This year, I’m going to get into shape. It does not matter that I’ve made this same resolution every year for more than a decade, or that I gave up after a month each time. In 2024, I mean it. Unlike years past, my motivation is not aesthetic but utilitarian: I want to get fit so I stop feeling like garbage. As I enter my late 30s, I’m struggling with the health issues that come with the terrain—high blood pressure, lower-back pain, and persistently achy joints. On top of those, I’m a new mom, chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted. My six-month-old son saps all my energy but also steels my resolve to protect it.
With all my new motivation, I first had to find a workout regime. Scrolling through social media for inspiration, I saw athletes of every variety across my feed. There were people sweating it out at a Navy SEAL–style workout, a Muay Thai–inspired kickboxing class, and a workout designed and taught by former inmates. Yoga isn’t just yoga anymore; it can be hot, aerial, acrobatic, Drake, and even goat. Personal trainers shout commands through media including YouTube, VR headsets, and, uh, mirrors. You can work out alone or in a group (or alone in a group, if Peloton is your thing). For the graceful, there is barre; for the nerds, there is a Lord of the Rings–themed app that logs exercise as movement from the Shire to Mordor.
We are living in a golden age of fitness: With workouts to accommodate every skill level, interest, time commitment, and social capacity, it should be easier than ever for novices to find one and get started. But it’s not. Instead of finding a workout that suited me, choice overload left me even more inert, and less motivated, than I was when I started my search. If you’re serious about committing to a fitness regime, choosing one isn’t just about moving your body. It could shape your future schedule, lifestyle, and even identity. To others, the way you exercise might say something about who you are, whether that’s a marathon maniac or a #PelotonMom. To the exercise newbie, this can make the stakes feel dauntingly high.
The stakes are high. Exercise will lead to results only if you do it consistently, potentially spending hours on it each week. It’s essential to pick right. I was never fitter than when I played in a basketball league in my early 20s and was held accountable for going to games and practice. Since then, I’ve only dabbled in activities—like kickboxing, spinning, and something called Dance Church. None of them stuck. In the search for the ideal workout, baseline criteria include practical concerns such as location and affordability. No matter how exciting the class, a gym that’s out of the way or prohibitively expensive is not one you will attend regularly. Then there is what I call doability—as in, Can my body do that? Answering honestly can eliminate unlikely options, such as the grueling circuit that turned actors into Spartans for the movie 300. Being too pragmatic, however, can also stifle fitness aspirations. If your goal is an eight-pack, the “lazy-girl workout” probably isn’t going to cut it.
Ruling out options based on practicality only whittles the list down so much. The next step is harder: figuring out what you actually want to do. For a goal as broad as “get in shape,” you can drive yourself crazy trying to find the answer. Picking a workout that ticks all the boxes is virtually impossible, because there will always be other options that seem better. At first, streaming Yoga With Adriene in my living room seemed like a cheap, enjoyable, and physically demanding option, but it lacked a social component to hold me accountable. Programs inspired by high-intensity interval training (HIIT), such as F45, promise to get people ripped—fast!—but exercising under a constant deadline is my idea of hell. I found flaws in workouts as varied as rock climbing, rugby, Orangetheory, Tabata, Aqua Tabata, and Tabata-style spinning.
Adding to the gravity of the decision is what it signals about who you are. Personal fitness is rarely personal these days. Stereotypes inform the culture of certain workouts and how their adherents are seen: Indoor rock climbing is associated with tech bros, running with intensely driven morning people, weight lifting with gym rats. Many boutique workouts come with even more distinct personality types, perpetuated by the communities they spawn in real life and on social media. Perhaps the most recognizable is the CrossFit Bro, an aggressive, bandanna-wearing jock who can’t stop talking about CrossFit. Pure Barre and SoulCycle call to mind lithe, athleisure-clad smoothie drinkers; Peloton, the kind of person who can afford a Peloton.
New identities can also form by virtue of the lifestyle shifts that these workouts can bring about. Friendships are nurtured by sweat spilled during class; exercise may even shift eating habits. For some, fitness programs become so embedded in daily life that they begin to resemble institutionalized religion. In an extreme case of life imitating exercise, a couple who met at CrossFit got married and served a paleo cake at their wedding, which was held during a CrossFit competition. Because exercise is so good at fostering community, the search for a workout is sometimes described as finding “your tribe.”
These stereotypes are not always true, of course, and they can also be aspirational. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I would love to be a smoothie girl. But the notion of joining a tribe makes pedaling on a stationary bike or joining a rock-climbing gym feel much more consequential than the activities themselves. I was getting nowhere in my own fitness search, so I turned to experts for a reality check. Selecting from a multitude of fitness options is “quite a dilemma,” Sarah Ullrich-French, a kinesiology professor at Washington State University, told me, but the way out is to focus on what feels good, physically and psychologically. Fitness identities, however palpable, only have to mean something if you want them to. If the stereotype of the intensely focused predawn runner inspires you to get up for a morning jog, lean into it. But if it seems like an annoying downside to running, it’s okay to treat it as such. Pay attention to workouts that bring up anxiety and dread; even if you aspire towards a certain identity, “negative associations and feelings will often win over our goals and what we think we should do,” Ullrich-French said.
Part of my problem was having a goal that was too diffuse. Theoretically any workout could help me get fit, but if I refined my ambition to, say, “getting up the stairs to work without heaving,” doing so would narrow my options to exercises that optimize stamina and strength. Instead of immediately signing up for a weekly running club, start with small, attainable goals, such as taking the time to stretch each morning, Adam Makkawi, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, told me. Small goals are easier to achieve, and can help make more workout options a real possibility.
My biggest mistake was to treat choosing a workout as an intellectual endeavor, sort of like shopping for a new vacuum by reading endless online reviews. Test several options, and when you’ve found one that you like, customize its intensity and frequency until it suits you, Catherine Sabiston, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, told me. The likelihood you’ll stick to it, she added, boils down to competency—how well you feel you can accomplish a task—and enjoyment, both of which can be known only through experience.
Choice overload is real, but it can also be a powerful excuse to stay inert. Although a little self-reflection about fitness identities can be helpful, fixating on them can rule out perfectly viable options. In this spirit, I compiled a list of doable, challenging, and conceivably fun workouts to try—and even mustered up excitement for a fitness identity that brought me joy. This week, I begin my search in earnest, embarking on a virtual Lord of the Rings running journey across the rugged terrain of Middle Earth.