“I had bad experience after bad experience, and I’m going to feel really anxious about it,” she says of trying to get into racing. (Most runners have to prove a very fast finishing time in order to enter.) “It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Running, which started out as a fun thing, has become this fight to prove to everyone I’m worthy of Boston.”
Clore decided to work with a sports psychologist, who helped her make a discovery that changed her relationship to running: “I fell into the trap of my identity being a runner,” she says. “It’s what a lot of my self-esteem rests on, and I’ll get very depressed and frustrated when I don’t succeed.”
Under the guidance of a psychologist, Clore learned to think of herself as not runnerbut like a the person who runs. This shift in mindset “changed everything,” Clower says, making running more fun and less stressful—and ultimately helping her eventually qualify for Boston, which she’s now done 12 times, and is documented in her book, Boston pound.
Clore’s experiment is not unusual. Oftentimes, unlike other hobbies, fitness takes over our identities. We don’t just run – we’re runners. We don’t just do CrossFit – we’re CrossFiter; We don’t just walk – we hike. Our favorite workouts can overtake our lifestyles, our social media feeds, our daily style choices, and probably a lot of our conversations.
Obsessing over a fitness option doesn’t have to be a bad thing—in fact, it can motivate us to spend more time being active and help us develop meaningful communities and relationships with others who are similarly obsessed. But overly defining fitness at the expense of other identities, interests, and roles can have risks to our mental and physical health.
Why fitness enthusiasts tend to be overidentified
Considering how multipurpose most of our fitness routines are, it only makes sense that many of us would invest in—or also invest in it. Not only can fitness be a source of joy and enjoyment (and endorphins!), but it can also improve our health, boost self-confidence, and reduce anxiety, says Patricia Lally, Ph. D., a sports psychologist and professor at Lock Haven University.
Embracing this type of hobby makes us feel good about ourselves for making healthy choices, especially in a culture that praises physical fitness.
Exercise routines can also become an integral part of our social lives: It’s notoriously difficult for adults to make new friends outside of work, and running groups, exercise classes, and gym memberships can fill the gap and become the answer to the question, “What do you do for fun?”
The fitness industry is designed to build this sense of social cohesion, since the more we learn about our fitness routine, the more time and money we’ll spend on it, says Brian Cook, PhD, a researcher who has studied exercise identity and dependence. (Think of how many fitness studios and brands use language like “fit fam” or “tribe” in their marketing.) Sometimes, as in the case of Clor, this social aspect of fitness can lead to pressure to perform better—leading to To spend more time exercising, and less time developing other interests and identities.
The stakes of making fitness your identity
Our identities are supposed to be multidimensional, made up of many roles that come to the fore at the right moments, says Dr. Lally. “But when we overidentify with one role,” she says, “we look at all those other roles through the lens of the primary role. So when we’re at work, we still think about running, or we can’t go and watch our kids’ activity because we have to run.”
When our fitness obsession begins to take over our identity, we risk losing investment in the many other roles revolving around our lives, which can lead to poor relationships, slumps at work or school, and missed opportunities. says d. To the other activities we used to enjoy. And by identifying us primarily as a “runner,” “cyclist,” or “hiker,” we’re implicitly demanding physical fitness to meet all of our needs, something we’ll never be able to do, says Dr. Cook.
Clore says that after she distanced herself from her “runner” identity, she felt she had undergone a “personality transplant,” she says. I noticed that she became less stressed, more fun, more appreciative, and more interested in other people’s lives.
Overly familiar with fitness can also lead to compulsive exercise, says Dr. Lally. This comes with a host of risks, including overtraining and injury, and withdrawal symptoms like feeling irritable, restless, or anxious when we can’t work out.
And as much as we don’t want to imagine not being able to participate in our favorite activity, unfortunately, injury, illness, or any other circumstance may prevent us from playing sports in the short or long term at any time—so restricting our self-esteem is a dangerous game. “What we’re really talking about is our value,” says Trent Petrie, PhD, a sports psychologist and professor at the University of North Texas. “Is my worth as a person determined solely by my ability to engage with this identity?”
How to make sure your fitness obsession is healthy
To be clear, Clore still calls herself a “runner” — after all, “the guy who runs” doesn’t exactly roll his tongue. Plus, she thinks it’s important to show her thousands of Instagram followers that imposter syndrome shouldn’t stop them from calling themselves a “runner” if they’re already running — no matter the distance or speed.
But, even though she’s built her life around running, she feels that if she had to stop, she’d be basically fine, she says. “This is always a question I like to ask myself as a mental check.”
Dr. Cook agrees that asking whether or not you can stop, or at least take a break from your fitness regimen, is a helpful question in determining whether you’re too invested. When you go on vacation, do you feel obligated to find a gym, or to hop in your hotel room? If you find yourself trying to adapt to exercise at the expense of other priorities—whether it’s rest, family, work, or self-care—ask yourself why you feel the need to do so, suggests Dr. Cook.
For Clore, creating a healthy relationship with running meant acknowledging that the sport wasn’t the same—and taking the time to learn what sets it apart at its core. “I started thinking about all the good qualities I bring to running,” she says, “like her work ethic and her intelligence.” “Once you start valuing yourself for those things, it doesn’t matter what time it is on the clock.”
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