Sport : Exercise - Carrot : Stick

Fitness, lightness, agility, poise—these are some of the shared norms of sport and exercise. But sport has something exercise does not—fun. This is not to say that exercise can’t be pleasurable. I do not deny that people derive great pleasure, if not intense happiness from pushing their bodies through the disciplined forms of experience that constitute proper exercise. However, what I do want to argue, is that exercise is not fun. Thus, I take the notion of ‘fun’ rather seriously, for I feel that this is an important point.

More specifically, exercise does not involve play. It involves repetition. No matter how complex of a routine, progression, or program of exercise one comes up with, it will never be fun in its systematicity. Exercise can be rigorous. It can be exhilarating. It can make one feel intensely alive. But exercise is not playful, and thus cannot be fun.

The analogy in the title above is meant to convey the idea that sport and exercise are both valuable, just as the carrot and the stick both represent valuable, albeit different, ways of getting things done. More precisely, the respective sides of both analogies represent different ways of valuing certain ends. Sport can, and often does, involve many of the same pleasurable features of exercise. One punishes oneself by digging down a bit deeper in the final minutes of a game, or during the final repetitions of a set. One feels vigorous, powerful, and intensely alive after an exhausting competitive event. Furthermore, sport and exercise can both essentially involve pleasure derived from competition. One can feel competitive with both oneself, or with others, during both sport and exercise. Nonetheless, sport and exercise are not co-extensive when it comes to normative features, despite overlapping in significant ways. The essential difference between the lived through processes that constitute the actual movements of sport and the actual movements of exercise differ insofar as the movements of sport are playful, whereas the movements of exercise are repetitive, and—if pushed to a logical extreme—masochistic.

To me, this explains why sport is so preferable to exercise on nearly every occasion. Both can be pleasurable, but sport offers real fun.


  1. Question: You say that exercise doesn't involve play, whereas sport does. Is this supposed to be a description of those activities that are commonly categorized as exercise and as sport? (In other words, are you saying that, by their very nature, running on a treadmill can never involve play and football always does involve play?) Or are you giving *definitions* of what you mean by "exercise" and "sport"? (In other words, are you saying that, for you, if a game of football isn't playful, then it's just exercise, not sport?)

    I suspect it's the latter, but just thought I'd make sure...

  2. Yes, you suspect correctly. I'm identifying essences here, and calling assigning one to exercise and one to sport. I don't really see how a game of football couldn't be playful, or how it could become exercise. Although I can imagine how one might be exercise and start playing little games with oneself, thus making it more playful and thus more fun. Like I said, I am not identifying 'fun' or 'play' with 'pleasurable' or 'gratifying'. I just think the pleasure derived from sport includes features that one is hard pressed to find in exercise.

  3. I guess I'm having trouble identifying the phenomenal features distinctive of what you call "fun". I associate the term "fun" with activities that aren't taken too seriously or simply as a means to an end (as exercise is a means to fitness). This probably isn't what you mean by "fun", though, because people can take sports games very seriously, becoming depressed if they lose, and some professional sports players might see their sport mainly as a means to making money.

    An interesting sidenote: you may already know this, but basketball was invented by a gym instructor who was looking for a way to keep his class active on a rainy day. This looks like a case of exercise evolving into sport.