What I think about when I exercise

January 6, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Exercises, Fitness

[This post is part of a series on my daily exercise and starting and keeping challenging habits. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Nearly everyone wishes they exercised more, or at least realizes doing so would make them healthier in mind and body.

So why don’t people exercise more? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think their motivation plays a role. American culture, for example, values convenience and saving you work, which results in a lot of sloth. Few activities after high school require most Americans to burn calories.

I’ve been trying to pay attention to my thoughts while exercising for a while. I’d like to say exercise is pure fun like I remember ultimate frisbee being in college, but a lot of the time it’s hard. After often feels great. It’s weird that exhaustion — not normally an emotion you think of liking — ends up so important in what make exercise feel so good.

Normally I prefer not to write so much “I… I… I…” but I feel like these thoughts are mostly universal.


I have two main ways I feel before exercising.

Inspired! — Rare but awesome

One is when I feel inspired, like when the weather is so beautiful I just want to run. Or something makes me feel like rowing. Then everything is effortless. I think about the cool breezes in Central Park if I’m going to run there. The people I’ll see. The colors of the leaves on the trees. How good I’ll feel afterward.

That’s rare, though those feelings sustain me other times when I don’t feel so inspired, knowing I’m capable of those feelings.

More common: lazy but willing

Other times I feel a mix of laziness, not wanting to start exercising, anxiety at feeling bad if I don’t exercise, and some internal nagging to do it.

Rare: anxiety (or even foreboding for high level competition)

The period requires motivation to start. When I played sports this wasn’t a problem, except in high-level competitions. Sometimes I’d feel excited and want as much playing time as I could. Sometimes I’d feel foreboding and fear of failure.

I haven’t felt foreboding or even serious anxiety in a long time. As discouraging as those emotions sound, I miss situations like those. I still walked on the field despite those feelings. Whatever my fears, I had confidence in my abilities to rise to the level of competition. Sometimes I failed, but enough times I rose above to make it worth it. And, of course, for most of my career, I was steadily improving.


When I’m feeling inspired, exercise feels like flying, like freedom. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I enjoy it. I can’t help but think about running in Central Park on a beautiful spring day or throwing a Frisbee with friends (which, for ultimate players, is nothing like throwing a one on the beach or with a dog).

Things aren’t so rosy when I’m not inspired. My mind runs through one of several loops, all repetitive. These loops make up the bulk of what I think about while exercising, at least by time and what I associate with exercise. Luckily the feelings of exhaustion and appreciation of health and fitness afterward (see below) motivate me in times I’m not working out.

How much done, how much to go

I bet most people’s minds run through a pattern like this — how much have I done and how much do I have left to do.

Counting laps

When I run a lap of Central Park, which is six miles, I know roughly where the mile marks are. So I know 1/6th of the way, 1/3, 1/2, and so on. I’m always doing fractions and percentages in my head: “two miles done, that’s one-third. Coming up on three miles, that’s one-sixth more, which is 0.1666…” I don’t know why I get stuck doing all those silly fractions and decimals. Why does grade school math get stuck in my head?

Do I write this to show my geekiness? No, I just think everyone must have similar repetitive thoughts they normally wouldn’t share or even notice they have but seeing them might make them feel more human about something otherwise the might feel funny about.

Also, the street lamps of Central Park have number that show what street you’re on. Since everyone knows there are twenty streets per mile, you can calculate how much farther. I finish at Columbus Circle on 59th Street, so I know at street light 7902 (79th Street’s second lamp) I have about a mile left.

Counting reps

When I do burpees I count explicit numbers and look for major points. Like now that I’m doing twenty burpee sets, I notice 4, which is 1/5th of the way done, and 5, which is 1/4th of the way. 1/3rd of the way is 6 2/3 burpees. Then I notice my 10th, which is halfway there. 15 is 3/4s, 16 is 80%, and so on.

I can tell you how each burpee feels. At the risk of boring people, I’ll write some detail. I have a feeling everyone has similar patterns. If you never notice them, I think your workouts will get boring. If you expose them I think you’ll give yourself a chance to let your thoughts evolve.

