An Existentialist Approach to Fitness New Year’s Resolutions

Your fitness New Year’s resolutions won’t matter in the long run. Here’s how to get the most out of them anyway.

I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to die. Maybe (hopefully) not tomorrow. Or the next day, or next week, next month, next year or next decade. But it’s going to happen. You have a terminal condition with no known cure. It’s called life. If you’re lucky, you’ll age relatively gracefully. You’ll get old and slow and wrinkly and saggy. And everything you’ve done to preserve your health won’t stop you from meeting your ultimate end.

Today, millions of people will take the first step toward their New Year’s resolutions. In a 2017 Telegraph poll, the four most popular resolutions were “exercise more” (38%), “lose weight” (33%), “eat more healthily” (32%) and “take a more active approach to health” (15%). “Spend more time on personal well-being” (12%), “drink less alcohol” (12%) and “stop smoking” (9%) also ranked in the top ten. Unfortunately, 80% of resolvers are likely to abandon these health and fitness New Year’s resolutions by February.

After a month of uneven effort and unsatisfying results, many people may feel they will never make significant progress toward their fitness New Year’s resolutions. After all, nothing they do will prevent the inevitable. Even if they manage to commit to a healthy diet and exercise regimen for a few weeks, what’s the point of expending so much effort to extend an already meager lifespan by a few brief months or years? In fact, it looks like nothing any of us can accomplish health- and fitness-wise has any lasting significance. Someone will eventually shatter all of Michael Phelps’s swimming records. Someone will eventually eclipse Serena Williams’s accomplishments on the tennis court. And swimming, tennis and other physical activities hardly matter in the grand scheme of the universe and eons of time.

Skinny male watching a stronger man lifting shows why fitness New Year's resolutions can be daunting


Of course, this despairing sentiment can apply to every aspect of mortal human life. No matter what you do, no matter what you accomplish, in your relationships, career, or athletic, intellectual or humanitarian pursuits, you will eventually perish. Your achievements will eventually drown in the currents of time. This sense of meaningless and despair provided the starting point for existentialist philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and (though he eschewed the existentialist label) Albert Camus.

Camus compared this meaningless existence to the story of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity, only to see the boulder roll back down each time he reached the top. But unlike Sisyphus, we won’t get another chance to reach the top of the mountain after we die.

At this point, readers may be thinking one of two things. Some may take their impending doom as motivation to wring every drop of experience and enjoyment from their short lives. They may devote themselves to visiting family and friends, traveling the world or taking their dream jobs, even if it means more work and less money. If that’s you, great. Stop reading this article and get out there. Explore, love, experience and live. I guarantee you’ll lead an active and fulfilling life in the process.

Other readers may find themselves crippled by existential despair. If nothing is worth doing, they might ask, why do anything at all? If that’s you, keep reading. I’ll try to shift your perspective.

Create Your Own Meaning

Anyone who find themselves wallowing in the melancholy of meaninglessness faces a simple choice. They can choose to keep living and try to find something worthwhile in life. Or they can end it all and commit suicide. For Camus, this question is the “one truly serious philosophical problem.” In order to avoid suicide, we must find a reason to keep living aside from hoping to find some deeper meaning.

Woman pushing a sled

Sartre described this approach as “existence precedes essence.” He meant that human lives do not possess any intrinsic value or significance. First and foremost, humans exist. As part of our existence, we have the opportunity to create meaning and define what makes our lives important.

If we are to steer clear of suicide, we must find something enjoyable or motivating in our existence. This motivation allows us to create our own meaning. If you can find something enjoyable in your life, if you can motivate yourself, if you can create meaning, you will find your life worth prolonging and you will cling to it with every fiber of your being.

Existentialism in Health and Fitness

The same approach applies to the pursuit of health and fitness. It’s easy to give up when you first start to push the boulder up the mountain, especially when you know it will roll back down again when you finally reach the top. It’s easy to abandon fitness New Year’s resolutions like losing ten pounds or running your first marathon, especially when you know you’re likely to end your life without a six pack or thigh gap and unable to run a step.

Fitness New Year’s resolutions are admirable, yet daunting, pursuits. So help yourself out by finding activities you enjoy. If you hate the thought of spending hours on the elliptical machine, take a yoga class, go for a hike or pick up a new sport. If you can’t bear slogging through a ten-mile run around your neighborhood, find a forest preserve or run sprints with a friend at the nearest track. Push your big goal to the back of your mind and take pleasure in just moving your body. You’ll be more likely to stick to your resolution and you’ll discover a fulfilling existence in the process.

If you need a little extra motivation, set short-term performance-related goals. Try to do your first pull-up or set a personal best 5K time. Anyone who has set a fitness goal knows deep down that the universe doesn’t care if you hit these targets. But it still feels pretty damn good when you do.

It doesn’t matter if you have casual fitness aims or specific fitness New Year’s resolutions. By seeking enjoyment in your physical movement and setting goals that truly motivate you, you create meaning that matters in your pursuit of health. Your health and fitness become important, not because of externally-imposed and arbitrary standards, but because they matter to you. Framing fitness in this way allows you to make your life worth living. And your new approach to health will increase the amount of meaning and enjoyment you experience by helping to delay death just a little longer.