Athletes often give up one-off experiences like a night out with friends or a cozy Sunday morning in lieu of a race or an intense workout. But some high performers put fitness before bigger aspects of life that are ingrained in the everyday: family, friends, love, and more.
That’s at once extreme and natural. Exercise can have a strong hold over you, not least because it offers a mood boost, a sense of control, and an escape from daily life, explains Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills.
“Once you consistently have this feeling, you want to keep it,” he says. “You want to be in control of your destiny and see that you’re progressing. Exercise provides endless opportunities to satisfy both.”
For the five athletes below, fitness comes first, and their dedication requires them to cut back on things others consider top priority. Here are their stories.
Federico R., 45, Brookline, Massachusetts
“For me, fitness comes over family. In high school, I started running long distance as a meditative practice to escape feuds with my mother and brother, who had gotten into drugs and alcohol. Running offered a natural high, a way for me to use pent-up energy and deal with the day-to-day drudgery of these issues. I soon learned I had the control over my ability to move, and this helped me feel grounded.
There are still times that I choose fitness over family. I have to figure out how to fit in time with my 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, and sometimes I feel like I could be doing more. I struggle with the balance, wondering if I’m selfish.
Ultimately, though, exercise is something I do because of its positive results. It helps me reflect, figure out how to focus on good memories, work through tough times, and accept people for who they are.”
Kelly M., 30, New York City
“I train with a group three to four times a week at 6 a.m., so the cycle of my day has changed a lot. I have to be selective about the late-night dinners and celebrations I say yes to because even on the weekends, my body clock wakes me up around 6:30 a.m. That means I rarely go out past 10 p.m. I prefer it this way.
I’ve met many friends through fitness. I think when people work out together, they’re more open to being vulnerable with each other. I get to truly learn about people when I exercise with them, so I always choose training with a friend from the group over brunch with someone else.
I still make time for my non-fitness friends, but I see them much less frequently. I have to plan around my workout schedule, I’m usually the first to go home, and I choose not to drink because it doesn’t make me feel good. The runner’s high always allows me to believe I’m capable of more. I never feel this way after a late night out or an evening of drinking.
I’m okay with that and so are they. We understand that we show up for the important things, but ultimately we have to take care of ourselves before we can care for anyone else.”
Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills
“As a trainer and industry professional, I know and recognize the role food plays in recovery, health, and performance. I also love good food, largely because of my wife’s influence. It took me a while to realize that a big part of healthy eating is enjoying what you’re eating and with whom. When you skip out on the experience, food becomes all about calories and macros, and it should be about much more.
That said, I would swap sharing a fancy dinner with someone for eating my typical meal of ground turkey, rice, beans, and spinach if it meant I could fit in my training because I get more enjoyment from moving and challenging my body. The opportunity to practice a new lift or push further on one I’ve mastered provides a greater sense of accomplishment and gives me time for myself.
Instead of looking at food as an experience, I see it more as fuel to support my activity. I’d rather devote more time to training and eat go-to recipes that can be cooked in 10 to 15 minutes.”
Mara A., 29, Hoboken, New Jersey
“Other millennials use their money to take trips, buy homes, plan weddings, or bring another life into this world. I spend much of my time, energy, and funds on my obsession with fitness. Prioritizing exercise in my budget allows me to put myself first. I’m happiest when I invest in myself in this way.
Traveling and registering for races, keeping a gym membership, and going to physical therapy comes with financial sacrifice, sure, but I hustle to make ends meet. I wouldn’t give up the experience of running in a foreign country or working toward a goal for anything else. Even when my love of fitness keeps me from shopping for a few months, I still put it first because it’s taught me how resilient I am. Sweating paycheck to paycheck has made me stronger.”
Gabrielle K., 24, New York, New York
“I’d be lying if I said having a partner isn’t important to me—it absolutely is. But nine times out of ten, I prioritize fitness over my love life. In order to obtain my goals, I’ve committed myself to training hard six days a week. I’m not willing to compromise the sleep or eating habits that make it happen, so inevitably, relationships take a back seat.
Scheduling dates around my workouts has posed problems in the past. A few years ago, I was in a long-distance relationship and because I never knew exactly when I’d be home from the gym, fitting in FaceTime calls was difficult. My fitness habits caused the relationship’s demise.
I’ve also dated others who love exercise just as much as I do, which can be both good and bad. But I believe deeply that I’m a better, less-stressed version of myself when I regularly exercise. While I prioritize fitness over relationships, I show up to my workouts as the best version of myself.
My hope: that I’m able to find someone who I can ‘do fitness’ with and share with them a unique intimacy.”