Originally from Canada, Jennifer Ward Barber eventually migrated to San Diego, the birthplace and cultural home of her current sporting obsession. When she’s not swimming, biking, or running her way to new personal bests, she runs a blog about food, life, and triathlon training calledThe Hippie Triathlete. You can also find her work on Ironman.com where she’s a senior editor. The views expressed herein are hers and hers alone.

For a tall, medium-build teenager living in a Kate Moss world, I always had weight to lose. As I got older, running, skipping, and jumping — those playful activities of childhood — had suddenly taken on a new purpose: Get down to 155 pounds. Be skinnier than the men I dated. Look hot.

And then I found triathlon.

Thankfully, by the time I attended college, the fitness craze was gaining traction and my more muscular build started to become acceptable — even fashionable. Through my late 20’s, I cultivated a healthy relationship with the gym. I danced around in an aerobics class with my mom. I started attending spin classes. After a particularly bad breakup, I joined a half-marathon clinic and ran my way back to happiness.

But all that time in the gym, as healthy as it was, was still more a means to an end. Every time I walked through that door, the subliminal messages accosted me: Lose weight. Get smaller. Look better. To me, they were all just different ways of saying “be happier.” Finally, I realized that my pursuit of an ever-shifting number (on the scale or the jean tag) just wasn’t any fun. I was missing something.

After a summer spent climbing mountains and taking on a solo cycle tour around Vancouver Island, I learned that I was happiest when physical activity aligned with something other than weight loss. Then, at 27, I joined a spin class taught by a spunky blonde who just happened to do Ironman triathlons (single-day events consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run — yep, that’s a marathon). Somewhere along the way, my lifelong dabbles in swimming, cycling, and running combined, and completing a triathlon — the combination of all three — landed squarely on my bucket list. Lisa’s spin class had given me the kick I needed, and I became a triathlete that summer.

Five years later, I have numerous triathlons — with varying distances of swimming, biking, and running — and two full Ironmans behind me.

Triathlon changed my focus to how my body performed rather than how it looked. It was like enrolling in body image marriage counseling. It fixed my relationship with my body — one that wasn’t necessarily broken, but needed some work. Eighteen races later, and I’m finally beginning to stop caring whether I’m 138 or 143 or 150 pounds, and more about whether those pounds are serving my goals or not. Sure, swimming, biking, and running every day has kept me leaner than I ever was before, but now, how I’m progressing as a bona-fide athlete matters much, much more.

It turns out it’s working for others, too. Last summer, The New York Times reported that exercising (or “training,” in the athletes’ vernacular) for enjoyments’ sake can not only boost happiness, it tends to help us stick with it. To me, distant, theoretical benefits (like preventing heart disease and high blood pressure) are far less powerful than that little jolt I feel after a tough run, or trying to keep up with a fitter friend on a long bike ride. Look at the public dialogue about physical activity: It’s boring. Hang out with a bunch of triathletes and I guarantee you’ll laugh.

In the words of the Times’ article’s author, when exercise stopped being my “punishment for bad numbers on the scale,” my whole world shifted. No victory of weight or dress size can possibly rival the feeling of my skin moving through water, my feet on trails, the responsiveness of my bicycle on a descent, or the rush of a hard-won finish line. Keeping my cholesterol down, sure that’s a perk — but not one I think about when I’m jumping in the pool at 6am.

There’s nothing wrong with using weight loss as motivation to exercise. For many, it provides a much-needed springboard to a better life. I’m still motivated to a certain degree by weight loss (which, in the athletic world, masquerades as an equally obsessive quest for leanness). For me, a long-term focus on weight threatened to steal the joy from activity. I needed triathlon — the cultivation of goals and the high of competition — to come in and shake things up.

Hopefully my scale doesn’t miss me too much.

Here are a few of my favorite tips for helping to shifting the focus from weight loss to improved performance.

  • Think outside the gym. Doing the same thing over and over can breed obsession, not to mention boredom. Instead of slogging it out on the elliptical, watching the (probably inaccurate) calories slowly inch towards your goal, change it up! Try going for a short run (get a friend to join, too!).
  • Ditch the scale. Try living without it for a month, and track how it changes your approach to exercise, your body image, and your happiness. You might just find that you lose inches in the process.
  • Set small goals. Instead of paying attention to pounds lost or calories burned, try focusing on more qualitative measures. Whether it’s time, speed, or heart rate, keep track of a new metric in a journal or on a site like MyFitnessPal. Spend an extra 10 minutes on the spin bike after class, or speed up the treadmill for the last quarter mile of your run — whatever it is, focus on improvement.
  • Sign up for a race. Not all of us have the competitive spirit, but you don’t know until you try. Check out your local race listings for a 5K or sprint triathlon — you never know, you might have an athlete buried inside you. I did. (Just be sure to train properly beforehand to avoid injury!)

Photos courtsey of the author.

What does exercies and athletics mean to you? Have you had a similar experience? Share your stories in the comments below, or start a conversation over on our Greatist community forums!