The Joy Factor: Play Your Way Fit

Forget reps and records—fun and fulfilling is far more effective.

December 8, 2017 | by
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Walk through any gym in America, and you’ll see the same scene: People with looks of grim determination, counting their reps, tracking weight, and noting how fast and far they ran, biked, or rowed. It’s always about bigger and better, faster and stronger, an unending push to do more, more, more.

“The fitness world has convinced us that you can be fit only with extreme effort,” says Pete Egoscue, Co-Founder of Elev8d Fitness. “They’ve convinced everyone that fitness is hard, that the key is the more effort you apply, the better your results. In essence, more is better.”

For example, “if you can bench press 280 pounds, you should effort it up to 340 pounds,” Egoscue continues. “When you get to 340, you’re better than you were when you were lifting 280. If you can only do 10 reps, you’re not as strong or as good as if you can do 40 or 50 reps.”

But the focus on quantifying anything and everything in your fitness routine is counter-productive. Doing so takes the focus off of the goal—getting in shape—and puts it on numbers and ever-increasing levels of effort. First, there’s no correlation between an increase in numbers and fitness. We’ve all seen the guy with hulking arms who can bench press 400 pounds but can’t lift his arms over his head. In no way should that lack of mobility be construed as fitness. Indeed, one of the two ingredients that defines fitness for Egoscue is a full range of motion. So much of what we do, especially in gyms, provides zero benefit for our range of motion.

But there’s another reason that obsession with numbers can lead to an unproductive cycle—the second ingredient that defines fitness for Pete Egoscue—that it’s not very fun.

“People tire of numbers and measurement because it’s not fun,” Egoscue says. “That’s why so many people who join gyms stop going after a few weeks.”

In an effort to track and quantify, we’ve lost our ability to simply play. Think about play in decades past—a sepia-tinged, nostalgic vision of kids playing. It’s one part Calvin and Hobbes, one part summertime stickball, a dash of Ring Around the Rosie—all innocence and effortless joy. No one calls it fitness; they call it childhood. There’s no counting reps or judgements about whether Sally ran faster today than she did yesterday. It’s just about having a good time.

“Play is fun because there are no judgements associated with it,” Egoscue says. “There’s just the joy of participation. There’s the joy of self-actualization. That’s where games came from. That’s where sport comes from. All sport started with a sense of play.”

It might be tough to scare up enough players for a game of stickball in the street, but it’s probably not especially difficult to go for a run in the woods. And instead of today’s trip to the gym, why not head to the local playground for a half hour of tag with the local kids and see how you feel afterward. Or say you do go to the gym, rather than follow a prescribed workout, just do what you feel like doing. Jump around if you feel like it, or do a few somersaults. In other words, a sense of play can breathe life into your fitness routine. You just have to let it.

I ran a lot this summer and fall, training for the New York City Marathon. Spend fifteen seconds Googling and you can find any number of marathon training guides, every week mapped out, each day with its own goal. (Even rest is programmed.) I had a GPS watch that I’d wear on training runs, which told me how fast I was running, how far I went, and how many strides I took per second. I was constantly aware of numbers, times, speed, and more. Information overload. On one long run, I left the watch at home. I had an approximate path mapped out in my head, but I let my body guide me. If I wanted to turn left, I turned left. If one street looked interesting, I ran down it. I saw my surroundings and enjoyed the run. And when I got home and checked my time, I realized that I ran faster than I had previously. By letting go and having fun, I improved.

Elev8d Fitness is predicated, in large part, on having fun. It’s full of exercises that recall childhood freedom. The workouts get you down on the ground and moving around in ways many of us haven’t in far too long. What’s more, there are no set numbers. Yes, the workouts are structured in 8, 16, and 24 minutes (with a couple going 48 minutes), and within each workout, each exercise is prescribed for a timed interval. “But you don’t have to do it for the whole time,” says Egoscue. “Do it as long as you can. If you can only do it for fifteen seconds, fine. No one’s judging. That freedom takes away all the sense of drudgery and duty with fitness.”

The key to returning to play is to change what you’re experiencing. When it comes to working out, you should be looking to have a good time, to have fun, to experiment and enjoy. You’ll love the change, and see the benefits. Forget numbers and reps, and the neurosis of perfection. Get back to fun.

Take it from Egoscue, a man who knows: “If you’re not having any fun in life, then what’s the point?”

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