On Training vs Exercise
Many people I know struggle to exercise regularly. They know it’s something they should do, but they aren’t able to bring themselves to commit to any sort of schedule.
This isn’t something I struggle with anymore - partially, I believe, because I’ve learned to approach the whole thing differently.
Below details that approach.
My relationship with exercise from an early age was a bad one. I wasn’t a sporty kid - I had next to no natural talent for almost any game or activity I was made to do at school. Exercise was a chore, and represented a constant public reminder that I was weak, slow and uncoordinated.
There was no joy to be had in movement, and I remember vividly many occasions where I was embarrassed at my lack of physical aptitude on sports days at school. Some friends and I were even in a “non-sporty sports club” that our collective parents had devised in an effort to get us outside and away from video games. Sigh.
I had to get lessons to learn how to ride a bike, which took several weeks. I couldn’t catch a ball, nor reliably tackle or pass in whatever sport you chose where those words meant something.
It wasn’t a good time.
However, this all started to change when, aged about 11, I made a decision that I didn’t want to be embarrassed at the next sports day we had at school. My goal was simple - not to come last at whatever race I was put in that year.
I told my father this, and together we began to train.
Exercise is any kind of physical activity. When we say we ‘need’ to exercise regularly, it simply means we need to use our bodies to combat the issues that come with a predominantly sedentary life.
So far as I can tell, the narrative many of my peers hold regarding exercise is something like the following:
“I need to turn up to a place I don’t really like, that I feel self-conscious in, to do something that makes me uncomfortable, that feels painful, that makes me feel gross, for 30-45 minutes, 3 times a week, every week, forever. This will make me healthier, and probably make me look better, therefore I should do it.”
This is bleak.
Firstly, anything we feel obligated to do, almost immediately isn’t something fun. Secondly, this commitment isn’t dynamic or subject to any kind of change. The pain and discomfort stretch out for eternity, which is obviously demotivating. Ultimately, this outlook on exercise means that it’s something that we’re, in a sense, obligated to subject ourselves to.
Training presents an alternative narrative.
What I mean by ‘training’ in this context is this: Preparing your body to perform a specific task, by a specific time.
This might seem pedantic, but it’s not. Training is goal-oriented; you have something in mind that you want to be able do. While exercise is just done for the inherent benefit of having done it, training builds towards something tangible.
If you train, rather than exercise, you’re moving with a purpose. You’re not simply moving in order to be healthier - you’re moving in order to get better at something in some way. Health, fitness and well-being become not only byproducts, but a means of attaining this higher goal.
If you set a goal, your relationship with ‘exercise’ completely changes. Suddenly, you’re dictating the terms.
For instance, going to the gym, or whichever location allows you to train, is something you want to do. After all, this is a goal you’ve chosen. You’re not doing this for anyone else but yourself. Therefore, it becomes easy to not worry about the physical condition of the people surrounding you. After all, what you want is not the same as what they want. Your goals are personal to you, you’re running your own race.
Your lifestyle outside of exercise changes too. Suddenly, taking ‘days off’ isn’t something you feel guilty for - it’s a vital part of the process of recovery, so you can be prepared for the next time you train. It’s something you need to allow yourself.
Even eating becomes directed, you want to eat certain kinds of foods because you know they’ll fuel you, and help you train better., getting you closer to this goal that you chose.
The problem that I think exists with the ‘exercise in order to be healthy’ mindset is that it’s extremely hard to quantify.
What does it mean to feel ‘healthy’ anyway? You can always feel healthier, or be doing more to be healthier. It’s hard to feel you’ve reached this goal with any sense of achievement. Sure, if you’re coming from a reference of ill-health from lifestyle choices or otherwise, then the difference you’ll feel exercising regularly is usually palpable. However for most people, the difference is a subtle thing, and It might be hard to know when you’ve ‘reached’ being healthy. And even if you do reach it, maintaining it is, in a sense, quite boring. There is however real excitement in always having an ambitious goal.
So what goal should you train for?
Choosing a goal
For me, I’ve just opted for picking something I would like to be able to do - something quantifiable, whether it’s completing a race, being able to execute an advanced movement etc, and simply aiming for that.
I think it’s important to choose goals that are relative to you, that you believe you could accomplish given your pre-existing physical condition (obviously considering any injuries or conditions) and a few months of training. Striking a balance between making it achievable, but not so easy that it doesn’t pose a bit of challenge, means you can hit that sweet spot of motivation. Long term, you can always set more ambitious goals, after you’ve reached a few smaller ones.
The difference in this approach is substantial. Working out or going to the gym becomes a source of pride and crucially, progress. Once you have something to measure, and you put in the time and effort, you’ll be able to see tangible improvements. This is motivating. Getting closer to something you want to be able to do is something that can be joyous and fulfilling. You can’t get better at ‘exercise’. Exercise is just something you do. You can get better towards a tangible end.
Tangible means that you have to be able to measure it in some fashion. You need to be able to know when you’ve achieved it, so you can give yourself that feeling of accomplishment.
If there are literally no desirable goals that come to mind when reading this, then you simply might need to explore.
It’s little wonder the gym can be naturally unappealing. It’s a space devoid of play. Hell, the most common machine you’ll find in most commercial gyms - the treadmill - originated from a literal prison punishment device*.
But please remember that most exercises were sources of joy before they became ‘exercises’. Almost any sport or movement culture exists because at first that movement was fun. Before pull-ups, there was inherent fun to climbing things. Before rowers became obsessed with how fast you could complete 2000 metres, people just enjoyed rowing down a river. Going for a jog was relaxing, lifting heavy things was invigorating, punching things was satisfying.
