Common perceptions of what it means to be a "fit person" contribute to the idea that gyms and exercise are suited only for the outgoing and the genetically gifted, but it is possible to thrive within fitness culture without being terminally optimistic or a natural athlete.
The Dubious Focus on Physical Appearance
The fitness industry's persistent focus on attractiveness and social acceptance has created an image of vain or even anti-intellectual athletes. In much of popular culture, muscle-bound motivational speakers and infomercial aerobics instructors have become the face of exercise.
There's nothing wrong with aesthetic goals, per se, but visible changes generally take longer to achieve than more health-oriented progress. You're unlikely to end up with the physique of a bodybuilder or fitness model, which is perfectly fine. In fact, comparing yourself to others can, in extreme cases, lead to body dysmorphic disorder and unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders and steroid use. Being sedentary suddenly seems comparatively healthy. Accepting your body type and genetic capabilities represents a critical aspect of formulating fitness goals.
The more important physical changes, which can last into old age, range from increased strength and mobility to decreased likelihood of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Though staggeringly important, such considerations are still only the beginning.
Transcending the Physical
The benefits of a healthy lifestyle go far beyond the tangible body because physical health affects more than physical well-being. As Haruki Murakami points out in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, critics often claim that fitness enthusiasts "will do anything to live longer," at the expense of day-to-day convenience and pleasure. In other words, exercise and dietary restraint impede one's ability to live in the moment. Many Americans interviewed in the documentary Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead share the view that we have a choice between being decadent and happy or healthy but deprived. However, a deeper look suggests that the potentially debilitating effects of poor diet and obesity outweigh any joy derived from overindulgence in unhealthy foods. Improving your health is about living better, not just longer.
Adopting a healthier lifestyle can make you happier and more productive even if you're young and in good health. Murakami, a marathoner and triathlete, credits his athletic pursuits with nurturing his creative process: "Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitvity." Punk rock pioneer, author, and recent Live from the NYPL participant Henry Rollins has written about the thoughtful perspective he gained from his lifelong pursuit of weightlifting: "It wasn't until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain."
On a Personal Note
I had to overcome several mental obstacles before getting involved with athletic endeavors as a teenager. Most team sports offered at school seemed to confirm the anti-intellectual stereotype mentioned above, and a shy, skinny kid like me didn't see much appeal in that sort of boisterous, extroverted environment. Somehow, I wound up in a local kung fu gym when I was 14 and made friends who have helped me maintain some semblance of physical activity over the years.
Weight rooms and group activities still fall outside of my comfort zone, but this fact has helped me to develop skills that Susan Cain would later describe in her book Quiet. Introverts can thrive in high-energy environments if they take the time to recharge later. I've even learned to feed off of the atmosphere in loud, busy gyms. By venturing into a world that is often contrary to some of my personal sensibilties, I have acquired meaningful experiences and friendships. During emotionally trying times, the simple act of clenching one's fist in frustration can be infinitely more satisfying when a strong, taut muscle contracts. Physical exhaustion after a workout (and the accompanying hormonal response) can produce a calm, introspective state of mind more conducive to acceptance, forgiveness, and catharsis. If all else fails, at least you'll be tired enough to sleep.
I don't mean to offer exercise as a panacea. Heading to the gym a few times per week will not suddenly cure your depression or jump start your social life. Cure-alls do not exist, but for me, working out has become an indispensable asset in my continuing efforts to live as happy and productive a life as possible. Given the right activity and appropriate expectations, I believe that the same can happen for anyone. Some will need to overcome unique psychological barriers, but they stand to reap greater rewards than anyone.