Process vs. Outcome in Exercise: Are You Having Fun?
In 1960, the US Men’s Olympic team won a gold medal in Squaw Valley. The majority of the members of that team, including Bob Cleary, worked full-time jobs apart from hockey. Cleary, interviewed in 2010 for USA Hockey Magazine, recalled “I couldn’t try out for the Olympic Team at first because I just got married and opened an insurance business. I couldn’t afford to be away for all the time leading up to the Games.” (1) The NHL contained only 6 teams, and TV coverage was in its infancy. On the local level, people participated in town baseball and bowling leagues, as well as unorganized activities such as pond hockey and bike riding, where the focus remained on having fun, and representing and engaging with your community, rather than financial reward. I’m fairly certain no parent in 1960 said “Go ride your bike around the neighborhood for an hour so that you can be paid to cycle someday.”
Fast forward to today. We have non-stop exposure to media, in the palm of our hand or on an enormous hi-def screen in our home. Media coverage has brought a level of professionalization and profit to sports that was unimaginable 57 years ago. We are more likely to be found on the couch watching pro sports or flipping through workouts in Self magazine than participating in an activity for the sake of fun or community. Athletics are seen as valuable only in relation to the professional pay-off, whether that outcome is making the varsity team, having six-pack abs or a thigh gap, getting a D1 scholarship or being paid to play. Committing 8-year-olds to travel teams is seen as completely normal, and adults measure themselves against digitally- and/or surgically-altered celebrities.
In a 2015 study (2) that received broad coverage, researcher Amanda Visek found that the number one reason young people quit sports was because the activity was no longer fun, with the main ingredients of “fun” defined as Being a Good Sport, Trying Hard, and Positive Coaching, followed by Learning and Improving, Games, Practice, and Team Friendships. (3) Note that most of these ingredients are about the process of playing, not the result.
Less attention has been paid to why adults fail to commit to exercise. I’d argue that the reason is similar, compounded by the disappointment of failing to quickly reach the yearned for outcome—such as losing weight. If you measure the value of your activity solely by feedback from the scale, or how your resulting appearance measures up against celebrity A or B, then exercise quickly becomes a drudgery-filled source of frustration. It doesn’t bring you joy, and you won’t continue to do it because it feels like a shift on a factory floor.
Let’s go back to playing and having fun. Now, not in 1960.
What if you focus on a process of exercise that you can enjoy and sustain, while cutting yourself loose from the images of celebrities with perfect bodies (they’re probably unhappy, hungry and stressed-out people anyway) or the number on a scale? What if you value your physical activity by the same qualities young people listed above: how hard you try, the positive coaching you receive, learning and improving, making friends and being part of a community? What positive possibilities does that focus open up for you? How could having fun change your life, and change your level of happiness?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but I can tell you, you don’t need to be a professional in order to find joy in moving. You don’t need to single-mindedly grind towards a highly-specific goal in order to justify your time on a hiking trail, playing Frisbee with your kids, or in the gym. You do need to get out the door, find some like-minded people, and have fun. So put the screen down, take that first step, and go do it!
Maura J. Zimmer, NSCA-CPT is a coach at Olympia Fitness + Performance, located in Cranston, RI, and an avid short-track speedskater. She does not know how to ride a bike.
2. Visek, A. J., Achrati, S. M., Manning, H., McDonnell, K., Harris, B. S., & DiPietro, L. (2015). The Fun Integration Theory: Towards sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 12(3). doi: 10.1123/jpah.2013-0180. PMCID: PMC24770788