The Power of Spite: How Exercise Can Motivate and Empower
I like to joke that my current fitness level has been achieved through spite. The antisemitic stereotype of Jews as unfit nebbishes has always bothered me. I come from Alpine Jews; we love exercise, and if you don’t believe me, I might whack you with my cross-country ski. After I had kids, I also resented any notion that I couldn’t possibly attain the fitness level I had before pushing out two nine-pound monsters. I’m driven, in other words, by a wellspring of: You think you’re better than me???
I wanted to understand, on a deeper level, why I found this spite exercising so satisfying, beyond the oft-reported mood-enhancing benefits of running. So I called Alyssa Ages, the author of a new book, “Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength.” Like me, Ages has two kids and is in her 40s. Unlike me, she participates in strongman competitions and pulls trucks with her body, which makes my little Splat Points seem a bit piddling.
I asked her if I was a freak for being motivated by minor loathing and barely suppressed rage. She said that while she doesn’t know of any studies about it, everyone needs something to motivate them in athletics, and that she did the same thing — pick a random nemesis — when she was running marathons and doing triathlons: “The person in front of me was the worst person I’d ever met in my whole life.”
I also floated the idea to her that part of why I find Orangetheory to be such a release is that for women, being outwardly competitive is often still frowned upon in many areas of life (and there are studies that show this), and the workouts allow me a space to be unapologetically aggressive. Ages noted that women in weightlifting are pushing against a stereotype that women “are not supposed to be muscular, strong, bulky” — and that it can be exhilarating to throw that expectation out the window.
But on a much more serious note, part of why I wanted to talk to Ages was that she found solace in exercise after going through a miscarriage. Nine years ago, I experienced the same thing, with almost the identical emotional beats that she recounts in her book, and I had never heard anyone describe that specific headspace before. I had felt a total lack of control over my body and felt that running as fast as I could along the East River, breathing in the sea air, was one of the few things that made me feel any better. In “Secrets of Giants,” Ages writes:
“I couldn’t explain it, but going to the gym was bringing me back to life. I walked a little taller. My body vibrated with lingering endorphins and adrenaline long after the workout was over, muscles shaking with exhaustion at even the smallest movement. I could face the rest of the day with the sense of accomplishment that comes from trying something difficult and overcoming it.”
While lifting couldn’t erase her pain, Ages said, it did remind her that she could get through hard things, and I do think that’s part of the appeal for me, underneath — or perhaps existing alongside — the spite: reminding myself that other people’s expectations aren’t so relevant, and that I can endure a lot. Whenever I’m struggling to get through a particularly tough O.T.F. block, I have a little mantra that I repeat in my head: You can do anything for five minutes. It reminds me that even the most difficult moments are fleeting, and there’s an overwhelming sense of triumph on the other side.
In conclusion, spite can be a powerful motivator when it comes to exercise. Whether it’s challenging stereotypes, proving others wrong, or overcoming personal struggles, the fire fueled by spite can push us to achieve our goals and find empowerment. It reminds us that we are in control of our own bodies and capable of enduring and overcoming difficult challenges. So, the next time you hit the gym or go for a run, tap into that wellspring of spite and let it fuel your journey towards strength and self-discovery.