The Virtuous Cycle of Fitness

Seeing exercise as a pointless vicious cycle can establish a barrier to physical performance, health and fitness. But changing your outlook and stepping into such a training loop can turn it into a virtuous cycle of fitness.

The Exercycle

In the early days of KineSophy, I shared this cartoon satirizing a common excuse for not exercising:

The Exercycle

The only way out of this vicious cycle of fatigue is to somehow start exercising. But breaking through that cyclical inertia often poses a challenge.

The Seinfeld Cycle

On the flip side of this cycle is the one identified by comedian Jerry Seinfeld:

“See, to me, going to the health club, you see all these people and they’re working out, and they’re training and they’re getting in shape, but the strange thing is nobody is really getting in shape for anything. The only reason that you’re getting in shape is that so you can get through the workout. So we’re working out, so that we’ll be in shape, for when we have to do our exercise. This is the whole thing.” 

Jerry Seinfeld

The Seinfeld exercise cycle looks something like this:

Seinfeld exercise cycle

And it offers another reason not to work out. If the only reason you’re exercising is so that you can exercise again, then what’s the point?

Of course, we can take a similarly cynical view of any long-term pursuit. A frustrated student might observe that the point of learning arithmetic seems to be to learn algebra, and the point of learning algebra is to learn calculus, and so on. Thus, the student must learn math in order to learn more math. This view is reflected in the common student complaint, “What’s the point of learning [insert subject here]? I’m never going to use it in real life.” And a similar complaint appears in Seinfeld’s standup routine.

Cycles and Goals

Obviously, this mindset can make long-term pursuits seem frustrating and unapproachable. Focusing on the cyclical routine of the repetitive tasks necessary to reach such a goal can blind a person to the goal they hope to achieve.

I’ve written previously on how to find significance in routine and how to set meaningful goals, so I won’t go into too much detail on those subjects here. But I will say that, contrary to Seinfeld’s monologue, people do want to get in shape for some reason. It may not be a good reason, and it may not be a reason that motivates them for very long. But people don’t start exercising in order to prepare themselves for the next time they exercise. They do it to lose weight, run a marathon, look good on the beach or do their first pull-up.

Likewise, students don’t go to school to study arithmetic so they can one day study calculus—which they may never use after they leave school. They go to school (or their parents make them go to school) so they can develop the skills and knowledge to help them find a career that will, at best, add meaning to their lives, and at worst, allow them to pay for food and shelter.

Placebos, Belief and Performance

But again, even with a goal in mind, it can be easy to get put off by the cyclical routine that comes with working toward that goal. And observing that cycle from the outside can make taking the first step toward a long-term goal a daunting prospect. Fortunately, we can reframe our mindset to make this seemingly endless cycle work in our favor.

Research shows that athletes who believe they have some external input that gives them a performance advantage (e.g. an injection or a certain drink) actually perform better on physical tests. This performance edge holds even if the input is a placebo with no inherent benefits. And it even works if the athlete knows the input is a placebo.

The flip side of the positive belief/benefit coin holds as well. People who have negative beliefs about their capacity for exercise experience greater discomfort and have less endurance during exercise. In other words, what you believe yourself capable of doing goes a long way toward your actual physical capabilities.

The Virtuous Cycle of Fitness

Reframing the Cycle

Returning to the Seinfeld/Exercyle obstacle, this research suggests that people who feel overwhelmed by the long-term prospects of an exercise program can overcome this feeling by changing their mindset. As science writer David Robson explains:

“If you have a dim view of your fitness, you might currently interpret the natural aches and pains and feelings of fatigue as a sign of your own ineptitude. This could then trigger feelings of shame – ‘I’m so hopeless’ – and the assumption that you’ll never improve. In reality, of course, your slight discomfort is more likely a sign that you are building strength and endurance – and recognising that fact could help you to reduce some of the negative feelings of fatigue.”

In the 1980s, catchphrases like “Feel the burn” and “No pain, no gain” attempted to capture this positive reframing of exercise-induced discomfort. Though they were perhaps a bit misguided (you should not exercise to the point of injury), such mantras can serve as motivational reminders that your hard work will pay off.

Stepping Onto the Exercycle

But the key is taking that first step. If you believe that you are physically capable, that your efforts will pay dividends, you become more capable of completing your training session. And completing that workout reaffirms your belief, which gives you a performance boost in your next workout, and so on. The vicious cycle of pointless monotony becomes a virtuous cycle in which belief reinforces action which reinforces belief.

Here we see another parallel between physical fitness and other aspects of life. Like many other challenges, improving one’s physical fitness is largely a matter of leaning into a cycle: believe you are physically capable and you will be more capable, thus increasing your fitness and belief for the next workout or competition. And though life is often a series of repetitive actions, repetition does not make those actions meaningless. Rather repetition is how we learn and grow in all spheres of life.

Creating a Virtuous Cycle

As for Jerry Seinfeld, he now cites exercise as a crucial part of his work as a comedian. And in what has now come to be known as the Seinfeld Strategy, he applied a similar repetitive strategy to his comedy

Seinfeld realized that “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.” So he got a calendar and made an X through each date box after he completed his writing for the day. His goal was to maintain an unbroken chain of crossed-out dates.

In other words, the process of becoming a better comic is a cyclical act of writing and performing. The key to the process is believing that you can accomplish your writing task for one day. Once you have crossed off the first day, you know you can do another day, and another day, and another day. Plus, each successive day of writing makes you a better comedic writer and more prepared for the next day.

If you have a fitness goal, achieving it is a cyclical process of exercising and recovering. The key is believing you can make it through the first workout. Once you do that, you know you’re strong enough for the next workout. Plus, each workout makes you physically stronger—preparing you physically for your next workout and getting you closer to your goal.

In short, any long-term pursuit requires cycles of repetition. It’s easy to see such a loop as a vicious cycle to be avoided. But if we can reframe it as a virtuous cycle, we can tap into the benefits of continued self-belief and achievement—in fitness and in the rest of life.