04/10/2015 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fit for Life: Nature or Nurture?


When it comes to exercise, there are generally two types of people. There are those who approach working out as a chore, and those who see it as a treat.

The question is: Can you go from one group to the other? Can couch potatoes become gym rats?

I think they can. I know I did.

I spent the first half of my life avoiding exercise. My involvement in high school and college sports can best be described as half-hearted. I played soccer, rowed crew, jogged, and went to aerobics classes here and there, but exercise and athletics were an afterthought -- last on the list after reading, listening to music, and writing. My motivation was always to lose weight, never because I enjoyed the activity.

After I graduated from college I stopped exercising completely. I was lost, trying to figure out how to be an adult with an office job. Every day I came home from work with no purpose or direction. Without schoolwork, I didn't have a clue how to fill my time. So I let it pass me by.

I allowed myself to get into terrible shape, and after a few years of steadily gaining weight and feeling absolutely terrible, I decided to do something about it. I went running after work, or headed to the gym to log some time on the treadmill, with a magazine or book to distract me from the boredom of my task.

None of it was fun, but it worked.

After about a year of exercising and paying attention to my nutrition I lost about 20 pounds. I continued to exercise, but it was still a dreaded chore. I forced it into my day.

Then one day I went to the gym after work, and instead of staying downstairs with the treadmills and elliptical machines, I headed upstairs to try a cardio kickboxing class. (This was the late '90s, and cardio kickboxing was everywhere.)

It was difficult, and fun, but the strangest thing about the class was how much I enjoyed punching. Every punch I threw gave me a strange thrill. However, I was punching the air, which is about as satisfying as eating a cardboard cookie. After a few months of attending the class three times a week I blurted out to my husband, "I want to learn how to box."

This is how I found myself -- a person who had spent more time in the library than the gym -- in an actual boxing gym.

Things escalated rather quickly after that. My husband gave me 10 personal training sessions for my birthday. I stepped into a boxing ring for the first time. Then I started sparring, and before I knew it I had a brief but exciting career as an amateur boxer that peaked at the USA Boxing National Championships in 2003.

Eventually I hung up my gloves and focused more on surfing, and then CrossFit, but looking back, joining that boxing gym marked a seismic shift in how I viewed exercise.

For the first time, I was focused on learning a skill rather than losing weight. I wanted to go to the gym every night so I could handle myself better in the ring. There was a small group of women who got together to spar every Friday night, and that gave me another reason to show up: I wanted to see my friends.

If I didn't make it to the sparring class, people noticed. They asked what happened.

Now, exercise or sport is an essential part of my day. I arrange my schedule around my CrossFit or surf sessions. I'm always scheming about how to get more time in the gym or the water.

What changed? How did I make the leap from an out-of-shape bookworm to making fitness a part of my daily routine?

I think it boils down to this: You must find an activity that is both challenging and social.

The sport or activity doesn't have to be as difficult as boxing. You could pick up golf, tennis, or bowling. If the activity is difficult to master -- if you have to put in hours of practice to improve -- it's going to captivate your interest.

If none of these sports appeal to you, another option is to turn a relatively solitary, repetitive activity -- like running -- into something social and challenging. Find a running group and sign up for a 5K or a half-marathon. The point is not how well you do. It's that you have a goal, something to train for that's slightly out of your comfort zone.

In 2003, when I showed up for the boxing national championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I only had six amateur fights in my log book. My first opponent was a junior kickboxing national champion who had just turned 18. She had close to 20 fights.

I knew as soon as I stepped into the ring I was severely outmatched. My opponent evaded every punch I threw. I desperately tried to make contact, to score a point, while she landed hard, direct punches that cleared my brain of any rational thought. However, through each of the three, two-minute rounds, I held my own. Even though the fight was a clear victory for her, the referee didn't stop the match, which can happen in amateur boxing if one fighter is outmatched.

The competition was single elimination, so I was done after that one fight. This meant my husband and I had traveled from California to Florida for six minutes in the ring. We weren't scheduled to fly home for four days. We had to stay in Florida while the competition continued.

After the match we went back to the room and I took a shower. That's when the tears came, and I sobbed in shame and disappointment. I felt terrible about myself, and I didn't know how I'd ever look my coach in the eye. I was a 30-year-old woman who'd spent most of her life curled up in a chair reading books. Who did I think I was, competing as a boxer?

I was a fake athlete, and now everybody knew it.

I couldn't bring myself to watch women box for three days, so my husband and I escaped to Miami, to squeeze a short vacation into this disaster of a trip.

It took me a long time to get over what seemed like a spectacular failure. Every time I retold the story, I felt a flush of shame and disappointment.

Now, with many years distance, my perspective on the experience has changed. When I talk about my boxing career, I tell people, "I competed at nationals." It's something I say with pride, because now I understand the outcome of the boxing match was not important. The value was doing something difficult and terrifying.

I found my limit within the boxing world, but not within myself.

If you're someone who is stuck on the treadmill, distracting yourself with reality shows and magazines, I urge you to try something new. The point is not to win, or even to do well. It's to stretch your limits, to discover the joy of learning a new skill, of trying and failing, and sometimes succeeding.

If you exercise out of a sense of obligation, it's always going to be a chore.

But if you can find joy in the movement itself, and surround yourself with people who share that joy, movement will become an enjoyable, essential part of your life.