  • The first is just a warm-up. My form is usually off. But doing it gets me started. I know as long as I do it, I’ll do the remaining nineteen.
  • The next four go quickly. I hardly notice them.
  • Around number 6 or 7 I realize I’m one-third through. The easy ones are done. Next come the ones requiring effort.
  • Doing 8 through 10 — the halfway point — my body starts to slow down.
  • 10 through 15 aren’t much harder, but I start having to put serious effort in.
  • Since 15 is three-quarters, I feel like I’m almost done. But five burpees are still a decent amount and I’m starting to have to work hard. My breathing is heavy.
  • 17 and 18 start to get hard enough that if I’m tired I might pause after landing without meaning to. When I’m about to jump for the 18th I get annoyed because at 18 I feel like I should only have to jump twice more, but I have three. The funny thing is I think this almost every time.
  • 19 takes the most work but I’m almost done, so it’s not that bad.
  • On 20 sometimes I stumble or can barely jump. That’s rare, like if I’m full or drunk or it’s 4am. Usually I put a lot into it and can get high.

It’s silly information to process, but that’s what runs through my head. Useless, repetitive information. It makes you wonder why we evolved this type of thought to ask. I can’t see how it gave our ancestors advantages over other species.

How my body feels

I also keep track of how tired I am, how much harder I can push, and how I feel relative to other times at the same point. Sometimes I like to exercise for relaxation while exercising. Usually I prefer to exert while exercising to feel more relaxed afterward.

As a result, almost every time I exercise I have an internal conversation varying between telling myself to stop, to keep going, to dig in deep, to pass that person, to let that person pass me, to feel awesome about being out, to feel terrible at not being in the shape I could be, to paying attention to my form, and so on. On my rare inspired runs I have a spring in my step and cruise. All other times I’m pushing and giving in to fatigue and all these other things.

When I get close to the end, I feel my fatigue less and start saying things like, “No need to save up, I can push harder.” When I can see the end of my run I remember my coaches who had us sprint all the way through our sprints. Oh, and I remember one time not sprinting to catch a disc and having someone lay out and block it in a game my girlfriend at the time was watching. Man, that happened almost twenty years ago. It’s amazing how you remember a mistake like that. To this day it motivates me to sprint through the ends of my runs.


When I exercise to exhaustion I feel great afterward. Exhaustion from exercise feels better than almost anything. I particularly like finishing a run after a hot day in Central Park. I don’t know why it feels so good. When the temperature goes above 80 you sweat a lot. Above 90 and you don’t stop sweating for hours after a run. But it feels so satisfying.

I’ve had times after a run I drink a liter of water nonstop. That feels amazing, although also eerily surprising, wondering where it all goes.

I also feel great at having gotten myself out since I usually had to overcome laziness to get out. So the pleasure of exhaustion augments the achievement of overcoming lethargy, knowing I’m that much better at overcoming internal challenges next time.

I can’t viscerally remember feelings after ultimate practices, but I know those practices were harder than anything I do today. A big workout today doesn’t even measure up to the warm up before practice formally began. And those practices were three days a week, plus weekend tournaments.

I think about how little physical activity I have these days compared to then, and how I don’t think I should feel so proud about such minimal exercise today since it’s so little compared to my past. But then I compare myself to an average American and I feel great. Plus a little Schadenfreude, if I’m candid.

Also after I like to indulge in the exhaustion — feeling it in my lungs, legs, arms, … all over. Looking forward to feeling sore the next day.

Also after, I enjoy the feeling of having a healthy body. Not getting winded doing simple things. Being able to climb nineteen flights of stairs sometimes. Being able to run a lap of Central Park when I feel like it. Liking how I look in the mirror. Not feeling shame in a bathing suit or running in just shorts.

I have to say, one of the every day long-term benefits of keeping in shape is appreciating the health and fitness of your body.


The above doesn’t capture all the thoughts and feelings that exercise brings. It’s something everyone experiences. I think many people experience drudgery when exercising. It can have that, but I’ve found the few inspired times can make up for it.

Overall, exercise in teams can be amazing, but harder to coordinate. Exercise solo runs more of a gamut of emotions, involving needing to motivate before, and rewarding emotions after.

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3 responses on “What I think about when I exercise

  1. Pingback: Burpees — unbeatable for fitness and my best habit — the series » Joshua Spodek

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