As a lifelong fitness enthusiast, I’ve been called selfish more than once. Back when I had an office job, coworkers would meet for happy hour after work and I’d head off to the gym. When friends and family meet for early dinners, I sometimes show up late, making sure my daily dose of exercise is complete first.
In the minds of many, putting exercise first is a selfish action. But you could say the same thing about putting work or other activities first. Let's take a look at how to find balance between these elements.
Exercise Improves Everything
Exercise is undoubtedly good for us, just like work is an important aspect of life. Working out is a way to better yourself in the same way working hard is a good approach to furthering your career. It’s hard to argue with things that make us healthier, wealthier, or happier.
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But having bodies that function optimally can help us beyond the gym. It can help us be more productive at our jobs, in our lives, and even in our relationships. Yet exercise is not a necessity and a toned body, while gratifying in the short term, won’t necessarily make you a better partner, parent, or worker. So, the question of whether exercise is selfish is one that has layers of complexity and more than one answer.
Your Health Is as Important as Your Career
By American cultural standards, working more hours is applauded, as is spending as much time with family as possible. But spending time at the gym, on a bike ride, or rock climbing does not seem to hold as high a value.
"Understanding the difference between an intrinsic and an extrinsic motivator is a good way to evaluate motive[.]"
Many would say it’s a question of balance. But time is a finite property and achieving balance is no small task. Despite technological advances, time remains in short supply, as the hours in our days never change. For many people is little time left after handling family and work.
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This is where quality of time factors in. Just like in exercise, time spent doing exercise doesn’t necessarily equate to a certain level of fitness, health, or wellness. Too much exercise and the body breaks down. Too little and the body breaks down. Similarly, the amount of time spent at your job or even time spent as a parent does not necessarily make you a good worker or parent. The quality of the time spent does.
Creating quality time requires both personal and cultural buy-in. The fact is, selfish or not, exercise can enhance both your family life and your career. According to a recent study, employees who exercise at least thirty minutes, three times a week, were fifteen percent more likely to have higher job performance.
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Another comprehensive study showed that employees who exercise on workdays are more productive, suffer less stress, and are even happier. 72% of the study participants cited improvement in time management on exercise days and 74% said they managed their workload better when they exercised. Many companies are even helping their employees be proactive with their health by offering exercise facilities and corporate wellness programs on the job site.
Balancing Exercise and Family
But even if you can convince your boss that it’s good for you to exercise on your lunch break or to leave right at 5:00pm to hit the gym, the biggest hurdle you will likely face in creating time to exercise is the guilt of spending time away your family and loved ones.
"If health is our most valuable possession, then the desire to better your fitness is a noble pursuit."
It’s here where the most important buy-in is needed. It isn’t a selfish act to spend time exercising and serving your health, wellness, and fitness. You could almost make the opposite conclusion when it comes to parents who don’t exercise - that parents who don’t exercise are actually hurting their families. In fact, a recent study concluded there is a direct correlation between the physical activities of mothers and their children. That is, the less physically active a mother is, the more likely her child will be sedentary early in life.
Exercise need not be a zero-sum equation and be seen as being at the expense of family and/or friends. I exercise with my girlfriend frequently. Families can exercise together and find group activities that enhance their relationships. Cultural norms don’t change overnight, though. Wellness in the workplace and fitness in the family, while growing movements, are movements that need the right motives behind them to prosper.
The Difference Between Vanity and Purpose
Understanding the difference between an intrinsic and an extrinsic motivator is a good way to evaluate motive when it comes to exercise. In short, exercising for simply extrinsic values such as the desire for toned arms or six-pack abs may indeed be selfish. When we exercise for our vanity we have no concern for others and we are chiefly concerned with our own profit and pleasure. That is the very definition of the word selfish.
"The fact is, selfish or not, exercise can enhance both your family life and your career."
However, when we exercise based on an intrinsic motivation, with a greater sense of purpose, we serve as an inspiration, mentor, example, and exercise evangelist for others. Intrinsic motivators like finding purpose in wellness and the expression of grace in movement are perhaps self-serving in a way, but a purpose-driven motivator is one that also serves others.
As we see with artists, they may be driven by their own self-serving passion, but that passion inspires and deeply touches others. The same can be said about dedicating your life to fitness and wellness. You can inspire and touch others, whether they are your friends or your children.
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The bottom line answer is that exercise can be both a selfish and an unselfish act. The motive behind it is what matters. If health is our most valuable possession, then the desire to better your fitness is a noble pursuit. And one thing is for certain: whether exercise is selfish or not, with the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes, collectively we need more of it.
1. Brooks, Chad. “You Are What You Eat…Even At Work.” BusinessNewsDaily.
2. Firger, Jessica. “When Mom’s Exercise, So Do Kids.” CBS News.
3. “People who exercise on work days are happier, suffer less stress and are more productive." Daily Mail.