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Revisiting our Narratives
And writing our own fitness story
I attended the Thesis conference in NYC last week and perked up when Nathan Bashez brought up strength training during his talk about narratives. He shared how he use to have a story that he was an “intellectual” and therefore not a “barbell guy.” Nathan retells it in the essay he just published:
I love this anecdote because it highlights so many of the narrative dynamics that emerge around exercise.
Narratives we tell ourselves
At the core of our relationship with exercise are the stories we tell ourselves. Nathan had a story that he wasn’t the kind of person that ran or lifted weights. In this frame, he couldn’t entertain doing these things, much less enjoying them.
One of my clients started working with me because she wanted to feel stronger and more resilient. But she had a narrative that women shouldn’t lift weights and that strength training would make her bulky. Even after we unwound this narrative, we discovered another. She believed that people at the gym would make fun of her for her lack of knowledge and experience.
Yet just a few weeks later, she called as she left the gym to share that she’d made a new friend who had asked about an exercise she was doing. I smiled when she added that she now felt like she knew as much as most people there.
The beauty of exploring these stories is we can rewrite them and begin to change our relationship with exercise.
Narratives others tell us
Yet, these narratives aren’t isolated to ourselves. They are shaped by the people around us. One of the reasons Nathan didn’t see himself as someone who exercised was because his friends didn’t see him that way either.
Back when I played baseball, I had a coach that sometimes pushed players by questioning their commitment, capacities, and emotional make-up. His goal was to toughen up the team but it frequently had a negative effect. Some players would begin to buy in on his narrative and their performance would suffer. In extreme cases, they’d never rewrite their story and would eventually leave the team. Negative narratives often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
At the same time, others’ stories can have a positive impact on us. The more Nathan’s Tech Twitter friends talked about strength training, the more likely he was to see it as something he could do and enjoy.
As much shit as CrossFit gets, it creates unrivaled narrative shifts. People arrive barely exercising and immediately adopt a new story built around community, boxes, WODs, Paleo, and more. The CrossFit cult vibes are largely due to the speed and magnitude of this transformation. Plus the pull many CrossFitters feel to tell everyone about this new story.
The point is to be aware of how deeply susceptible we are to the influence of the narratives around us, for good and for bad.
Narratives we can’t see
The challenge is how frequently we are blind to these narratives. They influence us without us even knowing they exist. After his talk, Nathan and I joked about how he thought he was making an independent decision to start lifting unaware of the influence of his peers.
I’ve experienced this myself on my own journey with my previous hatred of jogging. I used to have a story that long-distance running was dumb and wasn’t even good for you. I’d smugly explain how I wanted to look like a sprinter, not a marathoner.
The true story only emerged after I read 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald and experimented with his recommendation of doing most runs at a super slow pace. To my surprise, the runs became enjoyable.
I realized that the true thing holding me back was my ego. I had a narrative that I was in good shape and it should be easy for me to run a few miles at an 8-minute pace. In reality, my true “easy pace” was a 12-minute mile. Once I uncovered this hidden and faulty story, I could write a new one as someone who enjoyed long runs (and was willing to admit how slow I needed to go).
Narrative Whiplash in Fitness
As Nathan writes in his essay, these narrative dynamics exist across our lives. Yet, they seem particularly strong in the world of fitness. Why?
Exercise is emotional for many people. We have deep stories stuck within our bodies that bubble up when we begin moving (or even thinking about moving).
Exercise is a frequent discussion topic regardless of whether we love it or hate it. We often look to our friends to support our decisions and behavior.
But the biggest reason that I believe narratives are so powerful around fitness is that there is a constant stream of new stories. The entire industry is designed in a way where novel approaches get all the attention. Experts gain influence by weaving new stories about the latest secret to achieving our wellness dreams. Just think about the last decade or so:
High-Intensity Interval Training bursts onto the scene as the key to fat loss. But then jogging gets rebranded as Zone 2 Cardio and the foundation of a long life. Breakfast is the most important meal. No, skipping breakfast and fasting is essential to our longevity. Fat is bad and carbs are good. Actually, flip that, carbs are evil and fat is good. Oh wait, never mind, you can eat both as long as you avoid seed oils.
The narrative whiplash is exhausting. New stories create a subtle pull in different directions. If we adopt the latest story and begin to build an identity around it, what happens when the prevailing narratives swing in a different direction?
Writing our own story
I don’t think it’s realistic to eliminate these narrative dynamics. Humans are storytellers and social creatures. We’re influenced by the people and narratives around us.
Yet, we can bring awareness to the stories that aren’t serving us. We can try on new narratives and rewrite our script. Perhaps a good approach is to view others' narratives as a lens we can experiment with.
For example, just listening to this episode I recorded with will immerse you in his love story about strength training. My guess is you'll feel an increased desire to go to the gym and toss around some weights:
You don’t need to fully adopt Mehdi’s narratives to benefit from it. His passion and experiences introduce the possibility of an entirely different way of relating to exercise. It’s simply an invitation to explore and create a new story for yourself.
The beauty of exercise is how quickly this can happen. The progress is visible. The change is tangible. We can feel it in our bodies. It only takes a single moment of joy on a run to realize: “I am someone who can enjoy jogging.” It only takes a few strength workouts to discover: “I am someone who can get stronger.”
It’s through these experiences that we unwind old narratives and write our own story.
Foundations of Intuitive Fitness
I’m excited to invite you to a virtual course I’m running in April called Foundations of Intuitive Fitness.
The goal is to create an experience where people come together to transform their relationship with exercise and design their own approach. It is intended to be a place where you can begin to rewrite your story and create the foundation of a lifetime of fitness. You can see all of the details here:
I’ll share more in the coming weeks but wanted to announce it here first since space is limited. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading. Please consider sharing this with a friend if you think they will be interested in Intuitive Fitness. I’d love to hear any reflections, ideas, or questions you have in the comments or by replying directly to this email.