I learned to love exercise

I was skinny once. Let me say that again…I was skinny once–scrawny, bony, gaunt, even. And I didn’t want to be. Even the plump kids couldn’t envy me–they made fun of me!Disgustingly skinny Dustin

My parents always told me my metabolism would catch up–that I’d put on weight faster than I’d want it.

Right. Iiiiim-possible.

See, the thing is, I assumed that when I gained weight, it would conveniently form only around my pecks, biceps, and six circles around my stomach.

Oooooh no. Not a chance. It came in the places I least wanted it. My chin suddenly had roommates, my six-dimpled gut was actually one large wave a mouse could surf on, and my ambitious love-handles perpetually reached for the stars…er…earth.

Pleasantly plump dustin with nasty love handles, before I loved exercise

Pleasantly plump Dustin with nasty love handles

But I was just fine. For once, nobody commented on how bony I was. Sure, I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without panting or play with my kids for more than ten minutes at a time.

But I was just fine.

Until “the talk.” Amber and I were sitting in bed, prepping to go to sleep. She was writing in her journal and I’m sure I was jostling my bulbous belly or something equally disgusting and irritating, and Amber said, “Dustin….I’ve been…meaning to talk to you about something.”

That tone in her voice made my throat tighten, I tell you what.

“Oh?” I said.

“Just remember that I love you and will always love you.”

My heart starts beating faster. This is it. Something terrible is about to come out of her mouth and it will ruin me.

“But…” She smiles apologetically, “I…find you…less attractive since you’ve gained weight.”

Ah, duh, blah…stammer stammer stammer…what????

The words slammed into my fat gut like a baseball bat.

“Really?” I ask.

She nods.

“Like…are you sure?”

She nods again.

But I wasn’t getting it.

“So you’re being serious?”

She shrugs apologetically.

I let out a loooong gust of high-cholesterol air1I’m sure my medical friends will probably say something about how there’s no cholesterol in one’s breath (cough cough, Lori!), but it would just be creepy if I let out a loooong gust of blood, now wouldn’t it??.

I nodded. “Okay.” I nodded more vigorously. “Okay.”

“You’re not mad?”

How could I be? Amber’s never said an unkind word to me in our entire marriage. If she was saying something now, it was, as it had always been, out of love for me.

“Just one question,” I said.


“Can I blow the budget tomorrow and buy some running shoes?”

She grinned. “Of course.”

First Attempt to Love Exercise

And so it began–my arduous, painful, agonizing, miserable path to active living.

The first lap around the block wasn’t so bad…if you compare it to doing cartwheels on the surface of the sun.

Holy Hannah! My lungs strangled me from the inside. My body seemed convinced that every stretch of pavement was a down-covered bed. Or a coffin.

But I kept going. My max went from a quarter mile to a half mile.

Along the way, I had several recovering fat-oholics cheering me on. “You’ll get to a point,” they’d say, “where running one mile feels the same as running ten miles.”

Right. In what universe does 10 = 1?

A half-mile turned into a mile.

Nope, still hated it.

But I kept going, hoping for that mythical land where running was fun. One month passed, two months passed, three months, four.

I’d have dreams where I’d run for miles with ease and enjoyment, only to wake up and remember that I hate running.

Winter came. I took another shopping trip, buying about 39,000 layers of clothes. My running path was marked as clearly as breadcrumbs. I made it to three and a half miles.

And something did change. When I breathed, it no longer felt like I was sucking my breath through a clogged straw. That was good. But I still didn’t enjoy it. I still couldn’t wait until the end of my run. I still dreaded waking up in the morning, knowing that I couldn’t start the day until I’d finished my run.

Something had changed–it was from agony to discomfort and boredom.

I began cursing that conversation and cursing those with the genes that spoke lying whispers in their ears–“exercise is fun, you love it, you adore it.”

Not me. Nope. Didn’t love exercise.

Second attempt to love exercise

Then I met Matt.

Matt is buff and loves exercise

(Okay….so that image is slightly photoshopped).

Matt was, at the time, a recent graduate of P90X and one of them insane people who loved exercise.

We sat in my office at the basement of dale hall tower. Computers and desks lined the walls and Matt sat on the red corduroy couch across from my desk. The elevator shaft next door cranked and sputtered, interrupting our conversations at random intervals.

“You should do it,” he said. “I used to have massive back problems. But now they’re gone.”

“I’m a runner,” I said.

He studied my physique, suppressing a smirk. “Really?”

“Kinda. But I’m good.”

So I kept running. And Matt kept insisting. “You should really do it.”

Eventually I caved in. I still remember waking before the sun (a miserable experience) and running back and forth between my pushup bars inside and my swingset outside where I would hang limply and not do a single pullup.

And I hated it.

But Matt would stop by my office, every day. I couldn’t disappoint him, right?

So I kept doing it.

I went from this…

My "before" picture, back when I hated exercise

To this…

My "after" picture. Nope. Still hated exercise.

Did I love exercising?

No. I still hated it. I still woke up every morning dreading the next 45 minutes of torture. I still battled the inner voice that wouldn’t stop reminding me that I hate this!

Eventually, I quit. In retrospect, it was quite impressive. Even though I hated it, I’d gone for about 6 months straight of regular exercise for nearly an hour a day.

