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Want to become fit? Start with your ‘why’

Varun Duggirala
6 min read • 
21 January 2023

Welcome to Truth Be Told, a weekly food & fitness newsletter. New here? Read our manifesto: a note on why we exist.

Editor’s Note: In today’s issue, Varun Duggirala writes about how his ideas around fitness evolved over time, how becoming a father led him to find his ‘why’ for staying consistently fit and the lessons he learned to achieve his goals. Varun, 40, is a podcast host and co-founder of the marketing agency The Glitch. His book Everything Is Out of Syllabus is a manual for life and work.

The teenage me didn’t want the bony skinny build I had. The teenage me wanted big brawny muscles — a chiselled physique, an externally fit-looking body.

Stamina? Strength? Performing at peak physical potential? Nope. I didn’t even consider that.

The ‘look’, the ‘body’ — you know the kind of ‘body’ I’m talking about, right? — is all I wanted. And I got there in time.

All through my twenties, as I moved from college in Pune to work in Mumbai, my fitness routine would start and then stop, and then start again and stop again.

There were times I would hit the gym for a few months: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs (‘can I skip, please?’), no runs (‘flat feet, don’t want to hurt my knees’.)

And there were times when I ignored all physical activity and lost control of my diet. For months. When work picked up or even otherwise — any excuse life offered conveniently got me off the wagon.

This was me for the longest time. Fitness meant looks. Amazing looks. (Yet, through this phase, I could not look at my body confidently — something I still occasionally struggle with.)

Enter the late twenties and early thirties.

I became an entrepreneur. I got better: I hired a trainer, and workouts became relatively consistent. Three days a week at least. But my drive didn’t change: fitness was still the route to looking better.

So I added muscles and got those biceps. I went all in on protein shakes and bulk eating. I enjoyed having regular drinks: “I’d earned it by working out more regularly” was my justification.

But there was one problem: as much as I would talk about wanting to be fitter, I never felt genuinely fit. The desire to add more visual bulk and muscle, the desire for the look, came with a rotor cuff strain in my right shoulder which took me years to recover. Add lower back pain and occasional knee strain to the list.

I worked around these injuries to fulfil my need for visual validation and somehow got by help from my trainer, who would often catch me skipping warmups and stretches as I ran straight to the weights rack. But I never figured out why these injuries happened in the first place.

Enter mid-thirties.

I became a father. And reality struck: I couldn’t carry my newborn baby for more than 10 minutes. Those bulging biceps felt sore in five, and that lower back pained constantly. I was pushing through, somehow. And that’s when I realised what had gone wrong.

Yes, I bulked up and lifted weights far heavier than my daughter’s. But I didn’t lift for longer durations, I didn’t build the muscle strength that conditioning workouts enabled, and I didn’t build stamina by ignoring all forms of cardiovascular activity.

The impact of that selective focus — to only get the physique right — and all those forgotten pains were out there. What didn’t help was my face reflected it all. I was visibly uncomfortable.

That’s when my wife Pooja said: “What’s the point of those muscles if you can’t carry a two-month-old baby for more than 10 minutes?”

“What’s the point?”

That was my moment of epiphany. Was I fit? Maybe. Maybe not. But one thing was clear: I was never fit in a way that had depth and sustenance. I felt superficially fit.

I never got there because I didn’t have a deeper “why”: Why do I want to fit beyond my body’s exterior visual? Why?

The birth of my child led me to my why.

I want to be fit to carry my kids for as long as possible. And hold my energy and stamina amidst the chaos of life. And lift and jump and move around comfortably.

I want to be fit to remain fit for life: play outdoors for extended periods, carry larger loads of luggage and most importantly, not feel those niggles and strains in my shoulder, neck, knees and back at all times.

In short, fitness should enable my everyday small and big wants — everything that makes life worth living. That’s my ‘why’.

Getting there required a reframing of my goals. And it started with an honest self-acknowledgement: not all of us need to function or look like athletes or bodybuilders. I didn’t need the yoga-guru-level mobility because extreme examples pushed me away from even trying.

Happens to all of us, no?

We know we won’t be able to get to that level of conditioning anyway, so we stop trying.

So my goals moved from the size of the biceps to the ability to feel stronger and move better.

How did I get there? Five ideas helped me.

One: Eliminate pressure.

