Fitness is an End Unto Itself



I don’t exercise to look good naked. I don’t exercise to be healthy. I don’t even exercise to have more energy. In fact, I try to ignore these things as much as possible.

Fitness has stopped being a worthwhile goal, in and of itself, in our society. Frankly, I think that’s a big reason why we’re getting so fat. We’ve made fitness something only worth having if it comes along with six-pack abs and reduced chances of heart disease.

Why Most Struggle with Fitness

Have you ever met someone who was only speaking to you because they wanted something? My guess is that person didn’t become your best friend. Even if they had a lot to offer, approaching you from that perspective is a big turn-off, professionally and socially.

I believe most people approach fitness the same way a desperate guy approaches a hot woman. They start the interaction focusing on what’s in it for them. When they get brushed off with poor results, they give up.

The solution isn’t to try a new technique or trick. It’s to reaffirm something we know to be true, but have been brainwashed by an increasingly vain society to forget it: that fitness is intrinsically valuable.

The Intrinsic Value of Fitness

I lied in my opening paragraph–sort of. I do care about my appearance, energy levels and health. It’s just that those things are side effects for me. They’re great side effects, that’s for sure. But that’s all they are. They aren’t my reason for showing up, every day.

I exercise because I love being in shape. Not for any reasons other than that I enjoy pushing the limits of my body and trying to increase my strength, endurance, flexibility and what my body can do. If, after that, I look better in the mirror or reduce my chance of heart disease, great. But it’s not why I show up.

A friend and workout partner once commented to me that I might want to give up aerobic training in order to put on more muscle. And, for a brief time, I may have actually listened to him. Until I realized how stupid his advice was.

I realized I don’t work out to “put on muscle”. Sacrificing my joyous pursuit of all-round fitness by eliminating one category of exercise, just to potentially look a bit better, killed my motivation.

Incentives Can Have an Opposite Effect on Motivation

One surprising truth of modern psychology is that giving external incentives can actually serve to de-motivate people. When you give people a small reward for something they would enjoy willingly, their desire to take on the task goes down. Try paying a volunteer at a homeless shelter $3 per hour, and you’ll understand what I mean.

The reason is that outside incentives choke out the possibility of an intrinsic motivation. When you make health or attractiveness the primary reason for exercising, any intrinsic appeal fitness might have for you takes a back seat. Intrinsic appeal is the best driver, and should be behind the steering wheel.

The Return of Fitness as an End Unto Itself

I can’t give you a logical argument for why fitness should be intrinsically motivating. Any list of the pros and cons would inevitably rely on the extrinsic benefits. So, in trying to argue for intrinsic fitness, I would be undermining the very argument I’m trying to make.

So instead of arguing, I’ll just share my perspective:

I’m not going to win any muscle-building contests, I know many guys who are much bigger and well-sculpted for less effort than myself. I’m horrible at most sports, and I’m not winning any athletic competitions. I’m healthy, but not noticeably more than many of the people I know who exercise less.

However, I can do one-arm push ups, comfortably run 10km and bench press more than my own body weight. Of course, not that bragging about those things is important in the least, either.

Obviously my approach won’t appeal to everyone. But, for those who it does, I want to suggest that fitness be made a higher value than all the other reasons people “should” exercise. That people shouldn’t be using health, energy or getting a beach-bod as the excuses to get in shape. That endless mass-building, weight loss and constant effort to sculpt and shape aren’t worth your time.

The only reason you should drag yourself off the couch to run, bike or go to the gym is simple: because fitness is an end unto itself.

  • Jonathan Montgomery

    This describes the full process I went through while gym’ing. I used to eat tons of food and stacked on the weights just because of all the comments I got on how skinny I was. It didn’t last, and it wasn’t worth it.

    I now exercise every day so I can feel light, relaxed and healthy. But that’s not why I do it. I’m not there thinking “wow, this is going to make me healthy.”

    It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t think “Hey I think I’ll prevent tartar buildup this morning.” It’s just your daily routine.

  • Brad

    “One surprising truth of modern psychology is that giving external incentives can actually serve to de-motivated people.”

    “de-motivated” s/b de-motivate

    N’est-ce pas?

  • Gordie Rogers

    Interesting take. At the end of the day, exercise makes one feel good by giving a higher energy levels and reducing stress. Good post!

  • Ben J

    IMHO I believe that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation, particularly when the extrensic motivation is used to engender guilt or is punitive.

    In my country, Australia there is a government campaign to encourge people to reduce their waist measurements. There is also a campaign by an organisation that helps those that want to quit smoking. The subtext of the tv advertisments for both campaigns is that if the viewer doesn’t quit smoking and get fit and reduce their waist measurements then the viewer is a really bad parent. The government is also looking at legislating increased tax levys on the manufacturers of “junk” food and drink. These are some of the worst incentives I’ve seen to encourage health and fitness. And human nature being what it is, there are those that will disregard any advice given because of the “nanny state.”

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  • Igor V

    Scott, this is all true, but one doesn’t wake up one morning and realize that s/he wants to exercise, because it’s so good.

    I’ve tried going to gym several years ago, but it didn’t stick with me: I spent time in the gym, worked hard, but then simply dumped the whole idea. I’ve re-tried going to the gym a couple of months ago and now I can’t understand, why I didn’t do it for all these years. The difference was the approach to the gym that I got from a book by a Russian powerlifter/psychologist. (The book is in Russian, so, sorry, can’t reference it here).

    He got me hooked up, initially, by an accurate mix of motivational passages, structured and simple program of exercises and physiological explanations of why what he says should work. And althought I don’t have the clear goal to be able to benchpress this, squat that and deadlift something else, somehow I got to the point of understanding that exercises are, as you say, an end unto itself.

    The bottom line is that you can’t open somebody’s eyes to the intrinsic value of fitness just by telling him/her that it’s good or motivating by something external. One has to be taught to workout at an early age and do this as a ritual. Or to learn and accept this himself at a later age as opposed to “get this hammering into the head” or “be tempted to do this in order to get something else”. In my experience, the right books help with that, friendly advice doesn’t.

    I’m also curious what exercise program you practice yourself. Daily exercises doesn’t sound right to me, so I’m curious to learn more about your workout schedule.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Scott Young


    Yes, extrinsic motivation is usually a good starting point. My point is that, eventually, you need to transition into something intrinsic or maintaining the habit long-term will be more difficult.

    My workout schedule is anywhere from 3-5 times per week.


  • Nezzie

    I don’t quite agree. Competition has been a major source of my motivation over the years. Pushing to do better than I have or to beat that rather annoying person or to not let the team down that is what gets me through the hard workouts and the pain that follows. Yeah thats blurring the line between intrinsic and extrinsic, but I think that there has to be more motivation than just to do exercise. In fact it would be almost sadistic to not have extrinsic motivation. Fitness can be painful and difficult at times, not to mention the time and money you have to put into it.