What Do You Care What Other People Think?
This is the second post for “50 Years of Running.” Here’s the first.
This is the title of the second book by the great Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman (the more famous book being “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”). I’ve taken the liberty of quoting this passage about his relationship with Arlene, whom he’d married knowing she had a fatal disease and was in and out of hospitals until she died:
One time at Princeton, I received a box of pencils in the mail. They were dark green, and in gold letters were the words “RICHARD DARLING, I LOVE YOU! PUTSY” It was Arlene (I called her Putsy).
Well, that was nice, and I love her, too, but — you know how you absentmindedly drop pencils around. You’re showing Professor Wigner a formula, or something, and leave the pencil on his desk.
In those days, we didn’t have extra stuff, and I didn’t want to waste the pencils. I got a razor blade from the bathroom and cut off the writing on one of them, to see if I could use them.
The next morning, I got a letter in the mail. It starts out, “WHAT’S THE IDEA OF TRYING TO CUT THE NAME OFF THE PENCILS?”
It continues: “Aren’t you proud of the fact that I love you?” Then: “WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?”
Then came poetry, “If you’re ashamed of me, dah dah, then Pecans to you! Pecans to you!” The next verse was the same kind of stuff, with the last line, “Almonds to you! Almonds to you!” Each one was “Nuts to you!” in a different form.
So I had to use the pencils with the names on them. What else could I do?
So, what do you care what other people think?
Over these 50 years, I’ve noticed that people do seem to care what other people think of their exercise habits, or lack of them. There’s a social competition in the modern media where people brag, or humble-brag, about their fitness habits. Women all wear workout leggings. Guys, especially younger ones, wear those muscle T-shirts to show off their biceps and big shoulders, and take protein powder to help them bulk up.
On the other hand, the “taking up jogging” syndrome is humorous to a lot of people. The overweight, suddenly divorced guy trying to “get in shape again” so he can attract women is a stereotype. But there are also a lot of people who don’t run or work out, because they imagine they would feel terminally self-conscious. “Everyone’s looking at me and laughing” they’re thinking. Or “I’m too fat to go to that exercise class!”
Since the story of anything you can stick with for 50 years has to be about persistence and motivation, we’ll dig deeper on this one.
You can hardly scroll through Instagram or Facebook without seeing those nauseating pictures of people’s workouts. Or maybe ads by “fitness influencers.” Or “diet coaches.” This trend has not gone unstudied, e.g. here or here. In the first of those, they say, approvingly:
Bombardment of progress pics and new trendy apparel often can bring about a surge of motivation for friends and colleagues on social handles. Pieces of advice and trainer references often follows [sic], which brings about a revolution and new resolutions for many for a lifetime ahead.
“For a lifetime ahead”: I think they mean “for a month ahead.”
Here’s a graph from Google Trends for the term “workout” since 2004:
You can see it’s risen dramatically since 2004 (and if Google had been around in 1980, the trend starting then would be even more pronounced).
However, it’s leveled off and might even be going down! Here’s the graph for the last five years:
It seems to have peaked in May 2020, just when the pandemic lockdowns were taking effect. So, if you’re a trend follower and want to work out because all your friends do it, maybe you can hold off. The craze might be over!
On the other hand, if you want to find a better reason, then keep reading.
Horrible memories of gym class in school
What’s another reason why people don’t exercise? It’s the association with those horrible PE classes in high school!
Any teacher will tell you: it’s worse than herding cats to try to get high school kids to focus on anything except each other. So, we get them all together to expose their physical inadequacies to their merciless peers and get naked in the shower afterwards! Sounds effective.
Nowadays I walk past a middle school and see the kids running. This seems like progress to me. I’m sure they find some excuse to ridicule each other, anyway, being kids.
Here’s what I remember:
Calisthenics. I still hate jumping jacks, burpees, and pushups.
Softball, where your lack of talent was plain to everyone (although I am not a complete klutz in baseball).
Dodgeball. Need I say more?
Swimming, where the boys had to swim naked. Probably this has been changed by now.
No wonder almost everyone I knew in college did no exercising, other than walking to class. I think that’s different now too.
Does guilt work?
If only I had a dollar for every time someone’s seen me getting ready to run, or getting back from running, and said “I should start doing that.” Well, I’d have an extra $100 to throw around, at least.
Everyone feels bad about their exercise habits. Doctors are probably tired of telling all their patients, “Lose weight, quit smoking, and exercise more.”
So, feeling guilty, you make a New Year’s resolution to join a gym. Everyone who already belongs to a gym knows to avoid it the day after New Year’s. That’s the official National Guilt Day.
How well does it work? According to this industry newsletter, 80% of January gym-joiners quit within five months. It doesn’t work at all.
For some reason, even though I’m as prone to guilt as anyone else, I’ve never let that get too far with me. Why shouldn’t you feel guilty?
When you do something purely because you’ll feel guilty otherwise, you will not enjoy it.
If you don’t enjoy doing something, sooner or later you’ll stop.
Remember, 80% of those people who join because it’s their New Year’s resolution quit. So will you. Forget the guilt.