fitness · motivation

Fitness as a Relational Activity (Or, Only When You are Watching) (Guest Post)

I have a sedentary job. In that way, I am not unique to the millions of others who spend far too much time sitting still in an improper posture. About 10 years ago, I started a very slow crawl out of my consistently sedentary ways and into something that approaches an active life.

I have never done it to change how I look. My goals are always similar and have to do with developing endurance, power, independence and balance. As a Psychotherapist, I am also acutely aware of the role inactivity plays in stress and all the follow-ons including depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

I’ve had some fantastic success. I can run 5k with little problem and even further with walk breaks. I can lift some heavy things. I can survive a one hour Flow class in Yoga. I can carry a canoe on my shoulders, hike for a whole day, carry the laundry from the basement and ride a 7 jump hunter course without hurting anything. I place a tremendous value on each of these achievements and activities and yet, there is one struggle that I have not yet overcome.
I only do these things enthusiastically when someone else is watching. I know that sounds weird, so let me explain.

My most recent accomplishment, of which I am intensely proud, was a 12 week course of intense one on one weight training. Three days a week for one hour, I’d lift heavy things in ways and repetitions I never thought I could or would. Standing next to me was a person I affectionately named my “Evil Overlord”. He placed these tasks in front of me and expected I would succeed in them. Since the program was carefully tailored to my capacities and well designed, I did succeed and wow, it was a rush and a half.

Previously, I had ascribed my on again off again relationship to physical activity to the deficits in my fitness that left some things profoundly difficult. The Flow class, for instance, was made intolerable by my lack of upper body strength and those wee shoulder muscles we never exercise plaguing me with spasm. My running broke down after muscle imbalances in my knee caused pain that lasted for days. This weight training program zoomed right in on that stuff and fixed it. I mean FIXED. With this new capacity, I felt convinced that I had broken through some magic barrier that would allow me to finally enjoy, not only the benefits of my fitness, but the acquisition of fitness itself.

It didn’t happen. As soon as I didn’t have the thought of the Evil Overlord waiting for me by the barbells, I knew in my gut I would let the whole thing go.
However, I’m a therapist and sometimes, I try and turn that lens on myself. Here I am, ready to spring into further action, and I’m having a heck of a time doing it. As a technique in my office, I often turn a question around. Instead of asking why I don’t do it, I asked myself, when do I do it. By “it” I mean happily lace up and lift/run/flow or otherwise strain myself in ways I deep down dislike.

Then it hit me. I do it when someone is watching. I love to run with my partner. I loved my sessions with the Overlord. I loved the marking of accomplishments, the encouragement and the interaction. I love my riding coach and the way she nitpicks me to death on my position and seat. I am engaged by yoga instructors who take the time to get a little personal with what I am doing.

When I am alone at home with my Pilates mat and a DVD, I am totally unenthused. When I go running alone or even with the dog, I suffer in a very different way than when I run with my partner. It feels like there is sand paper in my joints and I want to go home and nap. There is no joy.

I’ll be truthful. I feel a little ashamed of this phenomenon. I wonder if it means I’m not running for myself, but rather for an admiring gaze. I wonder if I’m just a princess looking for a spotlight. I wonder why my health, independence and personal power aren’t enough. That is one way to tell the story but, it’s a version full of self -judgement. Another thing I’ve learned after years of being other people’s therapist is stories that reek of self-judgement usually reek in general. Perhaps there is something else operating here that is a little gentler than Susan, the raving egomaniac craving the gaze of the Other.

So, here it goes, my alternate story. As human beings, we are wired to relate. It’s a survival skill. We need each other. When we are functioning more or less optimally, we feel better and do better with others around us than if we are alone. I don’t mean we can’t be alone and enjoy it. I mean connectivity is the necessary base from which we roam and return. And if relationship is essential to human success, might relationship be part of what I need to enjoy these intense activities? If I was running to catch my food, I’d have other motivators but I don’t have to chase my next meal in that way. I run for abstract reasons that, in my reality, have absolutely no immediate pleasurable motivator. That is, unless I’m running with another person I care about. Perhaps for me, fitness is a relational activity and when I perceive there is no relational experience or feedback, I am not engaged the same way.

I’m not sure how this will help my fitness future. A recent post on this blog by Tracy addressed the importance of workout buddies and this obviously meshes with that idea. Maybe I’ll just have to remain aware of that quirk of mine and do what I can to satisfy it. Perhaps I can just be mindful that my lonely runs are not as much fun as my together runs and races, but that’s okay.
Alone at the gym with 80lbs to deadlift. . .that is a challenge at which I still squint suspiciously.. .Crossfit? Really? Ugh! I see how it starts Sam. I see how it starts.



Susan Tarshis, B.A., LL B., M.Ed., is a Psychotherapist in Milton Ontario with a very full practice. That’s good because she loves her job and bad because that means she sits a lot. She is a 45 year old feminist with a passionate interest in the human condition and a propensity to return to school every 5 years or so just because. She is slowly discovering her inner athlete and trying very hard to do things that challenge her without either hurting herself or hating it too much to ever do it again.

5 thoughts on “Fitness as a Relational Activity (Or, Only When You are Watching) (Guest Post)

  1. Love it. We’re a lot alike. And I think you’ll like Crossfit. Like team personal training, lots of people helping and watching.

  2. Love it. We’re a lot alike. And I think you’ll like Crossfit. Like team personal training, lots of people helping and watching.

    1. I hope so. I have to be mindful of my ego driven state in which I injure myself and also my cynical feminist that might punch some of those “Fitspo” types right in the nose.I already warned the fundamentals trainer that if he talks to me about weight, I’ll slap him. (these threats of violence are not intended to be actual threats, but metaphorical threats)

  3. I am uncertain that I understand the need to be watched, or perhaps rather, the need for companionship, when exercising, or indeed, whether there is a difference between a need to be watched, and a need for companionship, in this setting. But at the risk of sounding unreflective, we all have “issues” – and it is naive to think that our issues won’t manifest in many different areas or components of our lives. So – if we feel better exercising with others, I think we should exercise with others. I generally exercise alone, but a few days of the week I exercise with others who are faster and stronger than I – and I really do love the way I am pushed beyond my regular boundaries when doing so – except that I often really hurt the next day! I guess my point quite simply is that I am not at all certain that all of our “issues” need be addressed and resolved in the context of doing some things that are really good and healthy for us to do, like exercising. Sometimes at least we just have to manage and work around our problems or issues – simply to be functional, and to not allow our issues to paralyze us. So unless there is a problem you have which absolutely must be addressed in the context of your training regime – I say go with the flow, exercise with others, and enjoy it! In this regard, I am quite happy to be an unrepentant philistine.

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