Yoga-altruism Why do YOU do it?

As I finished my yoga practice one morning and trekked off to Starbucks with a few friends, I was struck by something. Not only did we all walk taller, but it seemed as though we wanted everyone around us to KNOW we had just worked out – HARD. We were proud. We were limber and the world should be aware that we put our sweaty equity in that morning. On my next run, I noticed that when I was alone, I was with my thoughts but sometimes, (ok I’ll be honest here … often) my stride picked up a bit and my chest puffed out a bit more when I ran by pedestrians. It got me thinking: Why do we work out? Is it to increase our longevity, flexibility, speed? Sure. Is it because it makes us feel better? Of course. But is it also so we can tell others? Brag? Boast? Or simply feel somehow superior to those who are not exercising? Is there exercise altruism – sweating and pushing with no other intention? When I sat down to think about this, I decided on exercise altruism. Altruism (full disclosure – I googled it) mentions selflessness, having no self-interest – for example helping an elderly person across the street with no desire other than to assist, expecting nothing. I really started to think about why I work out. Is there some degree of self-interest that goes beyond keeping me healthy? To be sure, health and wellness are most certainly self-interested but besides that do I run solely because running is so AWESOME? I thought about where my mind travels while I run and whether or not I notice my surroundings, or appreciate nature, listen to the birds or appreciate my body moving through space and defying gravity.

To answer this, I turned to … what else? Facebook. I peruse Facebook (less and less these days) but I see posts about speeds, facebook Shake a bootydistances, race medals, yoga poses, runs mapped with elevation, apps showing splits and speeds and I sigh. I too have done all of the above and yes, sometimes I still do. I wonder why. Why I and others feel this compelling need to SHARE. Do I really love that 50K trail run or do I love the accolades I get post-race (or maybe the Fritos and Cherry Coke afterwards? Warning: Do NOT judge food choices either). I wonder what exercise was like before the internet –when you ran a hard race or twisted into that challenging pose and maybe shared it with your partner at home, or friends at the pub later for a good laugh or maybe, just maybe, you shared it with no one because you had no need to. There was no self-interest only the simple joy of exertion.

solo runThe other side to this coin is of course comparison and judgment and some of us struggle with this more than others – my friends are chuckling right now. My “great” race should not be impacted by another’s success or personal best, but I can say without hesitation that we have ALL suffered this fate as least once. I know right now that many are insisting that NO, this has never ever occurred, but really – face the truth people! Have you looked at a race photo or that person on a podium and thought, “Why can’t I do that?” or “I only ran 5 miles, she ran 20?!” A solo run in the early morning alone compared to the crowded running path in the early evening run might result in a 10 minute difference in time depending on who is out and about – that cute girl might just increase that cadence more than you’re willing to admit.

Truth be told, I have and will at some point probably post a status or two that references a “great run with friends” or my “first heart in handgoal of the hockey season!” (Or ONLY goal) or even my luck “trying a new yoga pose”, but I might refrain. I might just see how I feel keeping it to myself or, better yet, not really caring and tuning in to my feet bouncing off the ground, my skates crunching on the ice or the smell of the incense mixed with the rubber of my mat and the sweat beads on my legs. No self, just joy.


Me in Ithaca


Musings of an Ethisist

 Chelsea Switzer is an avid runner, yogi and triathlete. A proud Canadian she has a mild addiction to cheese, chocolate and fine single malt scotch but has also been known to scarf down a box of s’mores pop tarts. She holds a Masters in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania and currently lives in Philadelphia with her cat Puddy.