“Why do you workout? Is it working?”
I wish I could just walk up to you and ask without it being awkward. But alas, such is not our predisposition to probing questions posed by strangers.
If I could, and you were in a place of counter-evolutionary openness, then I would take joy in digging into the psyche of your spending countless hours doing inherently uncomfortable things for largely unspoken reasons.
What would we discover together? Why do you workout?
In every form and fashion workout goals all boil down to the same thing.
Self-Actualization — Becoming or experiencing the best version of ourselves.
Too existential? I don’t think so. And when I’m done showing you how exercise contributes to every level of your homosapien needs in a very practical way, you’ll agree that exercise is one of the most important ingredients in living your life to it’s fullest.
Before we understand the journey and exercise’s role in it, let’s look at the roadmap.
Maslow was a psychologist who was deeply interested in what motivates people? In 1943 he is quoted as saying “Man lives by bread alone. This is true when there is no bread. But what does man live for when his belly is full?”[i]
In this spirit, he created a construct that lives on today with a few modifications. It’s called the hierarchy of needs. Based on the principle that mankind has a pyramid of needs and that they have an inherent level of priority, the hierarchy of needs describes what obstacles and barriers must be removed for people to feel fulfilled in life.
From the bottom to the top, the levels of need are: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization. In order to address the needs of each level, every level below must be met first. To make friends (social) you need shelter to protect you from the elements (safety). To become masterful at your craft (esteem) you need to have eaten today (physiological).
In short, it’s hard to make friends if you are afraid of getting struck by lightning or practice a skill when you’re starving.
Great info, Alex, but what does exercise have to do with exercise?
Check it out.
Exercise keeps you alive and well
Level 1 of Maslow’s hierarchy is “physiological” needs. Food and water are easy examples, but less apparent ones are physical health and lack of pain. That is, at the most basic level of human need is to be relieved of physical suffering and to maintain a level of health that doesn’t interfere with the other levels of need.
Cardiovascular and resistance training both help to meet this level of need.
Resistance training can overcome postural deviances that cause pain while cardiovascular exercise releases endorphins to mask pain that would otherwise put a damper on your day. Additionally, cardiovascular and resistance training have both been shown to prevent and even heal a host of chronic disease symptoms.
As long as we breathing, eating, and painless let’s move on to level 2.
Exercise negates stress
This level of Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for “safety”.
Shelter and financial stability are both easy examples of this need being met, but what does exercise have to do with it?
Since a lack of safety creates a physiological fight or flight response, one could say that this level can easily be called “cortisol”. The needs of this level hinder the ascension to higher levels if one is being influenced by cortisol often.
I’ve already explained how exercise affects our stress response, but in short, exercise makes us experience stress less often and when we do experience it, the response is less devastating than when we don’t exercise consistently.
In other words, exercising makes our primal brains feel safer, not by providing shelter, but by making us more resilient when shelter isn’t available. So up the pyramid we go!
That’s 2 down, but how does exercise address our social needs?
Exercise builds your community
The next level on the road to self-actualization is “social” need. This describes our need to make friends, interact with coworkers, and form romantic relationships. Can’t be the best version of ourselves if we are lonely!
Exercise does two things for this level of need. First, the increase in energy level and motivation adapted from exercise allows you to engage in activities of friendship. If you’d rather lay around and watch Netflix than go to a birthday party, it’s going to be difficult for you to maintain social connections.
Also, exercise can put you in environments around other people who enjoy the physical activities that you do! Some of my best relationships in life have started because of a mutual participation in something active. Who knows, you might meet the man/woman of your dreams in yoga class today!
Or for those of us who aren’t hopeless romantics, at least we’ll enjoy a positive exchange from the instructor and a spiritual high five from a fellow yogi. Namaste.
Exercise makes you feel good about you
The last level before cresting the top to become and experience your full potential is level 4 – Esteem.
The esteem needs are the needs that are met by mastering abilities, achieving prestige and recognition, establishing and maintaining independence, and above all seeing yourself in a positive light. Sounds great right?! Exercise aids this level in a number of ways.
First, exercising is not something everybody can bring themselves to do with consistency so just being “a person who exercises” is a label of benefit to one’s esteem in our society. Additionally those who exercise are more likely to appreciate their physical appearance and measure their worth more by what they can DO rather than just by how they LOOK. Lastly, there is something to be said about somebody in our modern world who does everything they need to do in a day and make time to exercise! Think of it as positive reinforcement and bragging rights every time you set foot in the gym! #winningatlife.
Now that we’ve climbed Maslow’s pyramid through consistent exercise you are ready to hang out at the top!
Self-actualization is a deeply personal, spiritual, and varied concept between cultures, people groups, and schools of thought.
Regardless of how you view the nature of your ultimate purpose, though, now you know that exercise can help you climb the ladder on your way by meeting physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs.
Who knows, on your journey you may find that the best version of you is an athlete in their own right. And far from just being a conduit to get you to your purpose, exercise was the point all along.
It could happen!
[i] “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. Saul McLoed. 2007. 2014. http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html”