.

    Enjoy your blog very much.

    • Thank you for sharing your story! And also, no judgment at all about Denise Austin, seriously. It sounds like her programs did you a huge amount of good and so I’ll always think of your story when I hear about her from here on out. 🙂

      Also I’m glad to hear you are putting such a high priority on self-care, both spiritual and physical. It’s always important, no doubt, but when you are going through something like a divorce it’s so crucial, because it can be really easy to fall into some self-destructive ways of coping with all of the chaos. It sounds like you are handling everything with grace and strength, though. I admire you for that.

  11. I sort of lump my work outs and my outdoors hobbies together under this type of thinking. I can go to the gym and lift weights in a controlled environment because humans in our part of the world no longer have to manually direct a plow behind unruly horses or oxen. I can go hunting once a week and actually enjoy nature (even if it’s in the single digits) because if I don’t shoot a deer, I can stop by the grocery store on the way home and grab steaks, chops, or chicken. Granted, I do like the results of doing the no-longer-quite-necessary work- my body functions so much better when it’s in shape, and I really do like venison steaks and seared duck. Not to mention being in shape makes hiking in and out way easier.

    As an off-topic aside, would you know any resources, online or not, for training to hike middle-distances with a heavy pack? We’re probably going to Idaho for an elk/bear/deer hunt, and would have to pack out any meat, which means hiking 5+ miles with 80% or so of my body weight on my back. I’d like to begin training for it this Spring.

  12. As someone who derived a tremendous amount of enjoyment from exercise for a good deal of my years and has been unable to partake due to health issues, I strongly urge people to make the most of their physical abilities, find that means of pleasure in the “work” of exercise because one day you may find yourself no longer able to exercise (ha!) that privilege.

  13. Definitely have been thinking about how much I’d love to be able to work out more! It definitely is a misnomer calling it “working” out; I never thought of that.
    I’ve been trying to save money to be privileged enough to afford a membership at the Y. Someday…. But for now, I am able to ride my bike to work or take the bus/walk to/from the bus (which is about a mile). Compared to people who have to drive, I definitely feel privileged.
    It’s also amazing how many people in offices insist on DRIVING to get their lunches instead of walking! (that is of course if the distance isn’t a factor). 10min of walking is a chore when all you do is sit all day….

    • Yeah, it should really be just about moving when you can. I think riding your bike to work sounds like it would be wonderful, and if I didn’t live in such a terrible place for cycling (in terms of climate and infrastructure) I’d love to do it.

  14. When anyone asks me about the work outs and what they perceive as monotony, drudgery or pain I ask them when was the last time you worked out and said to yourself “boy, I really wish I hadn’t done that?” Never. Really, other than the day I got hit by a car on my bike, I’ve never finished a work out thought I wish hadn’t done that. Has anyone? Even people who don’t do it very often? But its not the after that’s the problem is it? It’s the before. When its cold and dark and 5AM and you’re bed is warm. That’s when I remind myself that I’ve often been annoyed with the skipping workouts, but never have I been annoyed by deciding to do it.

    • On further thinking on the post: yes, I defiitily feel privileged. I do triathlons, too (Olympic and Half Distance, so far) and I am conscious of and grateful for the fact that my health seems to be sufficient for the training and I have time and money to spare to do this. True, I have to cut back on other expenses and activities, but i I have the luxury of being able to choose. Sometimes I even feel guilty about it. But then I try to think that being fit and healthy is also a way of “retirement provision” (I hope it’s the right word,.not a native speaker) beside the financial retirement provision. Being healthy and fit is not only good for myself but also helps to be able to do more – until an older age.

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  19. Making an conscious decision to do some exercise activity is a privilege. It is a benefit and necessity to have a fully functional body and not to be partially disabled..which most likely we will be near end of life.

    However I’m sure someone who wants a car, but cannot afford it, and hence, walks, cycle or takes transit doesn’t see it entirely your way. Unfortunately. Witness the car craze that has gripped urban China today when they used to be a bike based society.

  20. This post first found its way onto my newsfeed around the time you originally posted it, and I’ve found myself thinking of it a lot since I first read it–basically whenever I start talking myself out of going to the gym for no real reason other than laziness.

    So, thank you, at a delay, for that regular motivational boost. It’s made a big difference to my routine. 🙂

  21. I’ve decided to allow myself to post again (after self-imposed ban on blogging while studying). We all have activities which are self-motivating (posting and, luckily, working out for me) and those that are chores (tax forms for me – ha). Caitlin is right is suggesting we can reframe these chores to privileges. Get our body to hunger after the opportunity to pump those weights. Also try creatively setting a fun goal. E.g. you see a guy in the gym bench press 50kg for 6 reps then aim to surpass him in say two months. Research then plan a schedule. Be resilient about setbacks. When you reach your goal reward yourself (with a protein shake – ha) and set a new goal. He doesn’t even have to know that he is inspiring you, 😉 This is a double edged sword as it motivates you to get more knowledgeable as well as stronger.

    • Love this comment, thank you! And I hope that your self-imposed ban had the effect you wanted for your studies, and that maybe you’ll be back to posting again soon?

  22. Thanks Caitlin. I admit I did have some anxiety issues when studying. for which I have used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Now I am better able to tackle more tasks. Using a diary is a great habit to develop for everything including your workouts. I skip forward to my target date and sketch a stick figure of my male motivator with his lifting numbers underneath. Next to that I sketch myself flexing my bicep with a space left for my numbers.Well, I’ve only done it once but I do crack myself up – ha,.Of course you know whose bicep I draw bigger. I’ll tell you another example of my sense of humour in a minute.

    • LOL! I’ve not been good about using diaries/journals in the past but the people I know who love them swear by them. Maybe I’d be more inclined to use them if I drew cool stick figures in them.

  23. I do like pranks and I do like fitness so it seemed natural to combine the two. At uni, on April Fool’s Day, we had a new team project with different roles. There was Sue, team leader, Andy and myself. Now Andy is a little like a character off Big Band Theory – not a jock. Together with Sue, we set up how to choose the project scribe. Sue would suggest Andy and I armwrestle – loser gets the job. At this point I would protest, saying “but he’s a man”, selling myself as a delicate flower. Sue would then insist, as a creative team leader. Then what could be funnier than pinning a surprised man’s hand to the table. So it went to plan until I took off my jacket and Andy saw my arms. He realised it was a sting and said, “You can’t April Fool me” and refused to armwrestle. I guess he was scared of the guns and I don’t blame him – ha. Sue made me flex my biceps to see the trap he had avoided. But then I was on my toes for the rest of the day to elude any comeback trick on me.

  24. I really like this post. Sometimes, the frustration over the distance between where I am fitness wise and where I want to be can become it’s own impediment. This is a nice and needed reminder that being active can be fun and rewarding on its own, and doesn’t have to be tied to a particular fitness goal.

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