Why Good Things Happen When Adults Pretend That They’re “Athletes”

It's customary to laugh at gung-ho weekend warriors. But they might be onto something.

A man biking up a hill with mountains in the background
That's not just a dad who likes bikes. That's an athlete.
Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

While talking to a friend the other day, I started a sentence with the words “As an endurance athlete …” then promptly winced, caught myself and started over. I was trying to make a point on why I had a lower resting heart rate than the average adult, but my explanation sounded bombastic.

After all, I’m not an endurance athlete. I’m just a writer who makes lots of time to run. There’s a reason we chuckle at adults who take their triathlons, CrossFit competitions and intramural sports way too seriously. The time to be an “athlete” has passed. That was high school, and maybe college if you were really talented in a specific sport. But those glory days are over. Right?

Well, according to exercise physiologists and sports psychologists, maybe not. As reported by the Washington Post, these experts have linked a broader, more inclusive definition of the term “athlete” with increased “exercise motivation, exercise frequency and subjective well-being.” Your day job might not be with the Los Angeles Lakers, or Team USA, but that shouldn’t preclude you from self-identifying as an athlete. In fact, once you do, that identity is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Athletes, after all, hold themselves to high weekly standards, in the realms of sleep quality, productivity, biometric data and goal-setting. Studies have confirmed that self-identifying athletes will follow training regimens consistent with their perceptions of themselves and the task at hand, which can often inject some much-needed organization into a workout scheme.

Instead of ClassPass’ing your way through a month, or trying one training app after another — which can feel schizophrenic and self-defeating for many trainees — an adult athlete might simply hone in on the activities that help them perfect a single pursuit.

What does that look like, specifically? It comes in countless forms, which is sort of the point. There are highly-committed athletes out there who are interested in technical (often dangerous) activities, like climbing, ultrarunning, water sports and the like. Man versus nature fare. But you can also become an “athlete” by joining a running club, or gunning for certain figures on a connected fitness bike. It all counts.

The key is to stay committed and competitive. That might sound at odds with today’s advice on exercise (“Get out for a walk! Fifteen minutes will work wonders!”), but there’s an elemental difference between being an exerciser and an athlete. The latter is way more common than we give it credit for, and deserves more recognition, but it also has a barrier to entry.

The good news? That barrier has way less to do with talent or dollars, and far more to do with passion and discipline. So long as you’re willing to devote at least some portion of every day to your concentration, you’re in the club. Your friends may not appreciate that fact in conversation, but that’s a battle for another day.

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