I didn’t grow up as an athlete. I was a shy, clumsy kid who preferred books to sports. I didn’t do my first push-up until I was twenty-one, and it wasn’t until much later that “athlete” became a core part of my identity.
Like most adults, I first started exercising mainly to lose weight. Once I caught the fitness bug, my reasons expanded beyond appearance to include building strength, learning new athletic skills, and physically becoming the best athlete I could be.
But the benefits I’ve gotten from fitness and sport have been so much more than just physical.
Despite discovering fitness a little later than some, I learned to navigate the world through push-ups, burpees, and punching things. Becoming an athlete has taught me more about life than anything else so far, including school. Through fitness and sports I’ve learned to be more courageous, gain confidence that I can do hard things, and find more meaning and purpose in life than I could have ever dreamed of.
Parents and teachers intuitively know how sport-related activities can help kids blossom into more resilient, courageous adults. So why don’t we continue to prioritize those activities — and the lessons they teach — as we get older?
My guess is that we discount the potential of these lessons as adults because physical activity as a way of life isn’t a topic we talk much about in Western culture. Movement is considered an integral part of being human in many Eastern traditions, but here in the West, we tend to separate the mind and body.
As a result, the benefits of exercise are usually thought to be physical, especially for adults. Most adults exercise primarily to lose weight or prevent future health issues. We don’t think about how taking up a new sport or activity can help us learn to relish challenges or reap the benefits of being an awkward beginner. And we certainly don’t consider how it can help us build the confidence we need to become who we really want to be in all areas of our lives.
These days, I’m a big proponent of fitness and sport not just because of the many physical and mental benefits of exercise, but for the life lessons we can learn from them.
Here are five ways engaging in physical activity as an adult can help you become better in all areas of your life — whether your sport of choice is running, surfing, tennis, martial arts, weightlifting, dance, yoga, or any movement-related activity.
Sport teaches you to focus.
To make real progress on any of our life’s goals, we need to be able to focus for longer than a few minutes at a time. Flitting back and forth between browser tabs and social media apps results in never being fully present in what we’re doing. This way of interacting with the world means we’re constantly distracted and makes it difficult to ever engage in deep, important work.
On the other hand, most physical activities require total focus. You can’t scroll through Instagram while you’re doing burpees or check your email while you’re learning to balance in a handstand. You have to be completely present and engaged and in the moment.
Just as you can get better at physical skills the more you practice them, you can also get better at focusing by focusing more.
Sport teaches you that you can do difficult things.
No matter how skilled you get as an athlete, there will always be opportunities to continue to push yourself.
You can always aim for a new PR, learn a new sport, or pick up a new skill. Pushing through the struggle helps you build self-efficacy, or your belief in your ability to succeed in specific situations, accomplish a task, or pursue a goal.
Teaching yourself that you can do difficult things in the gym, on the court, or in the dojo can help you build the confidence you need to tackle your biggest non-fitness-related goals.
Sport teaches you to expect and embrace plateaus.
While we would all love to make constant forward progress, the reality is that progress is non-linear. No matter your goal, you’re going to experience short spurts of progress followed by long plateaus.
Fitness and sport teach you to expect those plateaus and even to enjoy them. When it becomes clear that breakthroughs can’t happen every day, you’re more likely to lean in, trust the process, and enjoy the journey.
Sport builds mental toughness.
Mental toughness is the ability to manage and overcome doubts, worries, concerns, and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding or making progress toward a goal or pursuit.
You have to be mentally tough as an athlete. You’re not going to get a new PR every day or win every race. You’re inevitably going to have tough days, weeks, or months where you feel like you’re going backward. You’ll likely even feel like you want to quit at times.
Learning to keep trying and to keep putting in the work in sport can help you become mentally tougher in all areas of your life.
Sport teaches you that consistency is the “secret” to success.
So many people try and hack their way to success. They’re always looking for ways to bypass the time and work it takes to succeed at a long-term goal.
While hacks may work in the short term, they rarely lead to long-term success. Try to take shortcuts toward an athletic goal, and sooner or later, you’ll get injured, reach burnout, or both.
Fitness and sport teach you that the only way to make sustainable, long-term progress is to be consistent.
You don’t have to have a good training day every single day. What matters more is that you keep putting in the work, keep pushing through the struggle, and refuse to give up.
As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Take that first step. And keep going.