I understood the basics of a balanced diet and experimented to find out what worked for me. I continued to eat regular food, avoided binges, and ensured my plate always had a good mix of veggies, carbs, fat and protein.

I kept it simple and didn’t restrict what I ate. I just needed to find regimens and systems that worked for my body and didn’t constrain my mind.

That took all the pressure away, and staying consistently fit didn’t feel tough anymore.

Two: Take tiny steps to overcome mental blocks.

There are some exercises I have always liked to do (deadlifts, burpees, stretches) and some I did not (running, squats, shoulder work).

My coach Sohrab made me realise I needed to do both.

When it comes to the stuff I didn’t like, I ask myself: why? Was it just an artificial mental block or some legit reason?

Take running. I’ve always hated it. I hate it because I was born with flat feet and hyperextended knees. So me running in my natural form often resembles an ostrich running. And if not done with focus, it can add unwanted pressure to my knees and the soles of my feet.

Which meant I could never run fast and found it monotonous and boring. Additionally, I worried it’ll make me lose muscle. So I avoided it.

But that had to change: my coach told me I needed at least one cardio day a week.

So when I decided to give running an actual shot, I looked at each of my concerns bit by bit.

First, my coach debunked the whole “running makes you lose muscle” part. Many people believe running makes you shed the muscle you gain in the gym, and I did too. But I ignored that running is excellent for building stamina and conditioning, helps burn fat and drives muscle development — not just the legs, but also the abs and other body parts.

The point is, like all exercises, it needs to be done in the right proportion. No overdoing.

Second, I had a flat feet issue. It’s a condition where the soles of your feet lack the arch most people have, and that arch plays a vital part in cushioning the load on your knees while running.

Solving that problem required me to find the right running shoes and learn that we all don’t run the same way — we shouldn’t even try to. I just had to find my flow and run how my body naturally ran, which helped me find the most comfortable way to move.

Three: Keep evolving what you do and make it fun.

The thing that kept me from physical fitness activity was monotony. I got bored. It was especially a problem when monotony set in before the results showed. And even after the results show, they don’t keep showing at the same pace. My results didn’t show as much growth — we all plateau often enough — so I would lose motivation.

Therein lies the crucial point: making fitness fun!

I needed to find ways and means to ensure I never felt stagnant and repetitive in my workouts. By not doing the same thing repeatedly week after week, I focussed on evolving what I did weekly, month on month, and never succumbing to monotony. No week has ever been the same as the week before, so my mind always feels like something new is happening.

And even with running, I found new routes, a new playlist, and a newer way to make it seem different to my mind and how it felt to my body.

For example, when a 5km run every week felt monotonous, I’d split it into 300-meter sprints with slow walking in between. Or I’d run with a friend.

This bit is the singular aspect that helped me fuel those weak moments when I questioned my need to be healthy and go out and do it.

Four: Take regular breaks (but no full stops).

I learnt to listen to my body telling me it needs a day off. It’s a signal you come to pick up on over time.

Make no mistake: it’s not a feeling of laziness or lethargy. It’s your body telling you it needs more rest, some time to relax and refresh.

An excellent way to do this is just to give it that day off. Regularly. I have two days off every week over the weekend. So I get my break, but I always remind myself that if that day becomes a week, it’s tougher to get that ship to sail again.

And to ensure I don’t get stuck at sea, I have some form of physical activity on one of my two rest days. It could be a walk, a swim, playing with my daughter, or walking our dogs. It’s also a great opportunity to try something new, like a sport, dance class or any fun physical activity with a friend. (Something which I plan to do a lot more of this year.)

Five: Use this methodology in all aspects of life.

While a lot of what I’ve spoken about is about exercise, the same goes for food. We all largely know what we should and shouldn’t eat. (I know when I’m trying to give myself excuses for eating poorly, and I have learnt to call my bluff in those moments.)

My key learning has been finding the balance that works for me. Eat enough vegetables, get the correct dose of protein, get those good carbohydrates in and add that dose of fat. Eat fresh food and a quantity that doesn’t make one feel lethargic after a meal but balanced and energised.

And look, restriction never motivated me, but systems that build the correct values and allow for flexibility of choices do. So often enough, I allow myself a treat outside this structure.

Am I the fittest version of myself today?

I honestly don’t ask myself that question anymore. I’m just happy I can still carry my daughter (who’s five and a half now) on one arm for an extended period and not break a sweat. That’s all that matters.

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