Six months and the mythical land of fun exercise was nowhere in sight. If six months wasn’t going to do it, I didn’t think six years would do it.

But, I had to do it, right? I loved having the energy to play with my kids or dig a hole for a patio or manhandle entire sheets of plywood. I loved the way I felt after I exercised. I just hated what was required to get me there.

Over the next two years, I had fits and starts of serious exercise, alternating between weight lifting, running, and one of the many P90X routines. But my streak would inevitably halt dramatically and suffer the aftershocks of guilt and frustration.

I had a problem. I needed to exercise but I didn’t want to.

Loving Exercise: First Revelation

And that’s when the first major revelation hit–if I hate it now, I’ll always hate it. If I hate it, I’ll eventually quit.

The secret to exercising is not to have massive amounts of willpower or to find clever ways of punishing yourself when you skip a day of exercise.

The secret to loving exercise is to find a way to enjoy it.

Well, duh, right? But still, the psychologist in me kicked in. I thought, surely there’s a way to train myself to enjoy running. Or, surely there’s a way to condition my mind to adore P90X.

With all the research fervor of a PhD grad student, I searched the literature, attempting to find ways that I can “trick” myself into liking it.

No luck.

The secret to loving exercise

I think I’ve arrived. The secret to enjoying exercise is not to trick yourself into liking something that you hate, but to find things that you like.

I started to look back on all my past exercise experiences and ask myself if I ever enjoyed exercise and when.

And here’s what I discovered.

  • I like to be alone. Some people take their exercise highs best when surrounded by their friends. I’m an introvert. I like my solitude. It’s my time to reflect on life, on work, on God, and on family.

Find what you love about exercising. I like to be alone

  • I like to be in nature. Treadmills do not work for me. If I can hear birds chirping, a river rumbling, and smell pine needles or cow dung, I’m happy.
Exercising in nature increases my enjoyment

Rocky-worthy military presses

  • I love the water. There’s something very soothing about the sight of water, especially as the sun peaks over the horizon, casting purple and pink highlights across the clouds. If I can see it, I’m content. If I can be immersed in water, I’m in heaven.

Finding love of exercise through nature

  • I love variety. I used to do my P90X thing in the guest bedroom in our house. After several weeks, I hated the sight of the place. I’d been trained to hate it–that same ole’ same ole’ room of torture. But the exhilaration of first discovering a new niche, discovering something new, can’t be beat.
Doing pushups on a new hiking trail. Now I love exercise.

Doing pushups on a new hiking trail

  • I love riding my bike. I’m not sure what it is, but I think it has to do with feeling the wind rush past my face as I’m coasting downhill. Or perhaps it’s my innate impatience that makes jogging annoying, since the scenery takes entirely too long to change.

I love exercising with my bike on trails

So what works for me?

Doesn’t work: Doing p90x in the same stuffy place

Works: Mixing and matching P90X exercises while on a beach, feeling the sand tickle my toes and listening to the water lap against the shore.

I love exercising in nature

Doesn’t work: Jogging for 30 minutes.

Works: Bike a scenic trail and listen to the birds call and smell the pine needles.

Doesn’t work: Attending a group swim class at the local YMCA.

Works: Donning my snorkel and goggles at a crystal-clear lake, listening to the empty silence of my own breath and heartbeat.

Doesn’t work: Fussing with a rowing machine

Works: Paddling across an empty lake as the sun rises and watching turtles poke their head above water, then finishing my workout with a dip in a place where my feet don’t reach the bottom.

Here’s the funny thing–my lungs still squeeze. My legs still feel like lead. My heart still feels like a caged animal trying to break free of my ribcage.

But I love that feeling.

How I've learned to love exercising

Then, and only then, exercise is heaven.

How about you? How have you found ways to enjoy it? What about your routine gives you satisfaction?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I’m sure my medical friends will probably say something about how there’s no cholesterol in one’s breath (cough cough, Lori!), but it would just be creepy if I let out a loooong gust of blood, now wouldn’t it??

11 thoughts on “I learned to love exercise

  1. Good reminder that WHERE you exercise can be the ticket to doing it! I love walking in nature, but it gets really tough in winter. I’m still working on trying to enjoy it- it’s still a “chore” every time for me.

  2. Totally agree! I finally found exercise I love after years of experimenting – Zumba. I go to three classes a week and I’m gutted if I have to miss one.

    • That’s when you know you’ve arrived is when you’re upset you’ve missed a workout (rather than relieved).

      Zumba’s great. I keep thinking I ought to try it until I see the composition of the class–100% women. Yeah, not gonna be the only dude in a Zumba class. 🙂

  3. Loved this article! Shared it with my sister’s exercise group on Facebook. 🙂 It’s good to see wives taking care of their hubbies Go Amber! And Dustin, it’s SO coo you didn’t take offense to that–way to know your wife Go Dustin! 🙂

  4. Great article! I absolutely agree with you too.
    I hate exercising, but I love Zumba and swimming. They are ways to exercise but when I’m doing them, it just feels like I’m having fun. I love walking or running in peaceful place like the park, beside the sea, or any place where I can hear birds chirping and the sea.

    I’m also an introvert and I prefer my time alone to reflect.

    • That’s when you know you’ve arrived–when time passes effortlessly. I can bike all day, but can’t run for two minutes without checking my watch!

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