Sleeping Dog
This is how I normally feel. Credit: Brandon (CC 2.0)

How to Thrive When Fitness Is Not Your Gift

I have a best friend named Braden.

Braden is a laid back kind of guy. Things seem to fall into place when he allows them to. I like him for that.

We have a mutual friend in Dan, a talented and kind engineer who happened to have an emerging acne problem. He solicited my advice, knowing I’ve dealt with acne struggles before, and continuing well into my 20’s. I offered my advice. Then Braden offered his. “I just don’t do anything”, and his proof was himself. Good old Braden…

“Was there a point to that?” There is.

 

The Blame Game

In fitness and bodies, we are given what we are given. Some merely have the propensity to do well with less. Braden’s body, like his face, seem to have been blessed by divinity. His diet consists of pot stickers, red meat, and whatever carb option he finds in his pantry. The stability of his back and hips have been graced by any number of Gods, making all the good compound lifts doable without hassle or injury. His scoffs at my insistence to track my macronutrients with a cursory glace because he doesn’t feel a need to. He just eats whatever he wants, with a slight focus towards eating just enough protein.

I’m at the opposite side of the spectrum. I have a family history of diabetes, back problems, and arthritis spread across both my parents’ families – among other things. I understand the initial upward struggle, that everyone seems to “have it easier”. Don’t let it drag down your aspirations.

Despite my predisposition to fat gain and joint issues,  I manage to stay in fighting shape without much hassle. While I no longer count calories/macronutrients daily, I do still “measure food” in comparison to my fist and predict what macronutrients are in it. I still look at nutrition labels and keep a very casual mental tally of what foods I’ve eaten. It would have been easy for me to play the blame game genetically (and socially, my Chinese side loves mystery sugar sauces, and love is expressed by how much of your grandma’s food you eat) and decide it’s impossible and unfair. Yet, I could continue on this path of fitness without dedicating every moment to it.

I simply needed to be smart and habitual about it.

 

Play Your Own Hand, and a Psychologist’s Thought on Fate

I like to say fitness is an exploration very often. I believe it. Fitness is very exploratory. The differences between our lifestyles, our hours of free time, our cultural diets, our social obligations, our genetics, and our personalities make some activities harder (or easier – not always a negative!) for ourselves than others. There will always be differences between us so advice is not always 100% applicable. Never waste good time playing the blame game in mastering your fitness, even if it’s “true”.

Carl Jung, a famous psychologist in the 20th century, once wrote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Shifting the blame onto genetics, or lack of time, or the circumstances of your birth could very well have merit. It could be easy to point at the genetically gifted and give up… I’m looking at you Braden. But it doesn’t fix the issue at hand. When experience and research shows you can get my body type in 30-minute workouts with 3-4 days a week, even with my  bad cards, I hope you see the fruitlessness of  negative thoughts.

Instead, you accept and challenge the world. Here’s a couple ways to see the good in 2 popular circumstances:

  • Born larger than most? Then your workouts start out more intense, and progress comes fast, instantly motivating you. Fat is more easily lost when you’re already overweight since your body doesn’t try to cling to it. Progress is very linear. You see pounds coming off and the scale number going down week by week? Progress. And the best part is that carrying that weight was a type of exercise to begin with. You now have some very strong legs & calves, legs that many could spend years achieving,. Mentally, you start to recognize how light the world is, after you have been held down by weight for your entire life.
  • Super skinny and can’t seem to put on lean muscle? You start at a lower body fat, meaning your strength training will start popping out your abs, legs, and arms with a consistent workout. You won’t have to spend that time losing fat when you already have little. You can dedicate your efforts to pursuing muscle. Got a fast metabolism, too, and can eat infinitely? That means your body can recover more quickly and you will see some enormous muscle gains if you want them. Plus, you get to enjoy more food! Don’t want to get too bulky with muscle? You can stop working out after you’ve achieved your ideal body type, and that’s that.

Focus on the positives and present goals. Don’t ruminate about your conception, or worry about your circumstance.  There’s always a way to thrive.

 

What Worked For Me?

The deck is stacked against you, due to lack of a gym, or time, or confidence, or genetics. This was my situation. What helped me?

