In August of 2013 I was frustrated. I would wake up every day with the intention to go to the gym. But I would walk into a trap before I could cross the threshold of my apartment. Client emails needed my response. Social media beckoned. And that was after I hit snooze for the umpteenth time.
Finally, I hit a wall. I decided that I needed put my fitness first.
I resolved to “stop snoozing on my life” — as one of my mentors called it.
I created a simple plan:
Get up. Get dressed. Get out the door.
No snooze. No email. No social media. No 2-minute tasks. No “just this one thing first.”
The initial game I created for myself was primarily about getting up and out the door as quickly as possible.
Although my initial intention was partly motivated by my desire to put my fitness first, I have always maintained that it wasn’t about “going to the gym.”
If I was traveling, my morning workout might be a walk or an outdoor workout. Maybe a fitness class. As a default, I always travel with resistance bands.
That said, if I had a gym accessible, I usually went to the gym. It’s not that I loved the gym, per se.
Rather, there’s a power in place.
Environment is More Potent Than Willpower
There’s a saying I heard once many years ago:
Environment is more potent than willpower.
The physical context of our external environment does more to shape our behavior than any inner will or motivation. That’s why, even when I had days or weeks — or entire months — when “I didn’t feel like it,” I would still go to the gym. I might do a light workout, or hardly anything at all, but I still went.
By keeping up the daily practice of going to the place, I could ensure that when my energy returned and I did feel like it, I would already be in the place where I was primed to take action. And being in that place helped me “feel like it” more quickly.
Watching other people working out helped me generate my energy to do the same.
Then the pandemic hit. Gyms closed. Armed with my resistance bands and yoga practice I settled into a new routine of home-based workouts.
I had moved in with my parents, to their house in the suburbs that sits on a block that is a closed loop. I walked. I started to teach myself to run. I swam. I had some dumbbells to work with.
People said it was the end of gyms, but I knew better. Yet even as gyms reopened I didn’t rush back. Partly it was a desire to be conservative in the face of the virus. Partly it was that I didn’t love any of the gyms around them.
And partly it was inertia.
Even as I maintained my “fitness first” practice, I knew my home based workouts and yoga weren’t as effective.
In 2019 I spent 6 months working daily with a physical therapist to retrain my neuromuscular patterns, fix longstanding compensation patterns, and build strength. I lost all of those gains in the pandemic.
Resistance bands and dumbbells weren’t enough for me to maintain or rebuild the strength I had lost. Without someone overseeing my movements I knew I was most likely falling back into my habitual dysfunctional movement patterns.
Most crucially, without others around me also pushing themselves, I was stagnating. Going through the motions without challenging myself.
The Power of a Place
A few months ago, I decided I needed to get back to a gym. After testing some local gyms and trainers, I found a gym with an energy that pulls me to it. A place that has a community vibe, that inspires me to bring my best and challenge myself.
Coming to this gym lifts me up. It gives me energy and renewed focus, both in my workouts and my work.
It reinforces for me the power of a place.
Any task involves both emotional labor and physical labor.
At the gym, I don’t have to expend as much energy on summoning the inner motivation or willpower to workout. The physical environment takes care of most of that heavy lifting for me.
And that frees me up to focus on the heavy lifting that builds my physical strength.
Environment is more potent than willpower. If you’re stagnating, find a new physical environment for your activity.