Remember recess? Bet you couldn’t wait to meet your mates in the school yard to mess around with a ball. And don’t get me started on the joys of playing in the sand in kindergarten!

Physical activity in our early school years tends to be pretty casual. You look forward to it because, well, it’s fun to run around the playground. Later on, exercise turns into just another class. It’s “physical education,” not recess, and if you don’t do it right you’ll get a bad grade.

This isn’t what exercise is supposed to be. We should enjoy physical activity in and of itself, not be forced into PE classes where we do things we have no interest in.

Exercise and Achievement

Most schools have pre-set physical education programs that funnel in students and force them to participate in sport. They’re then expected to embrace exercise and love it for the rest of their lives.

There is a subtle achievement mindset young adults are compelled to embrace when it comes to institutionalized exercise. Too often, it’s about faster times, heavier weights, and being better than peers. It doesn’t matter if you hate every moment of it; you’re only after the results awaiting you at the end of your session. Students who don’t excel often feel shame compared to their sportier (and normally more popular) classmates.

How often do you actually enjoy something you feel pressure to achieve results in? Almost never, right? It’s no wonder so few adults enjoy exercise. They were taught from a young age that it’s a chore to slog through, not an activity to enjoy.

Exercise should not be a means to an end: to lose weight, to get in shape, to impress that boy or girl you like. Exercise should be play. You should look forward to hitting the field, the pool, or the courts, not look forward to it being over with.

Let me tell you a couple of stories that explain how I learned the value of sport as play.

Choice Makes a Difference

When I was in middle school, PE was mandatory. We changed into uniforms and were split into groups: girls played their sports and boys played theirs. It was so dry and regimented that I’m not sure “fun” was ever part of the equation.

Being forced to play a game I didn’t want to really rubbed me the wrong way. If I skipped any class more than others, it was PE.

In high school, I could choose what I wanted to do during my hour of PE. Here, I finally found something I loved: tennis. Suddenly I didn’t want to skip PE. I actually looked forward to it! I wanted to learn how to power serve and perfect my back swing.

Choice made all the difference in the world for me. When I wasn’t forced to “enjoy” some arbitrary activity, I could actually relax and have a good time. And you know what? You never had to remind me to get out to the courts on a sunny day.

Running for the Goal

A couple of decades later, my 12 year old daughter announced she was joining the track team. I was thrilled, as I had been a runner for a long time. Every day after school she ran with her teammates, and every day she came home feeling inadequate and disappointed that she couldn’t keep up with them.

I supported my daughter’s efforts throughout this. I reminded her that it wasn’t about keeping pace with or outperforming anyone. It was about improving her own abilities day by day and having fun doing it.

After another week or two, she came home in tears telling me how much she hated track. Running around in circles was boring, and if she couldn’t even keep up with her friends, what was the point?

I could see my daughter was no longer doing this for herself. Somewhere along the way her curiosity and enthusiasm had been replaced with a fear of failure that caused her a great deal of anxiety. Moreover, she felt like she was not meeting my perceived expectations as her mother, an experienced runner.

This was a lesson for both of us. Modern education doesn’t allow for individuals to explore any of their interests. It’s about conforming to pre-set schedules and standards, even in PE. This instills the expectation in young people that they should learn to enjoy what options are available to them.

Don’t like basketball? Too bad, that’s what we’re doing in PE. Push through the pain and get better at it.

I didn’t want my daughter to internalize this lesson. I told her she was free to explore any physical exercise she wanted to. She doesn’t have to enjoy what her friends do, what her mother does, or even what the school says she should enjoy. She took that to heart and later discovered a love of volleyball.

Exercise to Feel Good

It’s hard to have a conversation about exercise without talking about the benefits. Yes, it helps you lose weight, feel better, be more creative, etc. But if you’re forcing yourself to be active just for those benefits, you’re making things a lot harder than they need to be. And you’re missing out on all of the fun, too.

You can build an effective exercise routine that lasts for a long time simply by focusing on what you enjoy. Ditch the achievement mindset, and forget about pushing through the pain. Find your own personal motivation for wanting to get out there, and follow that every single day.

If you don’t like what you’re doing, try something new. Try a few things. Try a million things. There is no failure, just a failure to try.

Exercise isn’t about hiking the tallest mountain or spending half your day at the gym. Give yourself the freedom to have fun and do what you enjoy.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.

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