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The Way We Make Fitness Resolutions Is All Wrong

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

The barrage has started. By now you’re keenly aware of every fitness studio that has your email address and they’ve got the deals and they’ve got the promises. They want you back. A two week free trial in exchange for a year financial commitment and a blood oath. They’re ready to do this thing with you! And you say yes to fourteen months of a barre class, because that feels like the general mood of the moment. And then, three weeks later when it’s not New Year’s anymore, you realize you’re lying on the ground with screaming hamstrings, doing something you never wanted to do before and still don’t want to do now.

The problem isn’t us: Fitness resolutions were never built to last. We overcommit, only to hurt ourselves and never return. New Year’s fitness resolutions are our annual belly flop. The truth smacks a little, but maybe with a slightly more graceful and easy approach, after cooling it with the brute force, we can actually get what we want.

When I was a devotee at my cute queer gym in Los Angeles and a couple semi-preposterous fancy boutique classes, I came to expect a speech at the end of December, warning loyal attendees to brave it out as the new converts of January flooded in. The instructors—a little meanly!—implied that new zealots probably wouldn’t last long. The data backs them up: “With the tens of thousands of studios that run out our platform there’s about a thirty percent increase of total booking from December to January each year,” says Lauren McAllister, who does strategy for fitness booking app MindBody. And according to Strava, the exercise app, most people abandon their fitness resolutions by January 19 (they deemed it “quitter’s day.”)

But this isn’t because people don’t try hard enough—it actually might be the opposite. “My concern is people are going too hard, too fast in January,” says McAllister. “They’re going to burn out and injure themselves, which we’ve seen before in February — and then those same people don’t come back.”

Instructors like Chloe Kernaghan, who co-founded Sky Ting yoga, report seeing new faces  show up “everyday, even twice a day, in classes. The dedication is real!” In the beginning of the year, every year, she sees people exercise “too hard, too quickly in a very unsustainable way, and expect instant gratification for the work.”

The instant commitment and expectation of instant gratification go together. Things like fitness—frequent maintenance habits—seem to flame out under the singular burst wish of a resolution. “Fitness is something to be folded into one’s life,” says Sevana Draayer, the co-founder and CEO of Ratio Cycling in Los Angeles, not something that overtakes it.

“We’ve all been through an insanely stressful year. We have to give ourselves and our bodies some grace,” says McAllister. “With resolutions, it tends to be pretty black-and-white, like either I’m doing workouts six times a week or I’m not. We have to get into the gray area now. We live in the gray area.”

The gray area—a party of gradients—can be so many things! It’s the difference between vowing to workout for an hour, when you could be basking in the low-commitment glow of a breezy half-hour. Instead of going from zero workouts a week to seven, you could pick a number closer to two. A softer goal, such as move more, is way less intimidating than a yelled command of like: STRENUOUSLY WORK OUT FOR AN HOUR EVERY DAY AT 5 AM. And some fun tailoring like, move however you want, is way less impossible than RUN, WHICH YOU HATE DOING. Sometimes, you must just enjoy yourself. Exercise can be whatever. You don’t have to go all in. You can go a little in! A little can be a lot!

All this made me remember a friend of mine who was into this terse, eighteenth century Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa. One day a while back, while waiting for my friend to get ready, I skimmed a few pages of Issa and took a photo of this one:

New Year’s Day
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

That’s kind of it, isn’t it? The days shift but then it’s still just us. The wild new challenges and grueling workout plans have us poised to do the most, which probably won’t last; while something boring that just works is also available to us. Feeling average: it’s the pretty nice, super unappreciated, balanced mid-point between great feats and great flops, which both happen all the time. Resolve nothing, babies! As you were!

The Way We Make Fitness Resolutions Is All Wrong