5 lessons about fitness that I learned from ‘Super Mario Bros.’

Some people are shocked to learn that I’m actually a huge nerd. Video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Sci/Fi novels, and B-cast made-for-TV monster movies formed a huge part of my experience, culture, and life growing up. I partially blame my brother, who’s six years older and was the first to hand me a Nintendo controller and show me how to jump the Goomba walking towards my little Mario figure on the screen. As I was being indoctrinated into the life of a video game dork, what I didn’t realize is that I was learning life lessons that would help me in a very different place: the gym.

Lesson 1: Things always start out pretty easy

In the Super Mario Bros. games, the levels start out pretty simple. As long as you can move the character and jump with any sort of basic timing and aim, you can finish without a hitch. The first few levels serve to bring you into the game, teaching you the basic mechanics as you play. In the gym, the first steps on your fitness journey are actually pretty simple. You spend time relearning how to move your body well, with good form squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and maybe even pull-ups. The point isn’t to feel challenged in these first “levels”; it’s to learn the basic skills you need to survive the game.

Lesson 2: Things get real hard, real fast

But you can’t stay basic forever! In the game, the levels quickly become more difficult. You need better timing to make the right jumps, more attention paid to the enemies moving on your screen, and you start to learn tricks that help you win levels. As you progress through the levels, you gradually see new challenges you need to face in order to keep going. When you’re exercising, this takes the form of more reps, more weight, and new skills learned on the barbell. You might need to run longer or further to get the same “workout” as you did your first couple weeks, and you might find that the new “enemies” you encounter seem all but unbeatable (Overhead Squats, anyone?).

Lesson 3: You’re going to “die” a lot

When you play games, chances are you can lose and start over as many times as you want. In Super Mario Bros. this is represented by “lives” and every level lost costs you a life. And you’re going to die. A lot! Failure is how you learn which new skills you need to keep playing, making it an integral part in your playing experience. Getting more fit is much the same: some days you’re going to feel and perform like nothing can stop you, while other days it’s going to feel like a challenge just finishing the warm-up. Some skills will come quickly, but some others will cost you more “lives” than you want to admit (yes, I mean Double Unders). But in both cases, failure is your learning experience.

Lesson 4: Practice, Practice, Practice

I honestly have no idea how many times I had to go through Mario before I got to that final, sweet victory over King Koopa and his damned turtle army. I spent, literally, hundreds of hours winning, dying, winning again, dying a couple more times, and wanting to smash the stupid controller with a hammer. But in the end, what seemed like a useless waste of time taught me the best lesson anyone can ever learn: you have to practice to get good enough to excel at something. Whether it’s spending hours learning to time the jumps between sky-level moving platforms to avoid a boomerang to the face, or hours spent learning how to properly Split Jerk to avoid a barball to the same, the practice is what makes you good, then great, then excellent. No natural talent can replace that.

Lesson 5: The only way to win, is to keep playing

The majority of accomplishments in life aren’t going to come easy. They’re going to require blood, sweat, tears, time, effort, repeated failures, and the unadulterated tenacity of a pissed off snapping turtle. In games and in the gym, the only time you truly accomplish what you want, is if you keep playing until the credits run across the screen. If you’re always the person who puts down the controller when the water levels come up, or the person who stays home when pull-ups are programmed in the workout that day, you will never, never be as great as you could be.