It's funny how there's a lot of common knowledge floating around that we seem to know but never 100% believe. "Exercise is good for you" was one of these bits I heard many times from many people which hadn't convinced me until some years ago.

The story started always the same way. I felt (or was) out of shape, I decided "I'll get fit" and started going all in until something else caught my interest and stopped. On each try, I was approaching fitness and exercising the wrong way.

Conceptualizing fitness

I used to believe that fitness is a state you achieve. A common phrase I used to think about was "when I become fit, I will...". Funny thing about that is that you don't "get a become fit" and then get to store your "Fitcoins" into a wallet and then go spend them by eating some McDonalds while you keep your six pack. Instead, a key breakthrough happened when I thought about fitness as a process instead of a goal.

Suddenly it was not a project to be finished but instead it slowly became a part of my identity. At first, this was reflected in choices I was making around daily activities and in to-dos I set for myself in a regular basis.

Eventually it extended to longer term choices which created a positive feedback loop that enhanced the results and compounded the results.

Thinking of fitness as a process was the key insight that helped me achieve a good and productive relationship with exercising. It might sound obvious to many but when many narratives around fitness go like "14 days to your perfect beach body" it frames fitness as something to achieve, not to maintain.

The second insight was to get away from a focus on benchmarks and outcomes and move towards a focus on consistent actions and habit formation. Establishing 30 day trial periods for things to do has worked wonders for me in different areas and exercising was no exception.

Enjoying exercise

There's a moment while learning to do new and difficult things where I overcome what I call the "wall of unhappiness". The wall of unhappiness is the sensation when things become difficult, uncomfortable and most importantly, where I feel that no progress happens. This happened to me while picking up running. I decided to try it for a month without excuses, same time (6 am) and same routine (running 1km below my house). During the first weeks it was a frustrating experience. I would wake up, get dressed and do the same 1km route around my house, returning home coughing and wondering why I had decided to do things.

After a while, small discomforts started to melt away while glimpses of enjoyment started to bloom. Breathing was becoming easier and I started feeling an after run happiness flowing through my body while showering.

Without noticing it, running was something I did everyday. It went from being annoying to just happening, similar to going to work or going for a coffee.

At this point the benefits started appearing. Suddenly I was setting myself goals, getting better and incorporating running into my exercise routine while enjoying it immensely. I had forgotten the uphill path and by sticking with it for enough time I had made it my own and understood it on my terms.

Giving myself this unconditional experimentation time allowed me to explore enough of the activity to tailor it to my needs and wants. I discovered that I liked running fast but not for huge distances and that I preferred quiet routes over scenic but more overcrowded ones. Experimenting with speed, music and books allowed me to find a space for myself where the air feels different and  the world seems brighter. I realized that the dawn, just before people start their days is a liminal space where everybody's day starts and I can feel the breath of the waking city. All this experience made me understand that I enjoyed running much more the more I did it.

This process has repeated itself in all disciplines of exercise I've embarked so far, and it's safe to say that even though it won't work all the times, I will always find something enjoyable about an exercise or sport after sticking with it for enough time.

Connecting with the body

I remember clearly what happened after my first rookie class in CrossFit. I felt pain in corners and places of my body I wasn't aware existed. The sensation came as a surprise because they didn't even seem to be places I thought I had exercised during that training. What was really happening here was that I was unaware of the movements and mechanics of my own body.

Exercising regularly made me understand the relationship between different parts of the body and the ways they work together to enable movement. It was incredible for me to feel how a slight change in the angle of my foot or on the way I held up my neck could impact so much the result of a weight lifting movement or how doing push-ups with proper form makes them so much easier to do.

This body awareness extends also to understanding better the space around me while I move, the limitations of my flexibility and the deep knowledge of my effort levels.

Expanding and squeezing the mind

Connecting with the body has made some aspects of the mind much more tangible. Being able to physically feel limits of strength and overcome them makes progress visceral in a way that few other activities can. How does this relate to the mind?

There's the often discussed aspect of increased happiness. Many studies have demonstrated that regular exercise makes people happier. In my personal experience, regular exercise fends off anxiety, unproductive thoughts and sadness. I'd argue that together with some sort of mindfulness practice (sometimes meditation, sometimes writing or drawing) it becomes a pillar of resilience against small and big challenging moments.

Speaking about resilience, the physical experience of pushing myself a bit harder on an exercise makes me experience effort, failure and success at a more direct and tangible way. This has allowed me to experience and understand these feelings through my body. I've also understood by pushing my limits that there's always a bit more in the tank and that energy management is paramount in being successful.

Finally, the focus and flow that happens while being in the middle of a physically demanding task is difficult to describe and compare with other sensations.

I've experienced psychological flow while improvising music or while working on a creative task, the focus of being immersed in a book or a video game and the heightened states of consciousness that come from losing myself in a club or in a concert. Exercise has a bit of all of that inside as it plays in different moments with the bodily sensations (tiredness, soreness, accelerated breath) and the mental sensations (heightened senses from the endorphins and adrenaline, the psychology of time left / exercises left) and intertwines both experiences to create a unique experience.

Final thoughts

I used to be a fitness and exercise skeptical. I had done it for a while many times in my life without taking it seriously or really giving it a chance under the excuse that "I was more of a mind person rather than a body person". Now I understand and believe that there's no such thing as a mind / body disconnect or difference, they influence and play with each other continuously to construct what we think of as reality and consciousness. Exercise helps me keep myself healthy and besides that has many benefits to my mind and body, enabling my creativity and supporting my happiness.

If you don't do it regularly, find something you enjoy (the key of finding is trying) and give it an honest chance. Worst case, you become healthier. Best case, it changes the way you see your mind.