I still have a hard time “justifying” a workout that isn’t grueling. Don’t get me wrong, I love challenging my body and getting a heart-pumping, strength-training workout. It’s an elixir for my anxiety. And it’s fun.
But it’s not always what my body requests.
If I’m stretching or doing something else less rigorous, I wonder if I should be pushing myself more. I wonder if I’m making the best use of my time. Am I truly being efficient?
I can also hear women’s fitness magazines in my mind, scolding me.
In our society, we’ve largely been taught that exercise must be back-breaking in order to be “effective.” We must maximize our workout time all the time. If you have 30 minutes in your day, you must be a productive exerciser and get all your reps in and speed up the pace.
Exercise is viewed as a chore to check off your to-do list or a punishment for the sin of consuming too many calories.
And unless it has an end goal – weight loss, bigger biceps, leaner legs – we think we should pass on that physical activity. It’s just not worth it.
Instead, we need to pack in the pavement-pounding exercise and unpack the pounds.
At the core, I believe this viewpoint stems from thinking that we don’t deserve to feel good. Pleasure in its purest form. Just because. We don’t think we deserve to nourish ourselves.
In Eat, Pray, Love, when Elizabeth Gilbert decides to learn Italian purely because she loves the language and it makes her happy, she hesitates at first, and then wonders:
But why must everything always have a practical application? I’d been such a diligent soldier for years – working, producing, never missing a deadline, taking care of my loved ones, my gums and my credit score, voting, etc. Is this lifetime supposed to be all about duty? In this dark period of loss, did I need any justification for learning Italian other than that it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now?
But how do you change the ingrained beliefs that physical activity must be productive and must involve weight loss?
This question was prompted by a recent comment from a reader.
What if everything now, movement, is considered “calorie-burning” to the point that any movement is considered exercise and no longer just for the whimsy of the adventure…
Even hiking, walking, anything…
If someone loved activity, as a real thing, but now has tainted it with this perspective, how do they get out of it?
Or is it like an alcoholic’s continuous hopeless recovery from the disease – they are incapable of having a drink sensibly or without the same motivations so they must forever abstain.
That is a depressing thought.
- Explore what exercise means to you. According to graduate student and researcher Caitlin O’Reilly, “I think it might be useful to find out, if someone views all movement as “calorie burning,” and why they see it as this. Is it about “health,” the aesthetics of weight loss, is it the result of an eating disorder? From experience I can tell you that I used to view all exercise that way, and getting to a place where movement became largely about joy required me to deconstruct my ideas of the thin body as more attractive, or for that matter healthier.”
- “Create new associations that crowd out the weight-loss thoughts,“ according to Deb, who’s also co-author of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. Or these “can actually be old associations that were there before the weight-loss mindset. It is like meditation – you notice you are having the weight-loss thought, and you bring your attention back to what you intend to experience – the pleasure of the heat in your thigh muscles, or the exuberance of the music you are dancing to, or the comradery of being with friends – whatever. You may have to do it thousands of times to break the old mental habit and cement the focus on the here-and-now pleasures of moving, but it is only going to get easier and easier, and there is no deadline.”
- Use your senses. “Pick a type of movement (walking, swimming, playing badminton, etc.) and pay attention to each of the five senses,” suggests eating disorder expert Laura McKibbin, LICSW. Specifically, “what do you see/smell/feel (physically)/taste/hear as you move this way? That seems to ground people in their bodies instead of watching the clock, calories burned, miles run, etc. Then they seem better able to experiment with new types of pleasurable movement and pay attention to what sensations their body seems to like best.”
- Listen to your body’s needs. Pay attention to what movement your body naturally wants. It’s totally OK if it isn’t running or going to the gym. We all have different likes and dislikes. All of us gravitate to different movements. Here’s a great meditation for finding out what you like. According to Caitlin, “I am attempting to stay mindful of falling prey to society’s ideas about exercise, about recommended duration or frequency, and will try to listen to my body as much as I can…”
- Go back in time. What activities did you enjoy as a child? What activities were pure fun for you? Maybe that was biking, hula-hooping, dancing, skipping, jumping on a trampoline or walking around your favorite park. Our bodies are meant to move but moving doesn’t have to be this serious, structured thing with so many reps and so much time on the treadmill. Movement can be playful.
I don’t mean to sound cliché, but movement is what you make of it. And it’s important for it to be pleasurable in the purest sense. So experiment with different types of movement to see what’s most pleasurable for you.
Do you associate exercise with losing or maintaining your weight? Do you think exercise is a chore? If you did, how did you change that mindset? What are some of your favorite ways to move your body?
P.S. There’s so much more to say about finding fun ways to move your body, and I have more great insight from a variety of wonderful experts, so expect another post on exercise very soon!