Simon Sinek uses a reasonable approach to physical fitness as an example of an “infinite game” in his book (Infinite Game). He points out that making a habit of exercising a few days a week, with no specific end point in mind and no competition, yields positive results.
I think this is a fantastic point, but I also see a lot of very achievement-oriented people turning their physical fitness into a short-term competition; a “finite game” as Sinek would call it. I see people lifting weight with horrible form because they want to lift a heavier bar than the person next to them. Or maybe they shave a few reps off their set to finish before someone else in a conditioning workout.
Driven people desire to “win” in all arenas of life, and the gym is no exception. We love sports because we are hard-wired to aim at something, chase it down, and share it with our tribe. Our biology is pushing us. We get endorphins when we work hard, dopamine when we progress toward a goal, serotonin & oxytocin when we high-five our teammates after.
Some gyms track workout scores on a public board, which can fuel this behavior, as many people are at least partly motivated by recognition. This isn’t always a bad thing. Finding extra motivation is what yields exceptional results. The distinction is found in clarifying our goals.
...when we treat fitness like a short-term game, we increase our risk for injury...
Ask most people why they go to the gym and you’ll get some sort of vague long-term goal about looking or feeling better, or being “healthy.” Ask them what they’re doing today at the gym, and you’ll get a very specific answer: “4 sets of 10 squats” or “800-meter repeats on the treadmill.” People know today’s task, and have an expectation for how well they will perform it. They have a very clear picture of what their “win” in the gym is today.
Our dopamine releases when we know, inside, that we’re closer to a goal than before we did the work. Without a clear picture of our long-term goals, we don’t get the internal reward for progress toward them. So, of course, we default to prioritizing today’s short-term “win.” And when we treat fitness like a short-term (or “finite”) game, we increase our risk for injury or burnout. Injuries often happen because we are competing to get the short-term win over the long-term goal. Burnout comes from pushing hard, day in day out, with no feeling of progress over the long-term.
Treat physical fitness as an infinite game. Spend some time thinking about who you want to be, physically, in 10 years. See yourself, whether it’s climbing a mountain or picking up grandkids. Get a good mental picture, then write down some of the key points - whatever constitutes a long-term win for you. Keep a copy of that description in your gym bag. Read it before you go in, and after you come out. Notice the way today’s work helped you toward your long-term goal. Especially if today felt like a short-term loss. You learned something about yourself, uncovered an opportunity. Get your aim back on the long-term vision. Physical fitness works best when played as an infinite game.