This comic came across my desk recently, and I don't think I've ever seen a more succinct explanation of how complicated the interaction between fitness and mental health can be.
Most people start getting into shape because they think it's an easy first step to a better life. There's a lot of "happily ever after" thinking. The reality is much more nuanced. I'm in the enviable position of seeing thousands of Kenzai trainees transform their bodies every year, and there's no denying the thrill of people seeing their abs for the first time, getting compliments from strangers, or fitting into the clothes of their youth. It's an incredibly rewarding experience for all involved.
What happens after that initial thrill wears off? After months of hard work, discipline, and sweat you have the body you always wanted. But are you any happier?
If you're expecting a lot of external validation of your new fit body, you're going to be disappointed. It's amazing how quickly your current physique becomes the new normal for the people around you. You'll receive a lot of kudos for getting in shape, but no one is going to congratulate you for staying in shape. And in a few short months people will forget that you were ever out of shape, you'll just be "that fit person" who brings your own lunch to the office like a weirdo. It won't be long before you start getting comments like "You're just naturally lean, I wish I had that kind of metabolism." This is mildly infuriating.
And those abs, toned arms, lifted glutes and shapely calves you worked so hard for? You realize pretty quickly that they're covered by clothes most of the time, and that even if people know they're there, they don't treat you any differently. It's just another part the sketch people have in their heads of you. Medium height, brown hair, in decent shape, likes Italian food, drives a blue car, etc... That's about the extent of the attention being fit gets you.
So you're not going to get a lot of after-transformation happiness generated from external sources. How about from within?
This too is complicated. If you're the kind of person who's driven enough to stop making excuses and finally get in great shape, you're also the kind of person who's going to keep on expecting better of yourself, even after you've shaped up. Most people never feel "finished" with their physical pursuits. I've never met someone who trains seriously and isn't adopting new physical goals as old ones are met. (For more on this check out my Body Dysmorphia post) So you're not going to have many of those ecstatic "I love my body" moments. You're going to have lots of "I'm doing okay, but I really need to work on this or that" moments. This is a good thing, it keeps you sharp and motivated, but it's not what I would call happiness.
So if, as the comic suggests, getting in shape doesn't really make you happier, why even do it at all?
The best analogue I can find is that of money.
In the words of David Lee Roth, "Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it."
We all know that money isn't necessary for a fulfilling and happy life, but having some of it sure does spare you from a lot of annoyance and misery. Money can't buy happiness, but poverty can't buy anything.
In 2010 a Princeton study confirmed this. As a person's income rose, happiness steadily increased. Making 40,000 dollars a year made people a lot happier than 20,000 dollars a year. And $60,000 makes you even happier. But this effect levels off at the $75,000 range. After that, higher income didn't change day to day happiness. At 75k people are able to pay off their basic needs and have a little extra for financial security and simple pleasures. (The actual number will vary depending on the cost of living in your area.)
I think your fitness level works exactly the same way. Being in great shape doesn't make you happier, but it sets you up to do the things that will make you happy. And being out of shape, with low muscle mass and excess body fat, will actively get in the way of contentment.
When you're in good shape you can simply get more of the marrow out of life. It doesn't matter whether you're at the club on Friday night or in the park with your kids on Sunday morning, you're going to be confident in yourself and enjoy the experience as a full participant. Clothes fit well and look great. You can recover from injuries and illness faster. You can run up a flight of stairs to catch a train. You can go on long hikes and enjoy the scenery without feeling like you're dying. The list goes on and on, and it's all about the experiences that being fit opens up to you. Those experiences are what turns on the happiness faucet.
The final question is, what's the $75,000 mark in terms of fitness? At what point are you getting most of the benefit without spending inordinate time and mental energy on diet and exercise? It's hard to pin down as precisely as income, but there are a few clear benchmarks I can think of:
• Never winded in daily life - When you find yourself having a busy, active day and never feeling short of breath, you're in a good place.
• Jogging without jiggling - When you can run (or do any impact exercise) and not feel that telltale jiggle on your tummy, back of arms, or butt, you're in a good place.
• Flat stomach in clothes - When your stomach isn't protruding beyond the natural lines of your shirt or dress, you're in a good place.
• Looking forward to exercise - If you find yourself frustrated because a busy day is keeping you from your workout, you're in a good place.
• Keeping up with kids - When you can spend time with young children and not have to take a break as they run circles around you, you're in a good place.
• Waking up hungry - If you get out of bed with a growling stomach, looking forward to a solid breakfast, your diet is in a good place.
Notice that none of this has to do with your body measurements, resting heart rate, ab definition, ability to run vast distances, or amount of metal you can move in a gym. These benchmarks are attainable by anyone willing to put in the basic work of nutrition and exercise. If you found them all to be true for you, congratulations, you're probably getting a good cost to benefit ratio on your fitness efforts.
And if you aren't meeting many of those benchmarks, don't feel bad about it. You're not going to find $75,000 in your closet, but you just might find those old gym shoes and a jumprope. Those two items plus the produce aisle of your supermarket are literally all you need to get a level of fitness that opens the door to a happier life. You won't find a better deal.
But you still have to step through that door!