Just trying things with an open mind can do wonders. I resisted weight training for a long time, because of the somewhat comedic association with ‘bro’ culture. When I finally did give it a proper try a couple of years ago, I realised how insanely satisfying it is. I had pre-judged that it wasn’t something for me, and I missed out on a really fun training tool because of it. Weight training in particular is perfect for goal setting, because it’s so overtly quantifiable. Having a goal to, for instance, be able to squat your body-weight, is something you can see very explicit progress towards week on week, with relatively minimal training. It’s magic.
Beyond re-approaching things with an open mind, broaden your horizons! Don’t judge yourself for whatever you might be curious about - it can be anything from juggling to running a marathon. Go so far as to think about what movement you would like to be able to do if it offered zero health benefits. Look around, then go try that thing.
This analogy goes further still. There so many things the human body is capable of. Having the meaning of the word ‘exercise’ being confined to the image of running on a treadmill or sitting on a bike is like travelling the world only ever having eaten one kind of cuisine. There are so many things you could learn to do, so it’s worth exploring.
Yes, certain movement diets are perhaps ‘healthier’ than others, offering more benefits to the mind and body. But to begin with, if you’re starved of any nutrition, any food is a start! So find something that appeals, and move from there.
Once you have a goal in mind, you can begin training for it. I try to set plans for the next few months, as most of my goals are things I think I can achieve within a year or so. Even if I don’t reach that goal within the time frame, or never make it altogether, I have a lot of fun and satisfaction in trying. I also end up reaping a lot of benefits (such as those from exercise) as a result. After I’m done, I’ll pick something entirely different. From this, my body becomes a source of joy and discovery, rather than something I need to begrudgingly look after.
All of this is not to say that training is easy. The difficulty of a goal, whether that’s running 5 km or a marathon, is of course relative to where you’re beginning. In pushing your body to adapt and change in some way, there is going to be discomfort and pain. This is a universal truth.
Where the difference in training lies however, is the context of these experiences. When you’re experiencing pain from training it’s often a positive experience - as you know that’s the feeling of your body adapting to what you’re putting it through. It becomes the feeling you associate with progress. There’s meaning to the self-imposed suffering that motivates you to push through.
Like I said, my first goal was simply to not be last at a school sports race. After this it was to get a certain time rowing 2km on a rowing machine. From then, it was to be flexible enough to touch my toes while training in Kung Fu. Right now, my goal is different again (I’ve been working on getting a one arm pull-up for most of the year - I will get it!). All of these previous goals for me, when setting them, seemed like mammoth tasks. They excited me, and I felt real achievement doing them.
This method works for the greats too.
Take this famous quote from Muhammad Ali:
His goal was to be the best.
A more recent, perhaps less violent, example comes from Ross Edgley. Last week he became the first man to swim around Great Britain. He’s an extraordinary athlete, but a clear case of the power of setting ambitious goals. For almost 6 months he swam 12 hours a day (6 hours on with the tide, 6 hours off, ad infinitum) to become the first man to swim around Great Britain. Previous feats of his include running 30 marathons in 30 days, doing a rope climb the height of mount Everest, and doing a triathlon with a 100 pound tree on his back. Yes, he’s a freak of nature, but the mindset he has is the same.
He has something tangible he wants his body to do in mind. He focuses on that, and pushes onward.
There are certainly days I hate training, don’t get me wrong. But there are days I love it too. As you get more ambitious with yourself and your body, training often gets harder. But that’s OK, because you get tougher.
Trying to accomplish some sort of mastery over my body, for me, has represented trying to accomplish mastery over my mind, and myself. It allowed me to reclaim a source of pride in my body which at a young age I didn’t have.
It’s also taken a long time. I’ve been training regularly for over 10 years now, and have slowly reached a point where I consider myself strong, fairly flexible, and mildly coordinated. But it’s been an incredibly rewarding journey - probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done with my time.
In pushing yourself, you can find your own personal glory. And that can stay with you. It’s not always as depicted in motivational videos or in movies - there’s often no surge of music or chorus as you pass a finish line. Often, the glory is found in just having the discipline to show up to a session when you don’t feel like it, because you know it will get you to where you want to be. Only you will know the relative magnitude of your achievement, and you can carry that small piece of glory with you.
And that’s why I train, rather than exercise.
There’s one other thing that I touched on in this piece, but wanted to add on as a side-note. That’s this idea of play or fun.
If you’re going to go spend time in the gym, or drag yourself and make yourself be healthy - why not have fun while doing it?
While I do think that, for me personally, there’s a certain something more that is gained from pushing yourself to an ambitious challenge - and that recognising that training won’t always be fun. That being said, one could ensure they do always have fun if you only ever want to be healthy and happy. To do this, you just need a lot of variety.
Play is so crucial, and making the goal fun is another way to change your relationship with exercise.
Probably the person who best personifies this approach is Stephen Jephson, who this year is 77 years old. He’s extraordinary (the video was filmed when he was 74):
Exercise is hard to get excited about. It’s often boring, uncomfortable, and not progressive.
For me, training has meant I get excited about sometimes painful, uncomfortable physical activity. It’s motivated me to do it, and allowed me to reap the benefits of exercise as part of progress to that goal. Health and well-being has become a means, rather than an end.
By picking goals just within reach, I stay feeling good about the whole thing, and myself.
Pushing through the discomfort becomes a source of pride, and actually a positive experience
Once you get close, or achieve the goal, picking something new keeps things fresh, and allows you to explore a huge variety of movement types.
*Reference for the treadmill: