Discover more from Sam Sager
The Origin of Intuitive Fitness
My Journey into the Power of the Body
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me why I was so passionate about fitness. As I started to answer, I realized I needed to share my own journey with exercise. Here is that story.
My Journey into the Power of the Body
I was fifteen when my body first failed me. I was chasing my younger cousin on the beach and felt an unprecedented level of physical exhaustion. Instead of the normal voice claiming tiredness, I heard a primal scream from my body. As if my cells were yelling: "we can't do this".
I had always been an active and energetic kid. I was stubborn and prone to repress rather than admit weakness. Yet at that moment, as the sun beat on my back and the waves crashed over my feet, reality hit me in the face. I could no longer ignore the many signs that something was wrong: the constant thirst, persistent fatigue, and black spots in my vision. I felt a wave of fear and sadness wash over me. Tears emerged. I looked at my body and saw a shell of itself, just skin and bone. I was down thirty pounds from where I had started football season three months before and I had no idea why.
When I returned from vacation, I went to the doctor and discovered I had type 1 diabetes. A disease where the body destroys its own capacity to produce insulin, a hormone required to live. The next few days were a blur of bright lights, rotating clinicians, and never-ending information. Yet, by the time I left the hospital, I felt relief and commitment. I knew what had been wrong and was going to do whatever it took to regain my health and my life.
Regaining Physical Health
The first step was getting ready for baseball season. I had thirty pounds to regain, muscle to rebuild, and energy to recapture. I had a sense of purpose that made learning the intricacies of managing the disease easier. Yes, there were injections to take and foods I couldn't eat. But there was also the steady progress of my body regaining its strength.
Exercise helped restore my body and my confidence that I could persist despite the disease. Each rep brought relief that I was regaining my strength. Each workout proved that progress was possible. Each burst of energy demonstrated that my body was healing. My recovery was rapid and nourishing. Within a few months, I was ready for baseball season and felt like myself again.
Over the next few years, I fixated on the singular goal of playing college baseball. I became addicted to progress, savoring every small improvement and chasing new milestones. I loved the adrenaline of heavy deadlifting. Each workout inching the weight up toward an attempt of four hundred pounds. My chalked hands desperately gripped the bar as my leg muscles buzzed with energy. I stood tall in triumph, smashed the weight to the floor, and unleashed years of hard work in a resounding smash.
Moments like this proved my body was capable of renewal and supported my desire to thrive on the field. These efforts culminated in one beautiful moment during my sophomore year. I stood at the plate with the game tied against our rival and hit a walk-off home run. The ball exploded off my bat and soared over the scoreboard. I felt a weightless euphoria as I jogged around the bases with my teammates waiting to celebrate.
Yet, this story of recovery and progress hides some of the truth. It buries the fear that kept bubbling up. The gnawing sense that something else might go wrong. It masks the constant anxiety I had each day. A desire and crushing responsibility to control every element to keep me safe.
Exercise helped me recapture the vitality of my body, but not my trust in it. Back then, my association with exercise was transactional and external. I did it to perform as an athlete, to attract a girlfriend, and to counteract the damage of my disease. This extrinsic focus and lack of trust in my body made me fragile. Coming out of college, I had no clue how fast everything was about to come crashing down.
Regaining Psychological Health
Within a year of graduating, my body was failing me again. I drove to the gym after a long day working in management consulting and felt dread. My strength and energy were a fraction of what they used to be. I had started to lose focus at work. Some days, I had difficulty getting out of bed.
As I entered the gym, my dread and frustration spiked. I had zero motivation to be there. I was forcing myself to go, clinging to an old identity as someone who exercised. My mind raced with calculations of how much less weight and fewer reps I could do. I felt humiliated thinking about how fast I would fatigue. Just as I relished the positive ripple of doing more exercise, I now wallowed in the negative cascade of doing less. I felt shame. “I let myself go.” “I’m not the person I used to be.” I went through the motions in the gym that day aware that my vitality was diminishing and desperate to fix it.
