The fitness world can be surprisingly unhealthy, sending messages that can be body-shaming, fatphobic, or ableist, or simply unhelpful in motivating you to get active in a sustainable way. Ottawa author and fitness motivation expert Kelly Doell’s recently published book Feel Like It is not one of those. Instead, Doell takes a healthy approach to thinking about fitness.
The title of his book refers to the “Feel Like It” phenomena that Doell suggests is the key to sustainable fitness: you have to enjoy the activity itself, not just the results you’re achieving or the exercise after-glow. Otherwise, you’re not going to keep doing it, because willpower alone will not be enough to keep you doing something you don’t like.
It’s much like a dating relationship: you can’t just like being in a relationship—you have to actually like the person too. It’s better to have a “crush” on that fitness activity… you look forward to it when it’s coming up, you even think about it sometimes when you’re doing other things, and you kind of miss it on your rest days.
Feel Like It is not a traditional fitness guide per se, in that it doesn’t suggest gym routines or easy recipes. Instead, it’s about exploring your headspace. To help hone down on what that ideal activity might be, Doell asks you to consider “if you could only do one physical activity for the rest of your life, what would you choose?”
Using the friendly tone of a buddy talking to you over coffee to help you sort your thoughts out, Doell encourages you to focus on your own personal fitness history: what did you used to enjoy? What worked for your before? What didn’t and why not?
The book is interspersed with illustrative excerpts of interviews he’s conducted with clients over the years as a mental performance coach, exploring their personal fitness histories to explore what might work best for them. As a positive example, Doell describes what he calls “the loyal”—the people who have found a satisfying relationship with the fitness activities of their choice, whether its running, swimming, or obstacle courses.
People might be envious of the enthusiasm that CrossFit fanatics have, wishing that they could be as into fitness as those gym nuts, but Doell wants us to realize that anyone can be a loyal—once you’ve found your true love. To help us understand this, he shares the “fitness love stories” of loyals, how they each found love.
To find out more about his own motivations, I interviewed Doell through email about his book.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: What made you decide to write Feel Like It, your first book?
Kelly Doell: I’m not sure it was one thing, but things were set in motion nearly a decade ago when I was consulting with my first fitness centre. My job was to take the exercise histories of nearly every new member that walked through the door. I interviewed hundreds of people and kept hearing the same thing; those that struggled to stay active tended to see commitment as an energy problem. That is, they believed that if they only work harder this time around, things will turn out better. So, they kept returning to things that failed in the past.
But loyalty is rarely an energy problem. In fact, when I interviewed loyally active people, they really liked exercising. They got an emotional return on investment in some way. Not just feeling great when their workout was over, but a resonating connection with the action. Sure, exercising was effortful—that’s part of the deal—but for the loyal folks it was effort they enjoyed. Let’s say it was their work.
“When I saw no one else was talking about fitness in this way, I thought ‘Why not me?'”
So early on, I stopped treating the struggle as a failure of will or some sort of character flaw but a lack of compatibility between the person and their fitness choices. That can be what they were choosing to do and even how they were doing those things. This observation is what kicked things off. I then coached people on building a stronger relationship, one that creates an attraction to exercising, something they felt like doing rather than believed they should be doing. The data from this assignment showed that when people create that resonance in their routine they show up more. And when I saw no one else was talking about fitness in this way, I thought “Why not me?”
What was your experience like writing this book as an Ottawa author?
I consider myself lucky to live in Ottawa. Some of the interviews and field experiences took place here. This allowed me to appreciate the people and the resources we have at arm’s reach. There’s a great balance of public and private offerings and an infrastructure that gives people a lot of options.
These days, it’s a little weird to run into people who’ve read the book or have listened to my podcast. But I really enjoy that, despite how awkwardly I handle it. I’m proud to contribute to the conversations people are having about adding happier, more motivating fitness experiences to their life. It’s even cooler when I can actually share that with them in person while out in the community.
Your book talks about your struggles with enjoying yoga (especially pigeon pose). What’s one fitness activity that you tried where you found did not “feel like it” at all?
Yoga has been a terrific teacher in my life and still is. I’ve learned a lot about managing intensity and knowing where that edge is. As part of the research for the book, I’ve tried a lot of other things over the years. This has certainly helped me understand the psychology of trying new things extremely well.
Along the way, yeah, I’ve come across things that I’ve said, “Once is enough thanks.” Open water swimming is a big “no” for me, mainly because I have a solid case of thalassophobia, which is the fear of dark, deep water. Last summer, on a fishing trip, a few friends and I all decided to take the boat into the middle of the lake and go for a swim. We plunged into the abyss. I faced my anxiety head on and squeezed some mild enjoyment of it but it’s not something I seek out. So, you won’t find me swimming across Meech Lake anytime soon.
Also, I like running, but as I explain in my book, the atmosphere in which you exercise matters. I like trails. I enjoy group runs. I love events. But running solo on a treadmill is another “nope” for me. Always has been. I’d rather run outside headfirst into a -40 windchill than spend one minute on [a treadmill].
Can you explain more about “the troll” that you describe in your book?
