Why It Pays to Have a “Fitness Identity”

I read an article the other day about how eating healthy is more important than exercising because you can’t “outrun a bad diet.” But I hate reading articles like this, because the truth is we need both, so it’s a stupid comparison in the first place.

You can’t out-exercise a bad diet, but no amount of healthy food will save you if you don’t move your body and maintain your muscle mass. Just ask Pam Peeke, who watched reality TV contestants “die” because they were too “skinny-fat” to save themselves in a simulated building fire.

And of the two — good exercise habits and good eating habits — Americans seem to struggle more with exercise. Word on the street: roughly 50% of people who start an exercise program will drop it within six months. In 2000, only 11% of the U.S. adult population reported doing at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity more than twice a week. The number may have improved since then, but it probably hasn’t.

The question of exercise adherence continues to baffle just about everybody… but it doesn’t baffle my friend Ashley.

Ashley has been a skateboarder for as long as I’ve known her. We first met 10 years ago, when I was an intern at a magazine and she was our printer rep. She’s still a successful marketing professional, no doubt at a busier point in her career than ever. Yet she still skates on the regular.

One night over tacos, I asked her how she makes time for it. Her response was that it’s simply part of her identity.

She is a skater.

I was thinking about Ashley’s comment this week while reading research about self-branding, and also how humans follow patterns — we’re more likely to do something if we’ve done it before, or if we see ourselves as the “type of person” who does it. We’re programmed to follow in our own footsteps.

You’d think the motivation to exercise would be to improve our health, but it’s only half the story. Behavior researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman say that when a person makes a decision, it’s partly shaped by the possible outcome (i.e., fitness) and partly shaped by “the norms, habits, and personal characteristics of the decision-maker.”

Makes sense. It’s hard to feel any sense of immediacy about something so vague as fitness rewards. But if you think of yourself as a skater, as opposed to someone who occasionally skates for fun or recreation, what are you going to do with a rare free hour in the evening: queue up Netflix or grab your board? My guess is you’ll skate.

Talking with other athletic friends, I can see how the power of a fitness identity goes further. It begins to influence the company you keep. You become responsible for keeping up appearances; for earning the title; for showing off to peers or simply keeping up with them. Maybe more than anything, humans enjoy having a solid identity and solidarity with others (also a survival mechanism).

Gradually our fitness identity affects the clothes we wear and the gear we fill our space with, which transform how we see ourselves. Maybe creating a fitness identity also increases our self-efficacy?

There’s wonderful “fake it ‘til you make it” potential here.

I wonder if the biggest reason a fitness identity leads to regular exercise is actually this, though: it gives us focus.

Sometimes, as any good marketer will tell you, a non-choice is the best choice. A runner doesn’t suffer from choice paralysis about what to do for tonight’s workout — run or lift weights or go to ballet or hop on your bike or maybe just do nothing, or pick something but spend the whole time wondering if you should’ve chosen something else.

You know what to do and YOU DO IT.

As a confirmed exercise dilettante, I’ve never really had a fitness identity. I’ve done swing dancing, tennis, tai chi, cycling, salsa, zumba, weight lifting, aerial yoga, and now climbing and tango. I’ve enjoyed it all, but only stuck with each for about 1-2 years. And when presented with the choice between exercising or meeting friends at the pub, I’ve tended to choose beer.

But now I’m in my 30s and I want to look as good as Ashley. And I want to be really good at something, like the people I interview for this #MyIdeal campaign every week. They have a solid fitness identity and they’re keeping up with exercise despite full-time work, spouses and kids.

This brings me to climbing and argentine tango. I’ve been climbing for 20 months and tangoing for 8 months. I’ve labeled myself as a climber and a tango dancer only hesitantly — always adding “beginner” to reduce any expectations of my performance, and probably to evade commitment. But I see how this is limiting.

So my experiment now is to claim a fitness identity. I’m going deeper into climbing and tango, for the rewards of focus and not having to choose from a million different fitness activities. I also want to see if it helps my exercise regimen withstand a full schedule of work, volunteer job and graduate classes this fall.

