The Purpose of Exercise: My shift away from a “Means to an End” mentality about movement

Up until this past year, I’ve always viewed exercise and movement as a means to an end. Growing up, I was always active. I competed in synchronized swimming, danced jazz for several years, took a year of intro ballet in college, and have been weightlifting for four years.

Looking back at it, I realize that any form of movement I ever did was a means to an end, whether that end was weight loss, muscle gain, or my performance at a swim meet or annual dance recital.

While I enjoyed each of these forms of movement, I always saw them as a step towards a desired future outcome, especially when it came to working out. I practiced my dance routine to execute it well at my recital. I swam laps to improve my endurance for my synchronized swimming routine. I ran to burn more calories and become lean. I lifted weights to grow my muscles and look fit. I always moved with an end goal in mind.

After all, society told me that what I do with my time is only worthy if it brings me closer to my goals. And the best kind of goals can be measured with a tape measure, a scale, or a body fat caliper. Even better if they can be photographed to share on social media. Everywhere I turned, exercise was talked about as a means to an end:

“All those early morning runs will pay off when you have the perfect body.”

“All the daily workouts will add up to a killer physique.”

“All the pain and sacrifice will be worth it when you see the ‘after’ picture.”

And the classic — “No pain, no gain.”

So I exercised for my goals. I knew that if I lifted enough and did enough cardio, I’d reach my ideal body, have a flat tummy, and one day witness my scale show the magic number I glorified so much. The more I exercised, the more I’d be rewarded.

But the more preoccupied I became with exercising for my physical appearance, the more I became a couch potato outside of the gym. Don’t get me wrong, I liked my workouts, but I always viewed exercise as a required sacrifice for the “greater good” of fitness, rather as a way to enjoy and appreciate my body.

In my mind, movement derived value from its ability to contribute to either muscle gain or fat burn. I scoffed at women doing yoga or stretching at the gym because their exercise wasn’t burning enough calories to “make a difference”. I laughed at the idea that people did Zumba to “feel good.” I took pity on the old man doing laps in the pool because he wasn’t building muscle as efficiently as I was.

If something didn’t directly help make me look fitter, it served no purpose to me. Why take a leisurely walk if you can hop on a treadmill? Why hike outdoors when you can squat, lunge, and deadlift at the gym? Why take a dance class if it means skipping a day’s workout?

So I slowly began to move less and less, eventually leaving behind any form of movement that didn’t involve the gym. I stopped dancing because it took too much time out of my day to go to the gym after rehearsal (since my 2-hour ballet class it wasn’t “enough” to validate skipping a workout). I took the bus everywhere across my college campus. I avoided walking up hills to save energy for my workouts. I made excuses when my friends invited me on hikes or “pointless” walks around the city. I was more active in my gym routine than ever, but for the other 22 hours of my day, I was a couch potato.

The funny thing is that all this time, I thought I was normal. I thought everyone else — the people who were swimming, dancing, playing, boxing, climbing, and downward-dog-ing for no good reason– were the crazy ones.

But then it started catching up to me. After graduating college, I began to burn out. My mind and heart just weren’t into my workouts any more. But I continued to go to the gym almost every day because I was afraid that I’d lose my hard-earned muscle mass and gain weight if I didn’t. I’d get farther from my goals; I’d regress. I had to maintain the body I had sacrificed so much to build.

I started dreading my workouts, even though I was only doing exercises that I enjoyed. The gym stopped being an exciting place for me. For months, I showed up uninspired, moved around some iron, and counted down the minutes until I could be done and go home. Instead of feeling energized and excited, I was yawning between sets. Despite the fact that I was moving my body, my bones felt stiff. My skin felt cold. No energy drink or pump-up music could raise my heartbeat. Sometimes I would just up and leave the gym because I was so bored. I was uninspired.

And then one day, completely out of the blue, I decided that I wanted to do hot yoga. It was an instinct that made no logical sense as the time, but I went with it. That night, I got home from work, compared some local studios, and bought a 10-class pass at a Bikram hot yoga studio. I didn’t recognize myself.

Looking back at it, I don’t know why I suddenly had this urge. I always considered yoga to be pointless, since I didn’t see it as something that would aid in significant calorie burn or true muscle development. It made no sense for me to crave this, since it wasn’t something I saw as bringing me closer to my goals. But I guess my body and soul must have yearned so deeply to move for the sake of movement that I suddenly woke up and couldn’t get the thought out of my mind.

For the next few months, I went to my hot yoga studio instead of the gym once or twice a week. I brought no expectations to class. Unlike when I was at the gym, during my yoga practice, my mind wasn’t preoccupied with how much I could lift compared to the week before, how many calories I would burn, or how much muscle I could gain from a particular exercise. I just practiced for the sake of practicing. No rhyme or reason. No end goal.

I practiced being in tune with my body, learning when to push her a little past my comfort zone and when to cut her some slack. I practiced appreciating how my body could move when I steered her from a place of compassion, rather than obligation. I practiced truly being present in the moment, and stopped looking around at everyone else to see if I’m behind. I learned to forgive myself for losing balance, or for not having as good of a practice as I had hoped. I began to let go of expectations, giving myself permission to move in the body I have today, rather than trying to do better than last time.

With time, the attitude I brought to my yoga practice began to seep into the rest of my life. I stopped eyeing my stomach at the gym between sets and instead took then time to stretch and move. I began to take stretch breaks at work because it felt good to move my bones and get the blood pumping into my fingertips. I started going on walks — a LOT of them — and choosing to walk to places I’d normally drive to. Not because I believed I needed to burn a few extra calories, but because my legs felt restless and my hips felt stiff if I sat at my computer for too long. My body began to crave movement. Heck, the other day, I broke into a jog for six minutes because it felt good to get my heart beating and my lungs expanding after a slow day at work.

The gym no longer feels like temple demanding my sacrifice and sweat in exchange for a low body fat percentage; it is now a sanctuary where I can honor my body through movement and strength.

And even then, the gym isn’t my only sanctuary. Yoga studios and dance studios became safe spaces when I stopped thinking of what my body “should” look like and started appreciating what it can do instead. Parks, mountains, stairs, even the hilly street that I have to cross to get into my adjacent neighborhood turned into opportunities for me to experience my body in relation to the rest of the world.

Now I stretch, I dance, I lift, I walk, I skip, I reach, I bend. My lungs expand and contract. My heart beats, pulsing blood through my veins. My chest rises and falls as oxygen flows through my body. My skin sweats, not to embarrass me, but to cool me off so I can continue to move. My muscles — the same muscles that contract tightly when I lift weights — stretch over my bones when I reach up or down.

I move my body and am amazed by how it can thrive in the world around it. I revel in the energy that movement gives me. I marvel at how it allows me to connect with others and express myself.

My body is no longer an object I have to control. It is a gift with which I get to experience the world.