I started my foray into exercise like many of you: in response to frustration with body image. I was around 210 lbs. at the age of 15, and this discontent resulted in dieting and exercising my way to about 160 pounds. Unfortunately, after settling into my first real relationship, the good habits didn't stick. Luckily, I was able to keep the weight off despite my lack of motivation once I reached this goal. As research suggests, and many of you can attest to, regaining lost weight is very common.
Now let's look at my second attempt at structured exercise a couple years later. I decided that I really enjoyed getting stronger, which was something I experienced in a resistance training class in high school. I made my mind up to focus on that aspect of self-improvement this time around. I had found something somewhat disconnected with my body image, yet with time my confidence was improved to a new level. As well, this time it stuck, and I have been regularly exercising for nearly 15 years now.
I have worked with a lot of clients over the years, and everyone finds different things to ignite that passion for activity. I would say that it is a slim minority who find long-term results who only focus on training for looks, weight, and body composition. For everyone else, performance does more for motivation and confidence. The most trainable physical quality we have is strength. It is not uncommon for people to double or triple their strength with proper training. Furthermore, if you really train to improve this quality, body composition is very likely to improve as well.
One of the major downsides to training for looks is the subjectivity of your self-perception. Have you ever “felt fat?” This feeling doesn't only exist for folks who are obese, it is something that folks with healthy body fat levels also experience.
Our body image is incredibly fickle, and trying to set yourself up for a lifetime of success with exercise built on a foundation so volatile is a recipe for disaster for most of us.
Another advantage to training for strength is that it promotes regular progressive overload. You have to continually challenge yourself to pick up heavier weights to spur adaptation. Once again, this practice is very likely to lead to improvements in body composition. This basic tenet of exercise science is often ignored but is certainly one of the most important components of a successful exercise program.
I know it's hard to care about strength for some of you, but I'm willing to bet you will encounter moments in your life where you truly appreciate it. I have heard tons of client stories about being empowered by their newfound performance capabilities. Often times I hear stories of things people did with their children, how they were confident enough to try something they wouldn't have otherwise tried, or simply how many things they notice in everyday life seem easy when it used to be hard.
I'll share with you the first moment I truly appreciated my increased strength. I was on the island of Capri in Italy. My grandmother, who was terminally ill, sold her house and used some of the money to take one final dream vacation. Thankfully, I was included on this wonderful journey. Beyond her illness, she also had serious arthritis problems and a fairly recent hip replacement. When we finally got to the Blue Grotto, which was the central activity around which she planned this trip, she was crushed. There was a set of what seemed to be a couple hundred stairs to get down to the boat that would take us inside. She couldn't do it and told us to go on without her.
I wouldn't accept this; I picked her up and carried her down and up those stairs so she could realize her dream. The folks waiting at the bottom even clapped for us when we made it down. She must've told that story 100 times before she died. It was one of her most memorable experiences, and one of her most proud moments as a grandmother.
If I had never started trying to improve my strength, I would not have had the confidence to even attempt this, let alone the physical capacity to do so. This is the kind of thing that provides a lifetime of motivation to continue exercising. I have days where I feel like skipping my workouts too, but recalling this moment, among many others, can be very powerful for keeping consistent.
I urge you to experiment with this mindset. It may not be for you, but as stated, a ton of my clients have found a lot of joy, pride, and confidence by focusing on this aspect of their transformation rather than body composition. Sometimes viewing things through a new lens can lead to an appreciation that wasn't there initially. Now go: be strong, and be beautiful.