Every year some sixty million Americans try a new fitness routine. But more than 50% of them drop out within six months.
There are a variety of reasons people give for jumping off the fitness train — among the chief complaints are that exercise is hard, life gets too busy, and the failure to reach a goal. More than anything, though, people stop doing something when they stop getting better at it.
Let’s face it, the primary reason people start a new fitness plan or join a gym is to change their body in some way. A slimmer waist, more muscles, or a leaner physique is what brings people in the door of the gym. But what keeps you there?
There are two answers and understanding these unlocks the secret of sticking with fitness for the long haul. What keeps you going is:
- Getting better at something
Notably missing from this short list is getting a better body.
Looking Better vs. Moving Better
The problem with focusing on aesthetics is that fitness may or may not be something that helps your body look better. For example, if you aren’t putting an even greater emphasis on your nutrition, you will be hard pressed to get and keep the body you desire.
The other problem with a focus on the outward manifestation of your physicality is that it’s a battle you will lose in the long run. I don’t know of anyone who isn’t aging, and despite the clever tactics of Photoshop, no one actually defies the laws of physics and decay.
This may sound like a doom and gloom prospect and enough to make some people want to throw up their hands and say, “Well, then what’s the point?” Over the years, I’ve seen countless individuals quit their exercise programs out of the frustration of not seeing a desired change in their body.
But once you accept the fact you cannot control how your body looks through exercise alone, you release yourself from the constant pressure to keep up with the Joneses and to pursue an unattainable physical ideal. And when you accept the laws of diminishing returns, you open the door to focus on how your body moves versus how your body looks.
The good news in this distinction is that you can take steps toward moving better at any age and every stage. You can begin to move more gracefully, more effortlessly, and more efficiently at any time. You can also refine skill and technique in the process, which aren’t necessarily limited by age and genetics. This takes us to the concept of approaching fitness as a craft to pursue versus a body to perfect.
Just like there are crafts to choose from in the arts, like painting, drawing, or dancing, in fitness there are a multitude of physical crafts you can pursue. The only thing you need is the right idea for you.
Here are a few fitness “craft” ideas you might consider incorporating into your new year.
To some, the word CrossFit conjures up an image of a new sport and a popular fitness trend, while to others, CrossFit may seem like a dangerous cult-like exercise fad. But CrossFit is a lot more than jacked-up physiques and WODs. CrossFit is actually a combination of multiple disciplines, incorporating elements from high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, kettlebells, calisthenics, and strongman.
The catch is that these disciplines require two critical components: effective coaching and a commitment to craft. CrossFit sometimes gets a bad rap for lacking these elements, and certainly there are boxes out there that offer less-than-stellar coaching. But the bottom line is that it is your responsibility to assess your own competency and to choose the right program.
If those nine disciplines sound like fun and like techniques you’d enjoy developing, then by all means give CrossFit a try.
2. Martial Arts
The martial arts are both “external” (focusing on physical aspects like kicks and punches) as well as “internal” (focusing on spiritual, mental, or qi related aspects). Such a holistic focus is what initially drew me to boxing and the martial arts.
But the martial arts are much more than cool self-defense moves and fancy outfits. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better, more comprehensive, or more difficult workout than an external art like boxing, wrestling, muay Thai, or Brazilian jiu jitsu. ESPN ranked dozens of sports by degree of difficulty in a matrix that included variables from endurance to flexibility to hand-eye coordination. Boxing, wrestling and martial arts all scored in the top six.
Beyond learning a skill set, in a martial arts program you’ll also be learning how to move, how to breathe, and most importantly, how to heighten your own self-awareness.
3. Yoga and Pilates
In Pilates, you learn how to control your movements from the core instead of relying on your large muscle groups. The six key principles of Pilates are centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow. Pilates is a craft that can be continuously refined, for there is always room for improvement in those six variables.
In yoga, you not only flow, but also hold poses for longer periods of time. According to the American Osteopathic Association, the benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, increased muscle strength and tone, improved respiration, better energy and vitality, improved cardio and circulatory health, improved athletic performance, and protection from injury.
When you factor in that improving flexibility and yogic technique is something you can continue to study for the long term, yoga sounds almost too good to be true as a fitness modality.
Triathletes do one thing particularly well — they move forward! While lateral movement, balance, or even strength may not be one of their top priorities, triathletes have the benefit of three fitness disciplines to perfect in swimming, cycling, and running. Plus, triathletes enjoy some of the longest lifespans of athletes, both speaking in terms of how long they participate in the sport and their actual lifespans.
Many triathletes train and compete well into their sixties and seventies, and with each passing decade have the opportunity to compete in a new age group. Segmenting the sport into age groups keeps it about the season of life you’re in versus an unattainable notion of “always faster.” Furthermore, being an endurance athlete may even help you live longer. According to a Finnish study, endurance athletes had a longer lifespan by 5.7 years compared with 4 years for team athletes and 1.6 longer for power athletes.
A word of caution to aspiring triathletes: training for and competing in triathlons takes two things many of us lack, time and money.
Perhaps the purest form of an artistic craft intersecting with fitness is dance. Art has a way of bringing you to the present moment and frequently results in unabridged joy. This is because art is simply about self-expression, not about achieving a means to an end. When you aren’t worried about outcome and are instead focused on process, it’s amazing how much fun you can have.
There are dozens of dance modalities that provide a great workout from ballet to Irish folk dancing. If you like to get your swerve on, pick one that intrigues you.
Make It a New Year of Moving Better
Craft isn’t a word typically associated with fitness. These days you’re likely to think of beer, coffee, or papier mache, but the word very much applies to the realms of sport and fitness, as well, because we’re talking about a thing called “skill.”
You aren’t going to get continuously better or faster at running on a treadmill and you aren’t going to get leaner and leaner as the years pass. But crafts and skills can be honed, refined, and perfected. There is always a new craft to pursue regardless of your age, physical limitations, or geographic location. The only thing left to determine is which one brings you the most joy.