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Pretending to be your D&D character makes working out a lot more engaging

Dungeons & Dragons? More like Deadlifts & Dumbbells

A hand holding some blue D&D dice over an assortment of workout equipment, including two dumbbells, a water bottle, booty bands, and white sneakers Photo: Tatiana Radulovic
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Going into 2024, I’m doing something I never thought I’d do in my life: I learned how to love working out.

Skeptics like my yoga-instructor sister may not believe me, but it’s true! I spent a lot of 2023 actually looking forward to planning workouts and heading to the gym. I used to get massive anxiety at the idea of working out in a public place, but now I confidently move from the machines to the free-weight racks, without second-guessing about whether I belong there, or whether I’m doing something wrong.

All it took was a small hack: I started pretending I’m one of my D&D characters whenever I work out.

Even before I made this connection, I did try to put a bit of a nerdy spin on my workouts to make them more enjoyable, whether it was going to the gym in an N7 tank top or titling my cardio playlist “training for the hunter exam!” Watching Haikyuu!! helped me appreciate my time as a competition swimmer more than I ever had before, and I’ve generally been more open to fitness as a hobby now that I’ve realized it doesn’t have to be in polar opposition to my nerdier interests.

But what really solidified my newfound passion for working out — an enthusiasm I’m carrying into the new year — was a little light roleplaying. I don’t head into the gym in full LARP gear, but when you regularly tap into the headspace of a character who’s physically fit enough to shoot an arrow at a homebrew monster while running up the side of a wall, making the connection between D&D and physical activity comes easier.

It started simply enough. While doing a low row at the gym, I glanced in the mirror and saw that the way my arms moved kinda reminded me of pulling back a bow’s drawstring. Disclaimer: I’ve never actually shot an arrow, so this comparison could be completely off. Regardless, I thought it looked pretty cool.

“Just did an Araiya (pull) day at the gym,” I texted my cousin, referring to one of my D&D characters, a ranger who primarily wields a longbow. She was delighted, and we quickly realized that her character — my character’s twin sister, a sword-wielding fighter — had skills that mapped nicely to a push day of chest and tricep-focused exercises.

We started updating each other on our gym progress, usually by saying simple stuff like “planning an Amaiya day,” or “this Araiya day left my back so sore.” We’d both previously pored over Steve Huynh’s Manual of Gainful Exercise, a fitness guide with routines written for D&D character classes, trying to see whether we could feasibly pull off our character subclass workouts. So the association was already in our heads.

Then my cousin started assigning different types of exercises to our other characters. (We each play two in this campaign; it’s a long story.) Then, she started to get the rest of our party’s characters involved, as well as some of our DM’s NPCs, and eventually came up with a whole workout manual themed to our campaign.

A team of adventurers, including a mage, a fighter out front, and a bard in purple garb wielding a lute, plow through a mob of goblins inside a cave. Key art from D&D’s Phandelver and Below. Image: Andrey Kuzinskiy/Wizards of the Coast

All the workouts she created are ambitious ones, more in line with what our heroic characters are capable of than what my fellow D&D players could feasibly manage. (“Lest any of you think I am secretly shredded,” my cousin texted, a few days after sending the written manual, “I tried a new exercise today and could barely manage 5 lbs, which is the lowest you can go.”)

But our D&D exercise guide is an aspiration, a way to make working out more fun. It’s almost like an extension of our tabletop time, and it puts a personalized bent on what could be monotonous, repetitive exercises. I doubt I’m ever going to manage even one of the 20 archer pull-ups listed on my ranger’s high-intensity workout plan, but I can focus on strengthening my lats.

My favorite part of D&D is the roleplaying aspect: I often make suboptimal leveling-up decisions because they fit my character, rather than aiming for maximizing damage or otherwise optimizing my build. So fantasizing about training with a bow and arrow or a rapier makes low rows and bicep curls much more fun. When I do crunches on a yoga mat in my living room, I can pretend I’m actually doing reps in the fortressed headquarters of the heroic organization my characters belong to.

Working out in my character’s mindset also motivates me to try exercises I’ve never really thought about doing before, things my characters would definitely include in their routines. My rogue, who treks across muddy swamps and scales tall buildings in stylish high-heeled boots, would definitely do calf raises, so now I do, too.

An assortment of workout gear with D&D dice Photo: Tatiana Radulovic

But more importantly, associating gym time with my D&D character helped me reframe why I exercise, and what I want from my workouts. I’ve already spent a lot of time breaking down the toxic mindset that working out is something I have to do to look good or lose weight. Even before I started thinking about D&D while exercising, I’ve tried to reclaim it as a fun activity I get to do, instead of an obligation.

This did involve discovering fitness routines I actually enjoyed, which helped me slowly but surely recontextualize my exercising. But when I finally made the link between my D&D characters and my workouts, it really sealed the deal for me. I’m not just working out to stay in shape — I’m working out because I’m preparing for a great adventure, and hoping to save the world.

Or at least I can tap into that character motivation while I’m at the gym. After all, if my fearless ranger and my dashing rogue can complete feats of great athleticism, then why can’t I? I don’t have a lich king to face or a swampland cult to overthrow, but I can still take control of my own training arc.

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