Working out to get better at working out or to get better at living life?
If you think about lifting weights, or more specifically, lifting heavier weights, is there ever an end game? The contents of this strictly opinion-based and contrarian blog post may at first ruffle some feathers. But, if you believe in hearing all sides and not residing in an echo chamber, (which is increasingly becoming the case in the age of sculpting what you hear and read to conform to your beliefs) I commend you. For the record, I’m by no means against lifting weights, just asking people to reevaluate the “why”.
What Drives You?
The inspiration for this came recently after talking with several clients about what triggered their interest in working out with a Personal Trainer. I noticed a correlation in their motivation; they all wanted to be able to do something in particular, not in the gym, but in life. The goals weren’t about being able to do as many push-ups as their neighbor or squatting as much as some guy in a men’s “health” magazine. Rather, they were life-oriented goals that had to do with maximizing what they were able to get from life as well as what they were capable of giving to others.
One client said she wanted to feel strong and comfortable skiing with her son on a trip.
Another client mentioned he wanted to be able to hold his own on a trip to the Galapagos with his wife.
I’ve even had a client that simply wanted to be able to walk her dog without her hip acting up.
These goals stood out to me as they weren’t about getting better at working out, they were about getting better at living life! I have nothing against people whose goal is to crank out a certain number of pull-ups or run a mile under a certain time, and I truly admire their ability to do so. All I’m asking, in a rhetorical manner, is what’s the end game?
Hitting a goal has a lot to do with dopamine release, which is the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure receiving. It’s the old “dog in the lab pressing a lever for a treat” experiment. The treat, or the reward of hitting a goal in a human’s case, releases a shot of dopamine that reinforces the behavior that got us that release in the first place. Eventually, the novelty of that treat or reward dissipates and our baseline is reset. We then go in search for a more powerful stimulus that supplies us with the next big dopamine hit. Then that stimulus becomes the new baseline, and so on and so forth.
Does this cycle sound familiar? Modern-day weight-training? How about drug addiction? I’m not trying to compare those two things at a fundamental level, as obviously the drug addiction has life-threatening consequences and weight-training has mostly positive effects. But at a neurological level, the same reward system is at work. I make this comparison not for an attention grabber, but more for a different perspective.
I’ll take that comparison just one step further by inquiring as to what the end game might be, worst-case scenario. Again, this isn’t a scare tactic to prevent people from working out or something, just to provoke some thought.
Let’s make up a fictional client, Mason, a 45-year-old parent of three, whose desk-work driven occupational environment has contributed to a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Mason has big goals and recently came to hire a Personal Trainer for some guidance and help to get there. He/she wants to be able to leg press 200 lbs and when asked “why” Mason struggles to come up with an answer.
“Because that’s how much ‘they’ say a person my age should lift”…
“Because that’s how much this other person at the gym usually lifts”…
“Because I want to physically assert myself and establish my rank on the totem pole of life”…
But why? We dig deeper into Mason’s motivation and realize that none of the reasons he/she proposed are fueled by intrinsic factors. It’s all extrinsic, or more simply put, Mason’s motivation for leg pressing 200 lbs comes from an outside force. So we set out to pursue this goal, and after starting at 100 lbs, three months later Mason is able to leg press 200 lbs.
Wow! Goal accomplished. But, now what? Once the baseline has been reset and the dopamine hit wears off, Mason is faced with a conundrum, “how the heck can I get that same feeling again?”. Here comes the revised goal, 300 lbs by the next month. But, during training, Mason, unfortunately, gets laid off, one of the kids becomes ill, and the car breaks down.
What more could possibly go wrong? Well, due to being run down by sometimes unavoidable life circumstances, Mason pushes the limits a bit at the gym and strains a muscle. The pulled muscle inhibits Mason’s ability to continue training at the capacity necessary for the desired strength gains. When someone becomes acclimated to the dopamine hits of reaching goal after goal after goal, and then is unable to reach the next goal, there is somewhat of a withdrawal period.
Ask anyone trying to give up Coke, Big-Macs, or cigarettes, withdrawal absolutely sucks. Back to Mason, what if the motivation were a bit different, say, “I want to be able to play in the yard with my kids on the weekends without hurting my back”. Rather than being fueled by extraneous factors in the form of societal expectations and comparisons, the motivation has become something deeper.
Bottom Line, What Motivates You?
This post is not to take shots at modern day weight training at all, and I am indeed a Personal Trainer and purveyor of prevention over treatment. All I’m asking for is a paradigm shift in the concept of “working out” as we know it. Carefully consider your motivations behind performing 100 push-ups or squatting 500 lbs 25 times in two minutes. The end game is either injury (to the mind or the body), or plateau because unfortunately, the musculoskeletal system of the human anatomy has physical limitations. The one part of our body where limitations of expansion have not yet been discovered is our brain. Challenge your current way of thinking, and reevaluate the motivations behind your goals.
Don’t work out to become better at working, work out to become better at living life.
Yours in Wellness,
Prevention over Treatment