I tried all the usual things. I set ambitious fitness goals. I signed up for competitions. I got a workout buddy and even hired a coach. Yet, none of these external motivators helped. My goals with baseball had carried deep personal resonance. These new ones felt contrived. I’d have a few weeks where I felt a shift and then a month where I’d lose all motivation again. But, somewhere within me, I knew there was a way to rediscover my love of exercise.
One day, I went to a spin class. The instructor yelled at us over loud music, encouraging us to move up the leaderboard. In the past, I would have killed myself competing to get to the top. Now, I felt no attachment to the goal. I was just there to enjoy myself and discover if I liked the spin class. I didn’t love it, but, I left feeling relieved. I had let go of the need to chase every arbitrary milestone. I didn’t have to force myself to embrace every kind of exercise. I could experiment with curiosity to discover what I enjoyed.
Without even knowing it, I shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. I let go of the outcomes and began to rediscover the joy. I shifted my strength training to focus on the experience of doing my favorite exercises. I started doing hill sprints because I loved the challenge and intensity. I began to find deep satisfaction in doing these activities, not just in completing them.
This shift melted away my resistance and restored my well-being. I started to look forward to workouts again. My energy returned. My strength came back. New desires emerged and I found new ways to challenge my body.
The physical progress and mindset shift rippled across my psychological health. My mood improved and my mind felt clearer. I started to bring more curiosity to the rest of my life. I saw how my job was not aligned with my values. I regained belief in my ability to embrace change. I quit and my depression faded away.
The next few years were a whirlwind. With my vitality renewed, I attacked life with vigor. I launched a local food business and got married. Even when things were chaotic, exercise was a consistent and positive force in my life. It gave me the energy to pursue the new venture and supported my mental health when it didn’t live up to its potential.
The zest I had for exercise bled into the rest of my life. My experiences were so positive that I became a personal trainer to help others channel fitness as a source of transformation. But, despite my deepening relationship with exercise, I was missing a critical element. I was about to discover the true costs of not trusting my body and living in my head.
Regaining Spiritual Health
As I continued to work with people as a personal trainer, I felt my frustration grow. I was teaching people effective exercise principles but not how to make the activity their own. I could hold them accountable but not help them cultivate intrinsic motivation. Most became dependent on my services, not empowered by them.
After a particularly long day with clients, I had a crisis of conviction. Personal training felt rigid, forcing fitness into scheduled blocks of time. This traditional approach was prescriptive, telling people what they should do. Despite our best efforts to promote health, our country was still getting sicker.
That night I shared these challenges with my wife and revealed a plan to take my work in a new direction. I had consulted with healthcare companies and now felt pulled to help fix the broken system. I argued that joining a healthcare organization would enable me to have a greater impact. I was craving external validation and this seemed like a logical move. Unfortunately, I lacked contact with my true desires. I was making decisions with my head but not my heart.
Blind to all this, I pushed my fitness business to the side and hustled into a role with a large hospital system. Despite amazing colleagues, a meaningful mission, and stimulating work, I sunk into the worst burnout of my life.
I began to experience that familiar sense that my body was failing me. Except for this time, it was as if I was losing contact with it altogether. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living someone else's life and drifting further out of my body. One day, I presented at a meeting and realized I was watching myself talk from above. I heard the words coming out of my mouth as if someone else said them. The dissociation was so surreal that I knew something needed to shift. I had a faint sense that this meant plunging into the depths of my body. My exercise practice supported my physical and mental health, yet something was missing. As the meeting ended, I ruminated about potential ways to find the remaining piece of the puzzle.
This hunt took me down different paths until I found myself lying on the floor of my bedroom wearing an eye mask and listening to electronic music. My friend Jonny Miller was guiding me through a circular breathing pattern. Suddenly, I felt my fingers and toes start tingling. A blissful vibration radiated through my arms and legs. I became embodied, experiencing an unprecedented breadth and resolution of inner sensations.
