I am not very athletic. My run is what most other people consider a jog; I am not particularly good at any sports; and I don’t track my best times or set strict fitness goals. So, you can imagine how shocked my friends and family were when I announced that I was going to launch a company dedicated to fitness.
To give you a better idea of my relationship to exercise up until I was 21, I took ping pong for my Physical Education credit in high school. I ended up playing a few sports growing up, but never well. But after graduating from college, I recognized that I needed to be moving my body to feel good — and I didn’t know where to turn. After attending countless yoga classes, trying spin, buying into subscription class packages, and more, I realized that I wanted my relationship with exercise to be more sustainable, affordable, and meaningful — and I wanted to have a place to connect with others in a real, authentic way about fitness. So I launched Active Spaces, an editorially-driven workout discovery platform. I wanted to help people find places to move — to jump, spin, scream, dance, sweat — that bring them joy.
When I’ve shared Active Spaces with friends, they’ve responded with comments like “Oh that’s awesome. I work out all the time too!” The thing is, even though I run this website, I still do not work out all the time. But I do think about exercise a lot. And now that Active Spaces has been live for a few months, it’s given me perspective on a toxic myth about exercise (one of many). I’ve realized that all too often, our culture uses athleticism as a proxy for other character traits like grit, resilience, and follow-through — traits that may be good to have, but that often don’t exactly equate what it means to include fitness in your life.
From a young age, we are taught that the ultimate goal of trying a new sport or activity is to become the best at it, to optimize our performance. We are encouraged to become captains of teams as a testament to our leadership skills. We are taught that we shouldn’t quit a team, because we’ve made a commitment. Athleticism often becomes synonymous with life skills like effort, strength, willpower, and commitment.
At best, this is really silly — I have developed plenty of follow-through through school and life, not from being OK at basketball. At worst, it creates psychological barriers to enjoying movement for the sake of it. Sports and fitness are a great way to develop skills that can be transferred to other areas in life, but when the focus of working out, of exercising, of being on a team, is solely on personal development, we lose some of the playfulness that made us want to join the basketball team in the first place.
Starting at age seven, I played lacrosse every year at summer camp. In middle school, I was surprised to find out I didn’t make the team. When I asked the coach why, she told me that even though I was more skilled than other members of the team, she didn’t think I was aggressive enough to compete. I still do not know if she was referring to my personality or my (lack of) aggression on the field, but I have often thought about how at the age of 13, my perceived temperament excluded me from being a part of a team and a community; I was robbed of an experience to hone my skills doing something I enjoyed.
You don’t have to be covered in sweat and going 100 MPH to be seen as hard-working or dedicated, or to be taking meaningful steps towards your well-being.
Today, we’re living in a time of self-optimization where a quantified life (steps, water, workouts, sleep trackers) is increasingly the norm. Culturally, we see people openly talk about their fitness and how they “put in the work.” It’s not uncommon to see your friends post about their PRs, or the journey that led them to finally nailing that complex yoga pose.
It’s great if you crushed a 10-mile run in the morning before work. Please know I am proud of you. But, if you work out a moderate amount or not at all — or, like me, work out regularly, without being particularly good at anything — know that it’s not a reflection of your character. You don’t have to be covered in sweat and going 100 MPH to be seen as hard-working or dedicated, or to be taking meaningful steps towards your well-being. This is a cultural expectation that Active Spaces is trying to reframe.
Years after my experience with that lacrosse coach, I joined my college sailing team despite never having sailed competitively before. Far from the MVP, and easily nauseated, I spent an entire regatta throwing up off the side of the boat. But my teammates accepted me and my lack of athleticism, and over time I realized that nothing compares to the feeling of freedom when I’m riding on the water.
Sailing makes me happy. It reveals my clumsiness in ways that are humbling at best and embarrassing at worst — but it’s a way for me to be part of a community and to do something that’s just for joy. I’m absolutely convinced that when we take time to try new things and do things that make us happy without worrying about outcomes, that’s when we show up best in other areas of our lives. In this way, fitness can be an escape — it doesn’t have to be a lens to communicate aspects of our character and it doesn’t always have to be something to optimize.
The truth is: how hard we push ourselves, how many miles we can run, and how many baskets we can net have nothing to do with how creative we can be at work, how intimately we show up for our friends and family, or how much effort we put into excelling in life, however we personally quantify that. When we stop tying our self-worth to our athletic abilities, we can learn to appreciate the powerful, tangible strengths that aren’t tied to our physical bodies.