1. Finding Alternatives

You need to find what works for you, and you alone! This comes with experience and action. You do not start to understand yourself by pondering over the computer screen. You really don’t – I’d know, since I was that type of kid for most of my life.  Instead, you try things, and decide if they work for you or not. I tried going to a gym for a while – and the feeling of people judging me made me lose intensity and confidence every time I worked out.  I decided to put gyms on the backburner. So I looked into bodyweight strength training. I tried it out… ran down to a park and used their pull-up bar. No eyeballs (sans the occasional runner) and I kept getting stronger every workout. Did it work for my goal, to train like an admired cartoon character and build some lean muscle? You bet it did.

Whether the reason is a mental or physical reason, finding alternatives can be a smart decision. Not everyone has access to the same resources, has the same amount of time, wants the same sensation of a particular workout… stick with it if you can, but know when to test other solutions.

2. NOT Finding Alternatives

Sometimes, you don’t want alternatives. I remember a high school retreat where everyone was going to be swimsuit-clad. I was seeing progress in my bodyweight strength workouts, but not enough to win over the hearts of all my female classmates! My confidence had come back, so I considered working out with weights. For a while, I poured through magazines looking for quicker solutions, for quicker gains.

The first workout, tweaked a shoulder. A little overzealous. Looking for that alternative ironically set me back.  I was looking for inhumanly fast progress when I had a good thing going. In hindsight, seeing steady progress and relishing in it would be my pride, instant summer beach bodies be damned.

Others experience this, too. They will get excited about a new program because the newest celeb trainer showed it got an entire staff of professional actors ripped and ready to fight against an ancient Persian army. Promises of incredible muscle definition and supershredding pounds of fat are mad. The trainee consistently trains and stays motivated for a few weeks, then quickly loses that passionate fire. Instead of sticking to the plan and finding that zen in the workout, keeping the eye on the ever-changing prize, they restlessly seek out another solution, in the form of a regimen. The cycle goes on forever… workout yo-yoing.

The Lesson: sometimes, know when you need a new alternative. But sometimes, know when you’re cheating yourself out of success.

3. Being Unashamed

Being incredibly shy, I didn’t have others to work out with. This would have been the best thing for me, had I talked more often and shared my workout intentions with others. But I was too shy to even let my brother know I was working out. I would take scoops of his protein powder and claim I drank it because I “liked the taste”. I found out many years later that he wanted me working out. I was scared I wouldn’t reach my goals, and that all those efforts towards a goal I never reached would be mocked by my brother and my peers. Of course, success is heavily facilitated by a support group and people who share your passion. This is absolutely true for fitness – your buddies help keep you accountable, motivated, and energized.

The Lesson: had I started working out with him, absorbing his knowledge and his passion, I bet my gains would have been incredible. More importantly, don’t be afraid to share your passion. Whether or not people join your journey, they will certainly support it.

4. Being a Light Shining in Darkness

Since I was embarrassed, I would work out in the early morning (5 AM) or late evening (12 AM). I would try to be secretive about it, closing the door to my room or running off to the garage where I later mounted a pull-up bar. Oh, and that bar was under the guise of a gift for my brother… it was really for the both of us.

But I remember those nights clearly and joyfully. While there is power in social support, it can’t be the only motivator. When I did pull-ups, I would pretend I was pulling the world down and meeting the stars with my chin. I let thoughts slink away and indulged in the moment of working out, reminiscing how I progress month by month, day by day. When I went to bed, I would dream of training next midnight, every session a step closer to a living dream.

The Lesson: be empowered by others, but be especially empowered by yourself.

 

Final Thought

I know that life can get hard, and you might be thinking that I don’t understand your situation at all. You’d be mostly right! Every circumstance is different in some way. Maybe you have kids, a full time job, or a never-ending list of responsibilities to cover. Fitness seems low on the priority scale.

That said, try your hand at one of my free workouts. I’ve made it about 20 minutes. If you can find 3 days to finish this 20 minute workout — you could do it while watching TV,  in-between office breaks, or waiting for the oven timer — then please give it a shot! Even if you could do just 1 set of the foundational exercises, you’ve emerged victories in my book. That’s 1 set closer to loving the journey and getting the body you deserve. It only gets easier and more fun from here.

Move Stronger, and Live Longer

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About the author

Aaron Dear

Aaron Dear is a fitness advocate, bodyweight athlete, and product manager from Berkeley, California.

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