It felt magical. My body bubbled with aliveness. I felt both grounded and expansive. I started laughing. There was a strange blend of curiosity and calmness. I felt clarity, yet could not put it into words. I realized I didn’t need to and could trust it to unfold over time. The music slowed and I savored a felt sense of the vast inner terrain of my body.
I began to apply embodiment to exercise and felt all the sensations arising within my body. The movement took on new life. I noticed my breathing, muscle contraction, heart rate, adrenaline, and fatigue. I uncovered hidden connections in my mental, emotional, and physical states. Buried desires, preferences, and patterns bubbled up. My body started guiding the exercise. I stopped telling it what to do and listened to what it requested. One morning, my body asked for a ton of heavy squats. The next, it pulled me towards a long slow jog. I stopped grinding and found flow. The workouts were often still hard, but exercising felt strangely effortless. My approach to fitness had become intuitive.
By welcoming the full breadth of my experience, I reconnected with the power of my body. I discovered a new source of wisdom within. I connected my body, mind, and soul. I realized that this integration is essential for the continued renewal of my health, relationships, work, and life. I learned to trust my ability to live in line with my desires and values. I healed spiritually.
Sharing with Others
With hindsight, I can see how I kept nurturing these seeds despite the false starts and setbacks. Even when I jumped into healthcare, I stayed immersed in the fitness community. When the pandemic hit, I restarted my fitness business with a coaching focus and incorporated these ideas.
Rather than prescribing workout routines, I focused on helping others embrace embodied exercise. Instead of short-term goals, we played with techniques to cultivate intrinsic motivation. The focus became helping them shift into people who enjoyed exercise. Success was when they had true confidence in their capacity to carve their own paths.
My clients began to transform their relationship with exercise. They stopped looking to others to tell them what to do and explored their own why. They embraced effective techniques in a way that fit their life. They found their own form of Intuitive Fitness. Instead of needing me for accountability, exercise became inevitable. Rather than rushing to an arbitrary milestone, they embraced fitness as a life-long journey and a continual source of renewal.
As I reflect on this winding and often frustrating journey, I sense sadness. I wish I could teleport back in time to share what I’ve learned with the younger versions of me. Yet, at the same time, I have gratitude for the ups and downs. Aware that the intensity of these experiences shaped the pillars of Intuitive Fitness.
In response to the rapid decay of my physical health, I learned the value of effective training. I felt how nourishing it is to regain your vitality. Through challenges to my mental health, I found the power of intrinsic motivation. I experienced how finding joy during exercise can improve our psychological health and ripple across our life. By confronting the way I lost contact with my body, I discovered embodiment. I uncovered how we can design exercise to reconnect us to our bodies and help heal us spiritually.
Most of all, these experiences have taught me that our ability to renew ourselves to meet the challenges of life starts with our body. It shapes not only our vitality, but also our felt sense of everything we experience. I know that I’ve only scratched the surface and have so much more to explore in these domains. I have no doubt that the years ahead will bring more challenges. Yet, I now have a deep faith in my capacity to not only meet these challenges but grow from them.
I'm now weaving these lessons together with the hopes of inspiring you to embrace your own journey. I believe everyone can create an effective and enjoyable approach to exercise. Each of us can discover our own intrinsic motivation in fitness and beyond. We can all benefit by living a more embodied life. We are all capable of creating conditions to support the renewal of our health and ourselves.
So I invite you to embrace exercise from within and discover your own form of Intuitive Fitness.
Thank you for reading. Please consider sharing this with a friend if you think they will be interested in Intuitive Fitness. I’d love to hear any reflections, ideas, or questions you have in the comments or by replying directly to this email.
A special thank you to , , Jude Klinger, and Cameron Zargar for their feedback and contributions during the development of this story. And to everyone who led and participated in Foster’s Season 2 writing community.