The troll is the name I give that voice in our heads that messes with our relationship with physical activity. It tries to make fitness about our insecurities. For most people, it tells us we’re lazy, weak, or ugly. It’s hyper comparative and judgmental, forcing us to look outward for happiness. It convinces us that fitness should be a serious battle of some sort; that we’re not doing it right unless it’s painstaking or if we don’t get fast results. If we listen to it, we’ll create demotivating experiences that lead to quitting. Of course, once you quit, it will call you lazy for doing so!
The troll acts sort of like flypaper, collecting all the sour experiences from the past that make us feel insecure, whether that’s being told we’re unathletic, someone calling us fat, or recalling an embarrassing moment in gym class way back when. Popular culture also plays a huge role in how it speaks to us. For example, when the troll gets comparative like it normally does, it draws on the body ideals we see in the media and whatnot. So we end up constantly distracted by feelings of inadequacy and pay less attention to creating cool, motivating moments that create a healthy bond with our bodies.
How can people filter out bad fitness advice?
You have to have a filter first! Make your fitness stand for something. I hate to say it, but goals won’t do that. At least not on their own. To know what’s in your best interests, it really helps to know what type of fitness experience you want. How do you want it to feel? Are you doing things that create that feeling? Without having an idea about that, it’s easy to get caught up in demotivating activities.
Personally, I think the fitness industry has overcomplicated things. The standard health advice of “quit smoking, eat healthier, and move more” is still the lowest hanging fruit in living a quality life, especially in older age. But now, we get dragged into the weeds. At the end of the day, I believe the best thing you can do for yourself is finally figure out what fits you and learn the sustainability skills needed to make those changes last. If you focus on building your routine from the inside out based on the feel you like, you’ll essentially learn to trust yourself more. That’s important when there’s so much confusing information out there.
What are your thoughts on Ottawa as a fitness community (communities)?
It’s not easy to be regularly active in a place that has four legit seasons. The weather asks more from us. But that’s part of Ottawa’s strength. If you like to work out in the fresh air, this is the place to be no matter the season. If you like high intensity indoor workouts, there’s some great classes and boutique studios. If you’re curious about yoga, this city has you covered. Is obstacle fitness your thing? It’s here. There are also progressive gyms that understand that active living is a 24/7 thing. We don’t do well when we compartmentalize things. After all, a routine blooms into a lifestyle when it’s part of an ecosystem that includes a social network and several enjoyable options.
“Before joining the closest gym to your home and trying to force a fit, ask yourself what kind of fitness experience fits you.”
I also strongly believe that Ottawa is a model for free outdoor fitness. There are so many terrific groups that meet regularly to sweat together. A few go all year round. All this shows is that you don’t have to spend much to get and stay moving these days. At least not in our city.
What advice do you have for someone in Ottawa who is now looking to find a fitness plan?
People don’t realize that if you’re thinking about it, you’re way more than halfway there. That interest is the spark that lights every fitness fire. A few weeks ago, I interviewed a three-time Boston Marathon qualifier. Her journey started with that same spark. Of course, your path will take you in your own direction, but that curiosity is vital. So, congratulations!
Like anyone who’s ever learned to drive a car, the early steps can feel overwhelming. It’s clunky. There’s anxiety. You’re worried about being judged. What do you even wear? Hey, that sounds a lot like dating doesn’t it? I’ve worked with many people who’ve felt overwhelmed by it all. This was part of the motivation behind Feel Like It. That whole “gymtimidation” phenomenon is real.
Before joining the closest gym to your home and trying to force a fit, ask yourself what kind of fitness experience fits you. What have you always been curious about trying? What feelings motivate you? Are you an outdoorsy person? Do you like to feel agile? Are you cerebral and think you’d like physical activity that feels strategic? Think about the feel of it all and work backwards from that. Then put together a plan. Take a week or a couple of weekends and go test out some new things. Explore. Go take tours. Follow your nose and do some research. Collect some data, especially if the gym life has never worked out for you in the past. Bring a friend with you, too. Say to them, “You choose something, and I’ll choose something and we’ll do them together.” It’s much easier to be brave in a group.
And get ready for some nerves. Be comfortable feeling a bit vulnerable. When you do that, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to be able to feel the activity well enough to know whether you like it. If you like it, you’ll feel like going again. That’s the holy grail of motivation.
What’s currently your favourite (maybe new?) activity to do in Ottawa where you definitely feel like it?
To me, nothing beats life on a trail, whether that’s hiking in Gatineau Park, riding my mountain bike in the green belt, or running through the hundreds of kilometers of trails we’ve got in the region. Nature rarely disappoints and there’s always something cool out there to see.
Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve really loved Ottawa’s free outdoor fitness groups. I have a 4-year old, and it brings me great joy to expose her to these little communities. I’m of the mind that working out is much more than burning calories or trimming down love handles. It’s more powerful than that. Although fitness culture comes with some toxicity, physical activity can be fun. There’s teamwork. You support others. There’s inclusivity. My parenting philosophy is to get her out there to touch as many activities as possible. So, my “new” thing is to find that positive stuff and expose her to it. In many ways, I get to keep reliving the thrill of a cool, new fitness experience through my daughter. That will never get old.