As human beings, we are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Think of your hand as you accidentally brush against a hot stove-top, what happens as soon as you feel the intense heat? You draw your hand back quickly as your body senses the threat. This response, however, is not by accident. It’s programmed into us, much like how your body goes into shock after an acute stress event.
Everyone knows that guys hate talking about feelings (that’s also programmed into us). If you have anything that even resembles a Y-chromosome, emotions probably don’t come up frequently in conversations at the bar.
The interesting piece of this fact is that we are driven by emotion to avoid talking about emotions. We are too prideful to show weakness and want to avoid the feelings of helplessness and embarrassment that come with admitting that we even have emotions.
So what does human emotion have to do with fitness? As it turns out, everything.
As part of an assessment, it is a trainer’s job to help clients establish goals, both short- and long-term. Perhaps the most common answer is “look better.” If we dig deeper, we find a more specific answer, like looking more like Channing Tatum in Magic Mike (and less like Peter Griffin).
Still, if we continue to dig deeper, we can begin to uncover the emotional factors behind this goal. Here, we find words like confidence and self-esteem.
However, HUMAINE (now known as AAAC) has defined 47 other emotions that humans can feel beyond just confidence. Parrott’s emotions include 6 primary emotions, 25 secondary emotions, and a whole slew of tertiary emotions related to them. Robert Plutchik created a color wheel based around 8 emotions and 8 advanced emotions. David Robinson (University of Kuwait) has compiled a table consisting of 11 positive and 11 negative emotions. As you can see, there is clearly much more to human emotion than just confidence.
Back to our assessment. Our fitness goals are almost always constructed around the concept of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In the case of persistent knee or back pain, the answer is obvious. But in the case of looking better, the solution might not be as obvious as you think.
We begin our answer with the idea of motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for instance, identifies the third and fourth tiers as being love/belonging and self-esteem, respectively. Reiss’ 16 basic desires include factors such as acceptance, independence, order, physical activity, power, social contact, and social status, among others.
At the core of these motivational theories, though, is emotion. The reason we seek out things like love, self-esteem, or acceptance is the powerful positive feeling that comes with them.
There are 48 emotions included in HUMAINE/AAAC’s Emotion Annotation and Representation Language (AAAC stands for Association for the Advancement of Affective Computing and they dabble in emotion-oriented computing). The list is basically divided into negative and positive emotions.
Further, the negative emotional groupings include negative and forceful, negative and not in control, negative thoughts, negative and passive, and agitation. The positive groupings are positive and lively, caring, positive thoughts, quiet positive, and reactive.
If you believe that our human nature compels us to avoid pain or negative emotions, it would stand to reason that fitness goals can be broken down into avoiding emotions like disgust (from others), embarrassment, anxiety, worry, doubt, envy, frustration, guilt, shame, hurt, and stress.
Similarly, since nature compels us to seek out those emotions which are positive, our fitness goals are likely related to a desire to feel elation, excitement, joy, affection, friendliness, love, courage, pride, satisfaction, contentment, or relief.
Your goal isn’t a six-pack, bigger biceps, or smaller love-handles. You goal is to remove the anxiety from the action of taking your shirt off at the beach. To remove the threat of embarrassment or shame. To remove envy. Your goal is to gain confidence. Satisfaction in reaching your goal and love from yourself and others.
Does any of this sound familiar? Hopefully. Unfortunately, I cannot hypnotize you and infiltrate your hypothalamus with these emotions; they are indistinguishable from the aesthetic outcome.
But that’s your answer right there. The aesthetic portion is merely an outcome in the process of seeking out those positive emotions and ridding ourselves of the negative ones.
And the great thing about the process of becoming “fit” is that there are many different outcomes which we can arrive at! Not only can we establish confidence and satisfaction when we finally look in the mirror and see a six-pack in the reflection, but we can derive that confidence and satisfaction from mastering new exercises, setting personal records, or developing new relationships with other gym-goers and trainers.
We can avoid guilt, shame, disappointment, and doubt by setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-related) and taking small, consistent steps forward. That could mean something small like drinking a certain amount of water each day for two weeks or adhering to a program in order to improve our 1-rep max by 5 or 10 lbs.
Next time you’re setting goals for yourself, don’t start by selecting an arbitrary aesthetic goal and assuming that the positive feelings will come along for the ride. Aesthetic goals are usually defined by society and who really cares what society thinks? You care about how you feel.
What does human emotion have to do with fitness? Absolutely everything. Your job is to become honest with yourself. Aesthetic outcomes aren’t bad, but once you get a six-pack or that thigh gap thing, what comes next? Your job is to recognize that above all, according to everyone from Maslow to Reiss and every theory in between, your human nature is causing you to seek love, confidence, satisfaction, and acceptance, not just a six-pack.
Find exercises you love doing and foods that you love eating and people that you love being around and find ways to integrate all three into your life. Be confident in who you are and what you can do now, but keep progressing by mastering new things and improving your current skills. Set SMART goals. You will be satisfied each time you reach a new one. The bottom line is this: your aesthetic “goals” are just the outcomes, positive feelings are the goals. Your job is to find ways to reach your goals.
You don’t need to fit the societal-Hollywood-fashion-magazine-aesthetic persona that has been shoved in your face. There are a million other ways to elicit those positive feelings that we ALL seek and that make life awesome.