By Denis Faye

For the first couple decades of my life, I looked at exercise as a "need-to-do" activity, as opposed to a "want-to-do" activity. Then, one fateful night around my 25th birthday, a disheveled Australian showed up at my door with an ancient surfboard and announced that at dawn, like it or not, I was going to learn to surf.

The next morning, exercise became my muse. My life changed forever.

In high school, my sports life was typical. Football, track, swim team. I have the unfortunate combination of being fiercely competitive and deeply lacking in physical aptitude, so these activities were overwhelmingly frustrating. I tried hard and rarely succeeded, a constant disappointment to the crowds, the coaches, and myself. On graduation day, I vowed never again to know the feeling of a missed tackle as my entire school looked on. I walked away from organized sports.

In college, I continued to jog a little because I knew I "needed" to. Also, it's hard to screw up when you're jogging. Yet I loathed it. It hurt my knees and it bored me. Eventually that petered out and 4 years later, I entered the workforce at a stout, dumpy 220 pounds. Sure, I hit the gym occasionally, typically around New Year's, with the belief that this was going to be the year I turned things around, but it never happened. A few weeks of early-morning elliptical trainer workouts were all I needed to become bored out of my mind and return to the chubby security of my snooze button.

Meanwhile, my career prospered. As I said, I'm competitive and therefore somewhat ambitious. White-collar opportunities and white-collar money presented themselves, not that I'd expected them. As a film studies major, I'd spent my college years surrounded by creative people, and I assumed I'd follow in their bohemian footsteps. But by age 25, I was deskbound 5 days a week, making more money than any of my friends thanks to my lucrative job in advertising. And one more thing: I was miserable. My career had become just like exercise. A "need-to-do" 50-plus hours of weekly drudgework.

To keep my spirit from breaking completely, I took on some pro-bono clients, including the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to cleaning up the oceans. I had yet to surf at that point, but I've always loved the ocean, so it was a good fit. I took to the volunteer work like, well, a fish to water. Weekdays were for my "real" job. Nights and weekends were spent helping an itinerant band of wave-riders save the planet.

Then a problem cropped up. I couldn't surf. That meant that I wasn't part of "the tribe," and that wouldn't float. It was then that I decided I needed to learn how. George, a grizzled Aussie longboarder who had taken a particular liking to me, retrieved a dilapidated old plank from the depths of his storage shed and brought it over, at about 11:00 PM, as I recall. The next morning, at 5:00 AM, George and a minivan full of surf bums showed up at my door. At 6:00 AM, I had my first saltwater baptism.

Surfing didn't come naturally to me, but my companions were unrelenting, and so was I. Yet all that time, there was no pressure. We all had fun whether I shredded it up or not. One of the beauties of surfing was that for the first time in my life, I had found a fun, exciting physical activity I could learn at my own pace, with only one person to compete against: myself. No one hassled me to "win" out in the water. We were just there for a good time and a little exercise. Eventually, I got the hang of it.

Soon, I started participating in other sports with my band of weekend warriors. Rock climbing, mountain biking, sailing, camping. I was becoming an outdoor sports junkie and it felt great. Exercise inspired better eating and soon I was a svelte 170 pounds—the thinnest I'd been since junior high.

On our many surf trips down the coast, work would eventually factor into conversation. For all my action-figure ways, I was still primarily a desk jockey. None of my sports buddies made the money I did, but they were all happy in their professional lives. Some were small-business owners. Others were teachers. Some worked construction. Ambition meant something to a few of them, but intuition meant more to all of them. When it came to careers (or anticareers), they did what they wanted to do.

Surfing had taught me who I really was. I had become fit and comfortable in my own skin. I knew I needed to be comfortable in my job too. I resigned my corporate position and began the career I'd always wanted to do: journalism. In time, that career folded into what I do today: writing about and helping people with fitness and nutrition.

Today, I don't make the money I made scaling the corporate ladder, but I'm happy. Exercise helped me find that path. I'm not criticizing white-collar work; I'm just admitting that it wasn't right for me. Furthermore, I'm also not telling you that you need to take up an extreme sport to find your bliss, but if exercise is something you do because you "need" to—or if you don't do it at all-find an activity that excites you, be it volleyball, yoga, aerobics, or weightlifting. Embrace it. Let it motivate and inspire you. It'll take you to good places, and if you're lucky, it might turn your life around.

I could write about it all day, but I just got a call from George. If you'll excuse me, the surf's up.

See you in the lineup.