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How You Felt About Gym Class May Explain How You Feel About Exercise Now

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Most people can recall memories of gym class in school—maybe it's where you discovered your love of running or team sports. (Related: The Playground Boot-Camp Workout That Will Make You Feel Like a Kid Again) Or maybe you remember it more like school-mandated torture where you had to navigate sports bras, sweat, and how quickly (or otherwise) you were picked for teams. While you may dismiss them as bygones, it turns out that your school gym class experience may help—or haunt—your feelings about fitness as an adult.

As much as you'd like to think you've outgrown your awkward kid years, countless studies (and hours in a therapist's office, TBH) show that experiences you had when you were young leave a significant impression on your adult self.

Apparently, they even shape your attitude toward working out, according to a new study by researchers at Iowa State University in Ames. To better understand what motivates people to exercise, the researchers questioned a group of more than 1,000 participants about their memories of gym class and how they feel about exercise as adults, the New York Times reports.

The results, published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, might surprise you. Even though gym class was years or even decades ago, the researchers noted how vivid and emotionally charged the responses were. People seem to have much stronger feelings about their time in gym class than, say, their time in algebra.

Here's why that matters for your workout game: The researchers found that your memories of PE class tend to stick with you, coloring your attitudes about working out as adults. This can be good or bad. Adults who loved gym class were more likely to say they liked to exercise and planned to work out in the near future, while participants who hated gym class were more likely to have no workout plans and a negative attitude about exercise. (The researchers noted that the negative experiences seemed to be particularly potent.)

So, yeah—if you dreaded gym class in school, it might explain why you have such a hard time dragging your ass to barre class.

Think about it this way: Your favorite workouts are awesome because you actually like doing that activity. Whether it's a gorgeous trail run or a leave-it-all-on-the-matt boxing session, chances are you look forward to the sweat. But if you have a bad experience in a workout class, you're not likely to want to go back. Since gym class is often where you're introduced to the idea of physical activity, a bad experience can tank your motivation to work out for decades(!), the researchers theorize. (Need a boost? Check out these motivational quotes from trainers to help re-energize your workout routine.)

The findings don't mean you're doomed to a lifetime of hating the gym if you were bullied in PE—a lot of other factors can impact your workout experience. But the study does make a really good point: Experience directly impacts motivation. So, if your CrossFit coach reminds you of your drill sergeant gym teacher, you don't have to force yourself to keep going back to a class you hate. Instead, think of the physical activities you love the most and build your workout around them. If you had the most fun ~ever~ taking surfing lessons, you'll be pumped to drop into a boutique surf-inspired class.


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