Do you have a fitness identity? More than one? Has it changed your life in some way?

xo Chelsea


Since, for some mysterious reason, people prefer to comment on Facebook, I’m migrating an interesting debate about fitness identity from there to here. My aim isn’t to make a prescription for all, but to explore different strategies we can try. Incidentally, the people who turned out to have the strongest opinions are all people I climb or dance with…

DP: Don’t let yourself be cornered by an unrealistically straight and narrow “identity”. It isn’t what you do as much as how do you approach it, what you reap, what you put on the line. I got natural stamina, I can’t stand competing with others, I love beauty and I am a sucker for discovery – can you make a narrow fitness identity out of that? Road bikes to mountaineering to o-running to ski backpacking to geocaching to ultrarunning to tango – the shifts are driven by health and friendships and locations and pure chance – the identity is still my insufferable self. Tango may be a deeper rabbit hole than most, but … never say “para siempre”, mi tanguera loca :)

DP: “No tiene pretensión …” and then the closing words, “muy fácil es llegar al corazón”

Me: I like your take DP. I am essentially un-corralable, and have never said forever about anything, but I like the idea of choosing one particular rabbit hole and going deep. We’ll see what happens. By the way, what does the song mean?

DP: Aha, so it’s hard to slap onto yourself a label of “any” identity “now and alone”, a lot easier in the network of a group and in the flow of time. Memories and friends, culture and history pull you in. But most people contemplating “new life of exercise” are alone and rootless, if not, worse yet, saddled with memories of disappointments.

The song – “Una Emocion”, “A Feeling” is one of tango’s informal anthems. Tango as a simple emotion in a union of words and music, a longing for something simple left behind, a feeling which is humble yet not docile. It doesn’t need to pretend or to be racy or bad – don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be, it’s simply called tango and that’s all it is … and it gets deep in your heart.

VR: But, that’s the thing though… People who stick with anything don’t have ‘fitness’ as the primary goal in their mind. A dancer loves to dance and a musician loves to play for hours on end. The fitness is just a side effect. There are those few people, bless them, who can go to a gym and lift and what not with just fitness in mind… Body builder comes to mind. But, most people will get a lot fitter if they focus on finding activities they cannot stop doing….

Me: VR, I agree. When you are so immersed in an activity that you forget about the rewards, you get the rewards. But regardless of the goal, do you think that if someone considers him or herself a “dancer,” it might deepen that person’s relationship to the activity?

VR: But, it’s not forgetting the rewards, but changing your idea of what a reward is. ‘Fitness’ as a goal/reward is not only unhelpful for most people, I think for many it is down right detrimental in the sense that it detracts from the joy a person would derive from doing something which is really what keeps that person coming back to that activity.  If you don’t enjoy something, you won’t do it for long. And the trick to finding things you enjoy is to learn to be a quitter. I for one am a proud quitter. I’ve tried a lot of things before I found things that I just do, and don’t even have to think about.

As for giving oneself a label, I was hesitant to call myself a musician until my voice teacher nonchalantly and unceremoniously conferred that title on me during one of my lessons. I never called myself a dancer until almost a year after I started dancing. So I think the label doesn’t deepen a persons relationship with the activity. In fact, I think it’s the other way round.

LS: I believe I have a solution to occasional the exercise vs. pub dilemma. What if we go climbing together and THEN go to the pub!

PT: Enacting the behaviors that are congruent with the identity is ego-syntonic. So it seems that having an intention to develop an “identity” with regard to physical fitness could be a helpful strategy in maintaining healthy behaviors. Though having too lofty an identity seems problematic: Personally, when I try to imagine I am a “dancer” or a “climber” I feel discouraged and want to avoid dancing and climbing. It’s better for me to organize my identity around simply being active in a variety of movement pursuits, doing what feels good in my body.

DP: Oh, we may be onto something. False flag identity covers? A shrewdly worn mask of simplicity? Can it be common? Can it provide comfort and self-esteem? I often tried to carefully position myself at the very fringe of my chosen field of endeavor, or even completely outside, to enjoy both achievement and freedom at the same time, and not just in physical activities. Is there an advantage in saying, “I’m playing along with you but I am not one of you”? Like I might have adopted a stance of a ski backpacker among the mountaineers or an o-runner among the geocachers.

Perhaps it may boost one’s sense of pride in accomplishments which look modest by the peer group’s standards (“Sure, I’m not doing nearly as well as the best of you, but it’s quite a feat for an outsider like myself?”) Or possibly it liberates you from a need to conform to the social pecking order and cultural conventions of the peer group (“I don’t have to have fancy gear or top-notch teachers / trainers or initiation rites because I’m not striving to become one of you and I can’t be bound by your rites of passage”).

If we can’t quite be content with “competing against ourselves”, then perhaps we do need unique micro-niches where few can compete with us & therefore we rule?

Please feel free to share and add your thoughts :)


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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