Getting Fit as a Side-Effect of Living Up to Your Values

Making a radical transformation taught me something important about prioritizing values over goals

Finnegan Shepard
Oct 12 · 6 min read
Black and white illustration of a man’s chest
Black and white illustration of a man’s chest
All illustrations courtesy of Erica Howe.

OK, so before I get any further, I should clarify. By radical transformation, I mean arguably one of the most radical transformations you can undergo.

I’m talking about a gender transition.

In August of 2019, I had breasts and negligible testosterone in my body. By August of 2020, I had replaced my breasts with scars and was injecting testosterone once every two weeks.

I also happened to be bench pressing 1.5x my weight, could complete 50 burpees in a row, and had woken up one rainy Saturday and done a casual triathlon with a friend, just to see if we could.

How did I achieve these goals?

Ironically, by not aiming for goals.

Values Over Goals

It’s pretty common to hear about how we need to align ourselves with our values in our careers. Even the infamous Tony Robbins is quoted saying that, “If you want the formula for happiness, then all you have to do is find your highest values and then spend your life living up to them.”

What this is saying is that we achieve things in life not so much because we aim directly at them, but because they are a kind of side-effect of living in accordance with our values.

This is considered a more sustainable, meaningful way to live because goals tend to be never-ending. As soon as we achieve one, another more challenging one blossoms further down the road, and our contentment with what we’ve already achieved quickly dissipates.

Alternatively, when we live according to our values, we experience a greater sense of security in our decisions and a stronger feeling of contribution to the world because we understand ourselves to be in a constant process. That process has meaning because it is guided by our values.

Makes sense, right?

So why is the fitness world still all about goals? Not only that — why is the fitness world still about impossible goals?

Couldn’t we apply the lessons of personal fulfillment and alignment in careers to our relationship to fitness?

It wasn’t what I intended to do, but throughout my process of transitioning, I stumbled into doing precisely that.

The “Value” of Fitness

I’ve always loved to exercise. I was raised in Boulder, CO, where exercise is a core part of our cultural identity. Before transitioning, I’d never thought that much about how or why I exercised. I just took it for granted as a part of my life.

But when I began to transition, a few things happened.

To give you a little context, I’d lifted a lot throughout college, but then I’d taken a break in favor of other forms of exercise, specifically HIIT.

I started testosterone (“T”) in September of 2019. In November, as the weather started to get cooler, I thought I’d try out lifting again. I went to the gym, lay down, and bench pressed 20 pounds more than I’d ever hit during my years of consistent training. It blew my mind.

The gains in those first few months were astonishing and addictive. Having testosterone in my system completely changed my muscle recovery and growth. But I was also aware that I would be getting top surgery in the spring. That meant two months of recovery afterward and then starting from zero all over again.

If I was attached to weight lifting solely because I was trying to hit a new PR, I might not have had the motivation to keep lifting, knowing I’d need to give it up in a few months. In other words:

If I was motivated by goals rather than values, I wouldn’t have had a reason to keep going.

But instead, I approached my fitness as a life-long commitment to my health and my sense of well-being. I continued lifting because it felt good, was a healthy outlet for the new hormone coursing through my veins, and because I was confident getting my body in the best shape it could be before surgery would aid my recovery process.

I was right on all fronts.

Black and white illustration of a person riding a bike
Black and white illustration of a person riding a bike

Creating a New Relationship to Fitness

Before top surgery, I’d never gone more than two days without some form of exercise. So while the surgery itself went very smoothly, laying on my back for eight weeks afterward sucked.

The silver lining, though, was that it gave me time to reflect on what I missed about exercise, what I was eager to get back to, and why. It forced me to be much more intentional in my relationship to exercise.

For one thing, I realized I was more interested in all-round fitness than in specialization. I didn’t really care if I hit PRs lifting, or running, or swimming. I just wanted to feel good, strong, and healthy in my body, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t push myself too hard and risk injuring myself.

Once I was cleared to begin training again, the first thing I did was to make exercise a social event. I had two friends who were eager — especially during COVID-19 — to get back into fitness.

I started doing Freeletics over Zoom with one of them a couple of times a week. Soon more and more friends joined in, and we had a group that held each other accountable.

I had been doing Freeletics by myself for two years before we began doing it as a group. I thought I was pushing my limits. Turns out I wasn’t even close. Just having a group of people I enjoyed doing it with led me to shave minutes off of personal bests on intervals.

The other friend who was eager to return to exercising had struggled with some mental health stuff over the last few years. Back in the day, he’d been an incredibly accomplished weight lifter, but getting back into it after years off was challenging. When I started lifting with him, it was partially because he had a home gym where I could safely work out during COVID-19, but it was mostly because I knew a regular lifting routine would provide a solid, positive structure in his life.

Just by showing up three times a week with the intent of supporting a friend through a structured activity, I found myself making huge lifting gains. Not because it was what I was aiming for, but because it was the side-effect of me acting in accordance with my values.

Let me summarize. Instead of exercising because I was trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or hit a specific goal, I started exercising because:

  1. It was a great way to create structure in the day while our lives were severely contained by COVID-19.
  2. It was a social event that I looked forward to with my friends, and it held us all accountable.
  3. I knew it was good for my body in the long term even when transitioning meant short term changes would hide any particular gains.

The irony, of course, is that by exercising for these reasons, I ended up becoming the fittest I’ve ever been.

Or maybe it’s not so ironic, after all. Maybe when we stop sweating the small stuff and obsessing about all the short-sighted goals we make, we naturally open ourselves up to better outcomes.

Maybe it’s time we all started thinking about fitness through a new framework. The results just might surprise you.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Finnegan Shepard

Written by

Published trans writer, classicist, and entrepreneur with 1/3 of a PhD in philosophy, and 3/4 of an MFA in writing. Founder of Both&. www.finneganshepard.com.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Finnegan Shepard

Written by

Published trans writer, classicist, and entrepreneur with 1/3 of a PhD in philosophy, and 3/4 of an MFA in writing. Founder of Both&. www.finneganshepard.com.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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