Why Do We Get So Attached to Exercises?
Written by TJ O’Brien

I’ve been thinking a ton about this question. I think it’s because it’s hard to find fitness that you like. 

And when we do find something that we like, we tend to hang on to it. 

A friend of mine ran a “thoroughly unscientific” study that asked users over Instagram to tell him two of three facts. He promised he would accurately predict the third, which he did with surprising accuracy. These things were: your political views, your diet, and how you workout.

How, given only two of these facts, could he predict the third?

Because we form an identity and attachment to the way we move. Micro and macro cultures surround all forms of movement from surfers to soccer players, triathletes, to yogis. That culture envelops more than just a training philosophy to include your self-conception of what it “means” to train a certain way.

What does this have to do with me?

The more you identify who you are by how you work out, the more likely you are to do things to protect that identity, and this can work for you or against you.

For example, if you conceive of yourself as a CrossFitter, you’re likely to favor movements that include barbells instead of ones that include sandbags, sleds or something you’ve never seen in most CrossFit programs. If given the option to do a sandbag squat instead of a barbell squat, you’ll likely choose the barbell because that’s “what CrossFitters do”.

But what if barbell squatting doesn’t feel great on your back? Now there’s some cognitive dissonance going on – I conceive of myself as a CrossFitter, but I can’t do this CrossFit movement. In the worst case, this can spiral into feelings of low self-worth, loss in confidence, frustration and plain old F.O.M.O.

However, if you conceive of yourself in another way, say, as a “a gal that wants to lift some weights because it feels good”, or as “a guy that just wants to lose some weight”, when faced with the same decision, the choice is easy. Do the thing that feels the best and offers essentially the same benefit, in this case a sandbag squat.

I’ve been going through a similar struggle for years. I CrossFitted for like, a decade, before a hip injury made me stop squatting for time and load. During that time, I totally thought of myself as a CrossFitter. I was competitive and it felt good to know that I could challenge myself and rise to the occasion.

Luckily, around the time this injury happened, I got massive exposure to other schools of thought via my amazing colleagues at Invictus, who helped me to think outside the box. This made the transition to other things (gymnastics strength, strongman, lots of Assault Bike) and the shift in mindset and identity relatively easy. 

I still set the bar high, and I still rise to the occasion, but the field I play on is broader. There’s room for other stuff now – jiu jitsu, hip hop cardio, Invictus Motor & Muscle classes, even a jog around the block can give me the same sense of satisfaction that a garage “Fran” used to. 

My challenge to you: be curious about how attached you get to certain movements. And ask yourself, “Does this still serve me, does this still help me reach my goal?”

Have you ever experienced the cognitive dissonance I described above? I see it all the time, so you’re not alone if the answer is yes. What did it look like? How’d it feel? What did you do about it?