I started “working out” in college, but I can’t say I ever liked it. Girls in my hall would all do eight-minute abs together or take group runs on the seaside cliffs near my Southern California university. I participated, but I also regularly claimed to “not be feeling well.”
College was also where I first developed a less-than-healthy mindset about working out. Since exercise was a chore, it was also a reaction: If I went out for late-night burritos, I had to run the next day. We all treated exercise this way. “I made sure to do a really long run earlier,”a friend would say as we tucked in to chips and dip at a restaurant known for its queso blanco.
While I was lucky to never develop disordered eating, I definitely had some disordered thinking when it came to exercise. Working out was almost exclusively done to look a certain way. You had to work out a certain way, too—at my school, most people ran or surfed for exercise. The learning curve for surfing was too steep for me, and running was just... boring.
This was more or less my relationship with fitness for the next decade. I was motivated by guilt, not enjoyment. The kinds of workouts I was doing didn’t help with that, either—one program popular during the thigh-gap-and-skinny-jeans era was even called the “fit jeans challenge,” as in, do this challenge and you’ll look the way people who wear skinny jeans are supposed to look.
During the pandemic, my husband and I started doing online workout videos together daily to keep cabin fever at bay. After long hours on Zoom, moving my body started to feel like a treat, and doing fast-paced, high-intensity workouts was nothing like slogging through what always felt like an interminable run. This gave me a major mindset shift: It turns out that being active can actually be fun. With the right approach, it can feel less like work, and more like play.
“There's an opportunity to make something playful because play isn't its own thing that exists,” explains Elizabeth Lyons, PhD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch. “Play is basically an attitude towards everything or anything that happens.”
Lyons researches how the characteristics of games can help motivate physical activity and change behavior. Features like unpredictability, discovery, and even challenges can all change the way that someone interacts with something, making that thing more interesting to the person doing it. Those highly variable workout videos I was doing? That unpredictability was probably helping me view exercise more like play. Even though I was doing a similar style of activity every day, the exact moves, the intervals, and the order were always changing.
“The idea of novelty, surprise, unpredictability—these are very common playful experiences that are targeted by games, but they’re also important beyond games just in everyday life for keeping people interested in all sorts of things,” Lyons says. “I think unpredictability is huge.”
Another factor in viewing activities as games, Lyons says, is adding challenges, or rules. High-intensity workouts, for me, had the perfect combination of variability and rules to feel like a game.
“[Challenges are] basically the equivalent of when you're a kid making up a rule that you can't step on the cracks in the pavement,” Lyons said. “It doesn't even have to be particularly challenging. It's just some kind of arbitrary constraint that makes things more interesting.”
My ultimate challenge: handstands. I started trying to do them when I was in the midst of a lot of life upheaval—a big move, applying to jobs, and generally trying to figure out what I was doing in life. I was craving a small win, something that I could, theoretically, accomplish on my own. Now that I’d been doing regular strength and mobility-building workouts, I had ostensibly built up the capacity to hold myself upside down.
I began, as we start many things in 2023, by watching YouTube videos. And then by climbing up the wall, doing pike push-ups, and all the other things that the internet told me to do to “learn how to do handstands.” And it just wasn’t working. I could barely hold myself in a right angle against the wall. And pike push-ups? For someone who can (still) barely do a regular push-up?
Then I remembered that childhood tumbling class. When we started, we weren’t using the wall, we were inverting ourselves from standing. So, I took myself outside to a lawn and started falling (safely—I still knew how to do cartwheels). A lot. I used any five-minute breaks I could get during the work day to get outside and practice.
And then I started getting a little better, and a little better. I realized that I was throwing myself at the ground with way too much force, which is why I was falling over. I learned that I should claw my hands into the ground. And that if I did fall, I needed to try again right away or the memory would become fear later.
Now, a few months in, I can hold myself upside down, though only for three or four seconds. And while I find myself getting frustrated sometimes, I can also see the improvement. I went from not being able to do handstands at all to consistently holding something, even if it’s just for a few seconds.
By viewing my workouts and handstand practice as recess, I was rewiring my motivation. No longer was exercise something I had to do as a response to guilt. Instead, physical movement was something I wanted to do because it was fun. Tom Baranowski, PhD, professor emeritus at Baylor College of Medicine who has also done research with Lyons, says that “fun” is something adults tend to think of as something for children, writing it off as unimportant.
“You are intrinsically motivated if you’re doing it because you want to do it—not because you’re getting rewards, not because somebody else is expecting you to do it,” Baranowski says. “We need to resurrect the idea of fun and apply it to physical activity and our behaviors.”
Learning handstands has become something where I can get lost in the fun and the challenge, just like I could become engrossed in timeless play as a child. There have been many studies that suggest that your mindset can not only change the likelihood that you will work out but also change how healthy you actually are. Altering my attitude to one of “play,” even accidentally at first, has helped me reshape my relationship with exercise. Now, I’m starting to imagine what other areas of my life could be play, too.
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