DRMacIver's Notebook

Finding exercise motivations that work

Finding exercise motivations that work

I’ve mentioned before that I have 3 aspirations for this year, and that one of them is health and exercise.

That’s been going pretty well (unlike the other two - writing went well for a while and then became erratic, but should be improving soon to nowish. I continue to be bad at seeing friends), and I think one reason why is that I’ve finally hit on a motivation that actually works for me for wanting to exercise, as opposed to merely wanting the results of exercising.

It’s this: I now have specific movements or positions that I look at and feel that I want to be able to do them, and incremenetal improvements in that direction feel motivating.

In contrast, many of the motivations other people have for exercising don’t work for me. For example some people do it for the endorphin rush (I get no appreciable endorphin rush from exercise), and some people find making numbers go up satisfying - e.g. number of reps, amount of weight lifted (I’m not intrinsically opposed to making numbers go up but I need a tighter feedback loop to care about it unless I have some particular reason to care about these numbers in particular).

In contrast, specific movements feel easy to orient towards in a way that makes me want to do more exercise, which sets me up in a virtuous cycle - the more exercise I do, the more related things I encounter that feel motivating to try to achieve.

There are two core things that are working for me this way: Asian Squat (flat footed squat as a resting position) and crow pose (aka bakasana - a sort of crouched hand stand).

Why these in particular?

Asian Squat is partly prompted by a variety of youtube videos - I think I originally got into it because of Taro Iwamoto’s Feldenkrais channel, but it might equally have been Upright Health or one of several others. They’ve got plenty of good reasons as to why this is an important thing to be able to do, but those don’t really motivate me that much.I mean they do a bit in that one of the goals of my exercise program is to not be in pain and these connect up to that, but that doesn’t feel quite enough to be a complete motivation. What actually motivates me about it is that it feels like a motion I should be able to do. I squat down a lot and I’d like to be able to maintain a squat indefinitely as a seating position, and it feels sortof ridiculous that in that position I can’t actually get my heels down to the floor without something to help me balance forward.

One piece of context here is that I’m quite hypermobile, and it feels like there’s a lot of positions that I just naturally should be able to do and can’t any more because I’ve stiffened up in bad ways. So a lot of the “I should be able to do this” feeling here is something like “This feels like a part of my body’s natural range of movement that I’ve lost”, and so the feeling that it’s ridiculous that I can’t do it is nicely aligned with my goals of trying to improve.

Crow pose on the other hand has a very different felt sense associated with my desire to do it: Crow pose looks really fucking cool.

This isn’t all of it, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t do something that I disliked doing for that reason, and crow pose and things like it are reasonably fun. But the thing that makes me actively want to be able to do crow pose properly is that it makes you look like a badass, and correspondingly feel like one, and apparently that’s motivating to me.

I’m not sure anyone is going to look at my current attempts at crow pose (I can sometimes manage about 5-10 seconds of a fairly shaky crow pose) and have that reaction, but I must admit I do for a fraction of a second feel like a god when I manage to get both feet off the ground and balance on my hand. At some point I’m sure I’ll stop feeling impressed with that, but hopefully by that point I’ll have gotten crow pose good enough that there will be other moves to aspire to.

Sasha has a recent post There’s nothing wrong with doing things because you want to look good about how it’s OK to do exercises that focus on building muscles that will look good rather than on pure functional strength. I 100% endorse this message, but also have absolutely no interest in following this advice myself - if anything, I think my exercise motivations end up lining up more with the functional strength crowd than building a nice ripped upper body.

Nevertheless, I think that spiritually my goal is very similar to his: I want to be able to move in a way that makes other people go “holy shit, wow”.

I think if I’d paid attention I’d have noticed that this was something I found motivating long ago. I have a memory of my cousin and his wife practicing yoga at a family reunion some time ago10 years? Closer to 20? It’s unreasonable that I have this much history to index. I would like to file a bug report about the passage of time. and doing a bunch of exercises that triggered precisely this sort of awed reaction.

At the time I was bad at recognising that I wanted things,I still am, but I was at the time too. so this didn’t in any way turn into a sense of “I want to be able to do that”, and trying to attribute that sense retrospectively may be fake but I do think it was probably there.

I’ve increasingly been feeling like there’s an interesting intertwining of exercise and therapy skills - a lot of the time in pilates, figuring out what was going wrong with a particular exercise involves a similar sort of paying attention to a felt sense and how to work with it that I’ve learned in Focusing style therapy, which often leads into a particular series of mental motions that feels like rummaging around for the right muscle and how to engage it.I particularly have this with feet. I don’t know why, except that feet are complicated and I don’t use mine very well. This movement-focused sort of exercise motion feels like it’s even more at the intersection of the two, because it involves finding out how my body wants to move and then learning how to do that.

Although Asian Squat and Crow Pose are the two current big motivations, it doesn’t really stop there, because this often comes out in small things.

Here’s an example: I have a place in my study where I’ve stacked up two tatami mats (why two? Well because I had two from a previous place, but only had space for one, so I just put one on top of the other). Often I sit on the edge of them. I noticed recently that I couldn’t actually easily get up directly from that position - I couldn’t get my legs to engage in the right way. I could do it easily enough by rocking forward of course, and using my hands makes it trivialAges ago I heard that inability to get up from the floor without using your hands was one of the strongest predictors of things going very badly for you in old age and ever since then I’ve been low-grade obsessed with how I get off the floor from sitting and making sure I almost never use my hands., but going straight from butt-on-the-mat to vertical felt almost impossible. A little bit of practice later it’s mostly trivial. This turned out to be almost all about finding the right way to engage my muscles, not really about strength.

Other things that I’ve noticed are motivating include:

These might seem like uh stretch goals for a 40 year old man, but honestly they’re pretty close to being within my capabilities. I can get pretty close to straight-legged with my palms on the floor, though it’s a fairly intense stretch, and head to foot is a perfectly viable (if, again, intense) position for me. As I said, hypermobile. It’s a superpower as well as a curse.It’s a curse because I’ve never learned to use it properly and this is, I think, where all my chronic pain comes from. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully do these, but they do feel like they’re at least pointing in a good direction.

On top of this there’s a sort of character of movement that feels desirable… something like “fluid strength” - it’s not just about the positions, but about being able to move between them, and naturally doing so all the time. It’s also about being able to just casually have strength in day to day movements.Although TBH the only day to day movement where I really need strength is a child who likes being picked up despite being increasingly too tall for this. Something about that sort of style feels fairly strongly desirable.

A lot of the solution to this is just “do more yoga” of course, and I am. I’ve been doing a little one-on-one yoga instruction recently, and am going to start going to group classes with the same teacher this week. If that goes well, I’ll probably add in a second one.

But crucially I don’t think just going to yoga classes would have got me to where I am. Maybe one-on-one instruction would have - one-on-one pilates instruction was definitely instrumental in getting me to pay attention to movement and strength and how it feels to notice what was desirable - but I don’t think group classes could, because it’s not that yoga is inherently motivating, it’s that there are specific characteristics of it that are desirable. I’m worried that in a group class I wouldn’t have been able to notice them because the environment is so emotionally noisy.