Better Together

I can separate my fitness into two categories: what I did on my own and what I accomplished working with others. 

Alone, I attended group classes at 24 hour fitness. I ran a 15K. I lost weight and got healthy. All good things. 

In a community, working with others, I learned how to box and took punches to the head until I figured out how to keep my guard up and use my jab. I competed in and won boxing matches, facing down opponents who terrified me. I went to nationals in amateur boxing, where I absolutely did not belong, but held my own against a vastly more experienced opponent. As a CrossFit athlete, I discovered my strength, my grit, and my persistence. I cried tears of frustration, brought down by what I couldn't do, and then felt the heart-soaring joy of accomplishing what I didn't think possible. 

I would never have done any of this alone. 

A recent article in the Atlantic, The Church of CrossFit, explored how fitness communities fill a spiritual and social need for the nonreligious. They definitely serve that function for some.

It's also worth emphasizing that connecting with a group of people in a physical setting will almost certainly improve your health, both physical and mental.

Feeling a connection with a place and with other people will keep you coming back. It will push you to try harder. Those things could result in weight loss, in improved fitness, in a better night's sleep. 

As adults, we so often want to go it alone. It is possible to push yourself past your perceived limits by yourself, but you might miss out on forging personal connections that enrich your life. 

Making a fitness connection doesn't have to happen in a CrossFit gym or a SoulCycle class.

A few months ago I took my kids to our local city pool during lap swim ($4 for adults, $2 for kids and seniors) so my son could practice for an upcoming swim test. After my son swam his laps, the kids played in the shallow end, open for recreational swim. A woman who looked to be in her mid 30s walked up to a lane and began to put on sunblock and adjust her goggles.

"Hey, where have you been?" a man in his 70s asked her. He had been swimming laps for about 30 minutes, but stopped to chat with the new arrival.

"How are the kids? How is work?" he asked, eager to catch up. 

The woman talked about her vacation, her kids, how good it felt to be back in the water. The man told her how happy he was to see her again. Then she jumped in the water, and they were swimming side by side.

Navid's Story

Navid started going to November Project workouts—a free, open-to-the-public outdoor exercise group—as a way to get over a broken heart. The 29-year-old chemist and his live-in girlfriend of three years broke up in October 2014. Dark-eyed and gentle, Navid is open-hearted and honest. It’s easy to see how a breakup would knock him off his feet. To make matters worse, Navid fights an often-daily struggle against anxiety and depression. I saw a glimpse of the anxiety when he was late for our meeting. He apologized for being late, and then brought it up again, a few minutes later.

“I’m sorry for being late. I hate being late. Sometimes I’m late. I wish I was better,” he told me.

Navid, which means good news or peace, was born on August 20, 1988 in Iran—the day the Iran-Iraq war ended. As Jews in Iran, Navid and his family experienced constant religious persecution. They were forced to note their religion on their passports, “kind of like a yellow star,” Navid said. Schools wouldn’t sign him up, or they’d suddenly be full when his parents tried register.

It all became too much for the family, and they emigrated to the United States in 1997, when Navid was nine. He didn’t speak any English, but picked up the language quickly and made a few friends. Then, when he was 13, 9/11 happened.

“It was extremely challenging,” Navid said about growing up as an Iranian immigrant post 9/11. “It’s just something you deal with.” His high school friends picked on him, which eroded Navid’s ability to trust other people.

Navid went to college at the University of San Diego, California, and after graduation started working as a group lead in a biotech company, in charge of two product lines and five projects.

After Navid and his girlfriend broke up, he moved in with a friend. Navid started running on his own, and then at his friend’s urging showed up to a November Project workout on a Monday at 6:30 am. He loved it instantly.

“What I love about November Project is nobody has to be there. Ashleigh, Lauren (the tribe leaders in San Diego)—nobody is paying them. It’s not their job,” Navid said.

For Navid, the purity of the experience is essential. He’s not there to find friends, exactly. He doesn’t see it as a social club. He has a large group of friends, but he says he often feels like an outsider.

“I have a relatively large group of friends outside of the November Project. So I didn’t necessarily need the friends. But, it’s the fact that like everyone is just there. And you’re just there,” he said.

As a result, Navid takes the community aspect seriously. He’s picked up a fellow tribe member from the airport, showed up at a marathon to hold signs for November Project tribe members running the race. All for people he had never socialized with outside of the twice-weekly workouts.

