8 Lessons I’ve Learned From Exercise

Charlie Ambler
Mar 18, 2015 · 6 min read

I have spent the last month recuperating from a shoulder surgery after being injured for half the year. The time away from weightlifting, a hobby that over the course of the past four years has developed from a distant source of woe to something I look forward to on a daily basis, has provided me with ample time to think about the benefits of exercising.

These benefits extend far beyond getting a Hot Bod or Rock Hard Six Pack Abs. The stigmatized cultural approach to the exercise obsession is that it’s an aesthetic practice, and will make you look like a celebrity or become a holistic Better Person™.

We’re sometimes told to exercise for the wrong reasons, to use physical discipline as an ends to something other than itself. The truth is that imposing a culturally-defined idea of vanity on something as fundamentally beneficial as physical activity is outrageous and misses the point entirely.

Lesson 1: Pursuing exercise for aesthetic or vain reasons is dangerous.

First off, if you are out of shape or overweight, approaching the gym with the attitude that you want to look better will put unnecessary negative pressure on you. You want to go into it with a neutral attitude, which is difficult. Do not compare yourself or hate on yourself for being overweight if you are taking steps to get in shape. Go to the gym, work hard, and it will pay off in time. Feeling better is more important than looking better. People only want to look good so they will feel good about themselves. The irony is that once you take measures to feel healthier and happier, your physical appearance will likely improve as a fun but not-to-be-dwelled-upon side-effect. Do not expect immediate results or 2 Hour Abs. Exercise is a symbol for human diligence and integrity.

The goals you achieve in the gym will serve as tiny metaphors for what you hope to get out of real life. You’ll be armed (no pun intended) with the willpower and strength to make things happen.

The wonderful thing about treating your body with the respect and discipline it deserves is that it benefits you immediately but also has a seemingly-endless amount of side positive side-effects.

Learn to completely immerse yourself in physical activity. Use it as meditation on what it means to be human. Imagine yourself a neolithic hunter-gatherer, chasing your prey to survive, or an ancient Greek philosophical academician, fine-tuning your physical being.

Lesson 2: What exercise teaches us in its finest moments is how to reconcile having a body, how to be human rather than just think or act human. The caveman instincts reinvigorate your ancestry and your soul.

Exercise isn’t something you do to look good or to compensate for overindulging in junk food. It’s something you should do because it’s an essential human activity. The extent to which I exercise is the extent to which I feel deeply and passionately human. Exercise is a lot like sex; it’s a survival instinct and we are hardwired to enjoy it. On top of that (again, no pun intended), pushing your body to its physical limits is, basic as it seems, a Zen experience in both mindfulness and non-attachment.

Lesson 3: Change comes incrementally.
Even Olympic track runners and professional bodybuilders show up to the gym in sweatpants, stretch, warm up, set daily goals, and pace themselves. Doesn’t matter who you are; you have the same basic bone and muscle processes as even the hardest of Olympians. Even if you are just beginning to commit to going to the gym, you are saying to yourself, “I am taking steps to improve myself.”

Try to go to run/walk outside or go to the gym 3 times a week; don’t go nuts or obsess every visit, just keep going consistently. Over time, you’ll build the motivation to work on a specialized program and hit your fitness goals. I used to go with my freshman-year roommate to the gym three times a week. A few times he would practically have to drag me there. Today, I am an entirely different person both physically and mentally. I go to the gym at least five days a week. Sometimes I try to drag friends. The ones who stick around end up completely transformed physically psychologically within a few months.

And here’s the cold truth: if I don’t have time, I make time. Remember, exercise is, contrary to stereotypes about weightlifters and athletes, a philosophical endeavor. The Greeks viewed physical activity as just as tantamount to study, if not more so. You are exploring what it means to be a person. That’s a big deal. It’s a bigger deal than most other things you could spend an hour a day doing. On that note…

Lesson 4: You are in control.
It can probably be safely assumed that there’s no one yelling at you to exercise. You’re not being forced against your will to labor away in a gym as if it’s a pay-per-month gulag. It’s a willpower thing, and if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. The ball’s in your court. These puns keep flying at me; it’s a real fit of inspiration.

In this respect, again, exercise is a metaphor for all the other things worth pursuing in life. We don’t have to put the work in required to live fully. No one’s holding a gun to our heads. It’s safer to stay on the shore. But for those interested in living with a heightened experience of the world, a sense of happiness and wholeness, exercise is beneficial on a primal, chemical level.

This is because…

Lesson 5: health feels good. Really good.
Chugging down water, eating a post-workout meal and waking up with the warm pulse of muscle fatique feels right. It’s an animalistic appreciation and recognition of the body. Your body image will improve. Your posture will improve. With these things comes confidence. With confidence comes lowered anxiety. With lowered anxiety comes a more here-and-now affirmative attitude towards life in general. With that often come other romantic and/or material rewards.

Lesson 6: It’s fun to watch your life transform.
Those of you who’ve made big habit changes and committed to intense exercise regimens can probably vouch for the fact that the physical and mental strides made in the gym can completely transform the rest of your life.

Lesson 7: The present feels good.
When you’re running a marathon, swinging kettle-bells or deadlifting, there’s nothing but right now. You have to put one foot in front of the other, and you have to move the 200lb bar that’s 5 inches from your airway back into a safe position. You simply have no choice. In imposing this primal fight-or-flight response on yourself in a controlled environment and achieving the small goals involved, you trigger stress-relieving chemicals in the brain and find yourself mentally completely in the moment. Every other thought or problem flies right out the window. This is a remarkably efficient way to clear your head and strive towards more constant mindfulness. You are entirely you, entirely in the zone. Which leads to…

Lesson 8: Everyone’s mostly just concerned with their own stuff. At our core, we’re self-conscious animals. We perceive the world from the perspective of the ego, so naturally, most thoughts are self-centered to varying degrees.

The gym is a great reminder that the vast majority of people are more preoccupied with themselves than they are with you. There’s no point in fearing looking fat, weak, or exhausted– no one cares. And, if anything, being super-skinny or super-overweight in a gym is a heroic act.

You are telling the world you wish to make positive changes. You’re non-verbally communicating that you have a responsibility to yourself (and society-at-large) to take care of yourself. This feels good and inspires other people to achieve their personal goals and be compassionate.

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Charlie Ambler

Written by

Founder of @dailyzen and Strike Gently Co. Meditation, self-inquiry, and self-mastery. Est. 2008