Our Society Fundamentally Misunderstands The Role Of Exercise. We’ve Learned To Hate What We Love


Even though most people in this country are overweight or obese, I constantly felt pressured to change when I was fat.


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I’m not just talking about the scornful looks from folks in public, or the occasional comment from my mom about my health. It was more subtle than that. There’s a pervasive, generally unspoken message that comes from movies, television, advertisements, video games–everywhere, really.

Have you noticed that the fat guy, for example, rarely “gets the girl” or plays the leading role in anything other than comedies?

“Well why would he?” you might ask. “She’s probably not attracted to him–seeing as he’s obviously let himself go. And he’d look silly dressed as Spider-Man.”

But that’s exactly it!

As a fat person, you get the message loud and clear: what you are, what you look like, everything about you, it’s not okay. The people on the screens who go for adventures, fall in love, save the world–they aren’t like you. They’re better. Thinner. But you can play a supporting role as someone else’s comedic relief or prissy friend, if you want.

That was never good enough for me. I hated being fat. I thought of myself as the thin, athletic guy that I was back in high school; but whenever I looked in the mirror, the damn thing showed me the wrong person. And when I went shopping, anything under size 40 to 42 was too tight. I wore dark colors to hide my bulging midsection, tugged on the bottom of my shirt whenever I stood up, and sucked in my stomach if an attractive woman was nearby.

I knew I needed to change.

But there’s another message that was targeted at me: one which says “exercise will make you lose weight.” You see thin people walking around in their gym clothes; see the advertisements that feature models running, cycling, lifting weights, doing whatever; and you flip through the channels only to hear Jillian Michaels or some other snake-oil salesman hawking diet pills or shouting like a drill sergeant to work harder and sweat off that weight. I later learned that weight loss begins and ends in the kitchen, but I didn’t know this at the time.

So I tried running.

There’s a one-mile stretch of road near my mother’s house with a good hill at the end. It seemed like a reasonable place to start: sparse traffic, no other runners, no threats of people staring or watching. I laced up a pair of running shoes I purchased a few years earlier, put on some baggy gym shorts and an oversized, cotton t-shirt, and began the first day of my new life.

Or at least that’s what I thought it was going to be.

After about twenty seconds, I had to stop and catch my breath. My sides ached as if my lungs had been torn open, sweat poured down my face, and my legs felt weak and rubbery. My entire body felt slow. Heavy.

I was dumbfounded. I used to run back in high school to stay in shape for wrestling and motocross racing, and during my first year with Teach For America, I ran around the track at the gym in-between racquetball games. I’d gained a lot of weight, had a few too many drinks, and spent a lot of time in front of a screen, but still…it wasn’t supposed it be like that.

I toughed it out and made it back home. And to my credit, I did continue to run on and off for a few more weeks. But one missed day turned into two, and before I knew it, three or four weeks had gone by without doing anything.

And once you’ve waited that long, what’s one more day, right?

Rediscovering Running


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Fast forward to the present, and I run almost every day. If I didn’t have to worry about overuse injuries, then I’d run even more.

So what changed?

Did I suddenly develop an ironclad willpower? Did I stop being a baby and learn to tough it out? Did I hire a personal trainer who kept me accountable?

Of course not. What changed is that I started having fun.

When I run, it’s the highlight of my day. I’m out in nature listening to the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the leaves on the trees, and the synchronization of my footfalls and breathing. I’m alone, in solitude. Just me and my thoughts as I move the way my body evolved to move. Past regrets and future concerns disappear as I focus on that next step, that next hill or descent, right here, right now.

But I had no idea that running could be like this. I thought it was just something people did to manage their weight, and it was only after I discovered the joy in cycling that I was able to return to running with a new perspective.

But that’s the problem. Our society fundamentally misunderstands the role of exercise. We believe that it’s a drudgerous, self-flagellating activity to be endured in order to get that “beach body” or stay healthy. The idea that it can be fun, that it can be something more than struggle and exertion – it’s conspicuously absent from the mainstream narrative.

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About Barry G. Morris

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