“I feel like that’s what needs to be in the community,” Navid said. “It’s the whole point of the community, especially when it’s free.”

A strange thing happened to Navid once he joined the November Project and started helping out fellow tribe members.

“I started feeling closer to my friends after starting,” he said.

Since he began attending November Project workouts, Navid said he allowed himself to fit in with his friends. The good feeling of being so unconditionally and instantly accepted by the November Project tribe had an impact on his other relationships.

“Everyone is welcoming. Nobody is excluded,” Navid told me. “I think it’s called mirroring. My therapist told me about it. You see something somewhere and you can apply it,” he said.

When the depression hits, Navid finds it hard to get out of bed.

“This past Monday I didn’t go (to the November Project workout), because Sunday I wasn’t feeling well. I went to bed at like 7pm. I was just like, I’m done. I woke up, I was just like, no, and I went back to sleep. And I kind of felt shitty about it,” he said.

In an average gym, that would have been the end of the story. Not at the November Project.

A fellow tribe member reached out through Facebook and asked what happened. Navid told her he’d be there on Wednesday.

In the November Project world, that type of comment is called a “verbal” and it’s taken seriously. Tribe members will even say, “I’ll be there on Wednesday. Verbal.”

Breaking a verbal gives other tribe members permission to put your face on social media and in the section of the November Project website labeled “We Missed You.” The guilty party is called out and teased, and embarrassing photos culled from Facebook often accompany the posts.

“That accountability is kind of cool,” Navid said.

The flip side of “verbals” is the November Project cape. This short, yellow cape is passed from tribe member to tribe member as a way to show appreciation. The November Project is all over the country, but this tradition is specific to San Diego, proof that each November Project tribe becomes its own, particular group. 

“It’s given from member to member, rather than from the tribe leaders,” Navid said. If he had the cape, Navid said he’d pass it along to his friend who bugged him about not showing up on Monday.

“I liked that she was like, ‘why weren’t you there?’” he said.

But What About the Children?

In my last post I wrote about how happiness is usually found through self-centered pursuits, and meaning comes from helping others and sacrificing to benefit a larger group. Happiness is awesome, but it’s often short lived and vulnerable to illness and bad luck. Meaning is more durable.

I described a day when I was irritable and out of sorts, and I found my equilibrium through volunteering at a hunger supper with my kids, a monthly routine that brings meaning to my life.  

The next day at the gym, my friend Bryan said he thought I was going to say I found meaning through my children – not feeding the homeless.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days.

Bryan and his wife are expecting their first child, so the topic of meaning through children is on his mind. He’s getting used to the idea of having a kid, and what that will mean for his life.

It’s not that kids don’t bring meaning, but it’s hard to experience the weight of that meaning when you’re rushing the kids off to school, nagging them to do their homework, and trying to figure out how the bathroom floor turns into a lake after their showers. (Really, it's astonishing. Do they do mid-shower laps around the bathroom? Stand there post-shower, contemplating the world's mysteries?)

When your child first arrives, life does change. Your priorities shift. Children do bring meaning to your life, absolutely.

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They are also part of your routine. I love my kids, I think about them and their needs constantly, and truly enjoy spending time with them, but I don’t always look at them and think, “my life has meaning.”

I usually think, “please don't ask me what’s for dinner.”

There are of course moments when that meaning hits like a truck. My husband had one last night, when he came home and our eight year old son was dancing to the Mary Poppins soundtrack in his underwear.

“This is what I hoped it would be like to have kids,” he said.

But not every night is a Mary Poppins dance party, and sometimes you have to pursue meaning a little more aggressively. It's so easy to fall into a routine, and get into your head, and take all the wonderful people in your life -- big and small -- for granted. 

Just like you need to focus on both nutrition AND exercise, I think it's important to make connections both inside and outside your home. 

Why Pursuing Happiness Could Make You Sad

Like a lot of people I know, I derive a significant amount of my happiness from fitness. A workout or a surf session floods me with endorphins, it reduces my anxiety, it gives me confidence, it makes me feel awake to life’s possibilities.

This works very well when I’m feeling healthy and strong.

On Tuesday, I was not. My back hurt. I had a sore throat. The workout was terrible, and I left the gym feeling weak and discouraged. Deprived of my endorphin hit, my mood darkened as the afternoon progressed. I began to panic about my back, worried it was going to get worse. I kept swallowing, feeling my sore throat and imagining the cold that was going to descend on my sinuses in the next few days.

