Quick: when I mention the word “exercise” what thoughts and emotions come up for you?
For many, what comes up is dread, anxiety, guilt, and fear. Not exactly things that inspire a get-up-and-go attitude. At least not for long.
The non-diet and Health at Every Size camp (which I’m fully in) often promote “joyful movement” rather than the potentially loaded word “exercise.” But I know for some, even “joyful movement” feels like too much of a stretch. (For example, no one will ever sell me on the idea of “joyful dental care” even if I know I’ll feel better afterwards.) If that’s the case for you, you’re in good company.
That said, I truly believe connecting with the joy of feeling alive in your body is possible for you, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Here are some tips to help you get started if you WANT to be moving your body more but struggle with exercise hesitation/avoidance:
Start where you are, not where you left off. If you haven’t been exercising regularly in awhile, you’ll probably want to warm things up a bit. This will help prevent injury, unnecessary soreness, and burnout.
Here’s a quick way to assess your exercise goal: if you feel even a slight tug of panic at whether you can do this, lower your expectations. In fact, what’s the smallest step you can take?
Listen to your body. Unsurprisingly, doing movements that help connect you with your body’s cues (rather than disconnect or numb) has been found to support Intuitive Eating (eating in a way that involves honoring your body’s cues). What feels good and okay today may not tomorrow and vice versa. There’s an important distinction between a little discomfort (okay) and pain (past time to ease off).
So stay connected to how your body feels and practice flexible thinking by shifting your expectations accordingly. I love it when yoga teachers remind the class that the true sign of an advanced practice is having the wisdom to know when to back off and giving yourself permission to do so. This is critical for building a healthy relationship with exercise and increasing body trust.
Keep your ego out of it. You’re not doing this for some unnamed medal at the end. It’s okay to start with some gentle movements – such as a few morning stretches or yoga poses at home or dancing to a song you love in your kitchen. What kind of movements does your body want right now? Notice how it feels to be in your body. Don’t take that inner critic seriously when s/he says the stretches you do at home or the gardening or walk around the block “doesn’t count.” Movement is movement. All movements count.
Enlist an accountability buddy. This is so helpful if there’s something you’ve been wanting to try for awhile but have yet to follow through. It’s harder to flake out on that walk or class if you know someone’s expecting you. It just is.
Focus on the short-term benefits. Studies indicate people who exercise for “weight loss” or surprisingly even “health” tend to do the least amount of exercise. “Rather, immediate rewards that enhance daily life — more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family — offer far more motivation,” according to research cited by this recent NY Times article.
Yet another reason to focus on movements you genuinely enjoy. Short-term benefits are self-reinforcing.
Recognize that the real win is showing up. Brene Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Trying out a new exercise (or something you used to love but haven’t tried in so long it feels new again) requires vulnerability. Which requires courage. Even if you decide to leave five or ten minutes after the class starts, I repeat, the real win is in showing up.
It’s tempting to only stick to things we already know we’re good at but that’s a surefire way to stop learning and growing. That applies to everything in life, doesn’t it?
If exercise avoidance isn’t your deal but you suspect you might have some exercise rigidity (which is similar to diet mentality, just with exercise), hang tight. I’ll be exploring that in my next post.
p.s. I’m grateful my colleague Kerry Kirsch, a therapist, emailed me about her upcoming m.BodyDance: Playful Movement for the Body, Mind & Soul just in time for this newsletter! Check out the details on this empowering and fun 8-week class designed to increase body awareness and body confidence in a supportive and safe space for women of all shapes and sizes.