4 Surprising Life Lessons From Fitness Instructors

While few people argue against the benefits of regular exercise, I have to admit that for many years, I was one of those few. I considered exercise a losing battle. Sure, it reaped rewards in the moments of physical fitness, but it frustrated me that the moment I took a break — putting the gym membership on hold over summer vacation or postponing outdoor runs during the icy winter months — all progress quickly vanished. It didn’t seem fair that it took so much work to get into good shape and almost no time at all to lose muscle tone, flexibility, and cardiovascular strength.

My thinking about exercise shifted around the same time I started living on my own and realized that my “losing battle” philosophy applied to most aspects of life, including grocery shopping, laundry, and keeping in touch with long-distance friends. Like exercise, these tasks require consistent effort for the benefits to continue. I figured that I’m not going to give up on eating, maintaining good hygiene, and nurturing relationships, so why give up on physical fitness?  

Since making that decision, I’ve taken all sorts of fitness classes, and I’ve realized that the benefits of exercise surpass improved physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It turns out that fitness instructors are fountains of wisdom that apply to life outside the gym. Here are four examples:

1. “You are stronger than you know.”

“Do as many push ups as you can,” the instructor commanded, at which point she waited for me to reach my maximum and said, “Okay, now do three more.” Through gritted teeth I obeyed, at which point I realized that she was right: I’m stronger than I know. I remind myself of this moment whenever the words “I can’t do it” run through my head, which most often occurs in instances at work that call for public speaking. I take a deep breath and remember that just because I don’t want to do something, or don’t think I can, doesn’t mean that I can’t. I’m capable of more than I often initially believe.  

2. “Stay away from the dark place.”

When I’m 20 seconds into a three-minute exercise and already feel like my heart can’t beat any faster, I despair. Thoughts such as “I might as well just give up now,” and “This will never get easier” run through my head.  The same sorts of thoughts arise during difficult moments in relationships and it’s easy to give into negative thinking. I can recall moments of intense disagreement with friends when I’ve thought, “Why are we even friends?! Can I continue to spend time with someone who feels so differently about politics/faith/social issues/you-name-it than I do?!” That’s why I loved this fitness instructor’s warning to stay away from the dark place, which reminds me to maintain perspective and keep my emotions from spiraling downward during challenging moments.  

3. “Don’t cheat yourself.”

Sometimes, I find myself waiting until my instructor’s back is turned to take a quick break from a strenuous pose, but then she drops a line like this one and I remember that I’m not taking the class for her. I’m taking it for me, and the only person whom breaking the pose impacts is me.  I try to keep this insight in mind when my alarm clock goes off in the morning, and I’m tempted to stay cozy under the covers and scroll through Instagram for half an hour. There are so many more productive and satisfying ways to begin my day than with social media, including walking my dog, having a leisurely breakfast, starting a load of laundry, or reading a book. Choosing to begin my day with social media feels good in the moment, but it ultimately cheats me from the longer-lasting positive effects of the other morning options.  

4. “Aim for progress, not perfection.”

If there ever was a truly losing battle, it’s the quest for perfection. That’s why my instructor’s advice to aim for progress — maybe a deeper squat or slightly heavier weights —leads to a more productive class than a misguided attempt to reach perfection. This is true in all areas of life: My apartment will never be spotless, but if I spend a few minutes tidying each night and use that free half hour to run the vacuum, it will be cleaner than it was before. I may never reach “inbox zero,” but if I can reply daily to at least five emails requiring a response, I’ll be in a better place.

When I began exercising regularly, I expected to feel stronger physically and emotionally, even if it annoyed me that I couldn’t expect the good feelings to last without continued movement.  All of this sage advice from my fitness instructors has been a welcomed bonus!

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