Then I looked at the calendar and realized it was the second Tuesday of the month. That’s when the kids and I go to a local church and help serve dinner to the hungry.

“Hey, guys, do you want to go to the hunger supper tonight?” I asked, hoping they’d give me an excuse to bow out. I was planning a night of lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself.

“Yes!” they said. (I’m not sure why, but my eight year old son and 11 year old daughter love this monthly community service. They make me a better person.)

Crap. Fine.

I sighed and put on my shoes. I yelled at the kids to get ready and we drove to the church. We greeted the regulars, the amazing people who do this every week, and then we took our stations. It was burger night, so I was in charge of the onions, my son took pickles, my daughter handed out bananas.

The line moves quickly at the hunger supper. There’s not any time to think—it’s an hour of serving others. Some people make eye contact and crack jokes. Some look down, not saying a word. Most people are gracious and grateful.

After everyone had gotten a plate, and people were in line for seconds, a man quietly asked if we knew somewhere he could get a sweatshirt or a jacket. He was cold. A woman came through the food line again, not for seconds, but to thank all of us for volunteering.

“I hope someday I’ll be on the other side of the table with you,” she said.

We finished handing out food, and my son and another third grader helped with the dishes. Soon it was 7pm, and time to head home. As we left, one of the organizers of the weekly supper called out to us.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, “your kids always make me smile.”

As I drove home, I realized my dark mood had lifted. Sure, my back still hurt a little, and I felt more run down than usual, but I’d gained some perspective. For an hour and a half I’d focused on something other than myself. The experience gave me something more permanent than happiness. I’d found meaning.

Meaning Versus Happiness

In his bestselling 1946 book Man’s Search For Meaning, Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl said the people in the camps who avoided becoming hopeless and committing suicide were those who had meaning, or something to live for.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. His knows the ‘why’ of his existence, and will be able to bear the ‘how,’” Frankl wrote.

In a January 2013 article in The Atlantic called “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy,” Emily Esfahani Smith writes about Frankl and how many Americans pursue happiness over meaning.

She writes about a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, in which psychological scientists questioned nearly 400 Americans about the level of meaning and happiness in their lives. They found while happiness and meaning do overlap, a key difference between the two is happiness relies on a certain amount of selfishness, on things going well. If you pursue happiness without meaning, it’s typically a “relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which all things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the study wrote.

Generally, happy people have good physical health, a lack of stress or worry, and enough money to buy what they want or need. While happiness provides immediate joy, it also fades quickly. Meaning, which is derived from helping others and making a sacrifice to benefit the group, is long-lasting. It can weather storms.

Community-based fitness programs offer, for many people, a place to experience the overlap between happiness and meaning. We go to work on ourselves and connect with others, so we’re ready to offer help when needed—and ask for it when necessary.

If you’ve built your life around happiness, I recommend searching out meaning.

Community of Fitness

He lived two doors down from us for four years. We'd see him getting in and out of his car, or walking his dog, but we didn't know his name until he joined the CrossFit gym a mile away.

My husband ended up in a class at the same time as him, and the two quickly realized they were neighbors. Slowly, in the conversations that happen before and after class, when warming up or lying in a pool of sweat, they got to know each other. Now, when we saw him in the alley, we had something to talk about. We met his kid, he met ours. Our son took a ride around the block in the classic convertible he keeps in the garage most of the year. When we'd see him in the water, surfing, we'd chat about the gym, our lives.

Proximity alone didn't make the connection -- the gym did that.  

Connecting with people is difficult. We go from our houses to our cars, intent on the next destination. A wave or a hello rarely turns into a friendship -- it's so tough to bridge that divide. It takes repeated, unplanned interactions to form a friendship.

Many people make connections in church, but in the past few years I keep hearing stories about people forming a community through fitness, whether it's CrossFit, Soul Cycle, the November Project, or a regular class at the YMCA. What is it about sweating together that bonds people? Are there physiological reasons you might feel closer to your workout partners than the members of your book club? 

In a time when many Americans are socially isolated, out of shape, and unhappy, these groups are forging connections between people, giving them a sense of short-term happiness and long-lasting meaning, and often taking the place of churches and community groups.

This is something that's interested me for a while, so I'm going to start exploring it! Here on this blog (fitnessandfriendship.com) and the socials -- Fitness and Friendship on Facebook, and @fitnessandfriendship_hilary on Instagram.

I'd love to hear your stories of connecting through fitness, and how your gym or exercise group offers so much more than a workout. 

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