Exorcising Exercise?

Oops – I thought that I made this title up but it turns out that it was actually coined by the brilliant Golda Poretsky.  I got a linkback from her blog and realized my error.  If you don’t know of Golda and her work then I would definitely recommend a visit to her site –  she is amazing!

Several studies have indicated that physical fitness is a much better indicator for health and longevity than weight.  I am a fan of exercise and I do it a lot (it’s a big part of being a competitive dancer).

However, the word “exercise” bugs me, and I hear the same thing from a lot of people of size.

I think it’s because we hear it so many times from people in the context of losing weight. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that I need to “eat less and exercise more”, I would never have to work again.)

Or maybe it’s that we’ve been sold the “Biggest Loser” exercise concept where you have to be grunting, sweating, screaming, and puking while being emotionally abused by an egomaniacal trainer for exercise to have an effect.

I can absolutely see how people in the Body Positive Movement who’ve been pummeled with the concept of exercise as a weight loss tool, or a punishment for their weight,  might reject it along with their decision to reject the diet industry and the concept of intentional weight loss.  I can see how I could have easily ended up there.

For me, though, exercise is important because I’m a dancer.  It’s also important because I am committed to my health. I don’t have to be thin to be healthy, but in my experience I need to participate in healthy behaviors to be healthy. For me exercise is one of those.  Except I almost never call it exercise anymore – I prefer “movement”, or “working out”, or “going to the gym”.   I hate euphemisms for fat (I am not “pleasantly plump”) but I prefer euphemisms for exercise, a little weird perhaps but there it is.

To be clear, I don’t think that exercise is a moral imperative – people have the right to be sedentary just like they have the right to drink like fish, be bad drivers, or never look both ways before crossing the street. I’m not trying to tell anybody how to live.

I’m talking to people who may desire to move their bodies more, but are  not doing so as a retaliation or rebellion against everything that society is throwing at us about exercise and out weight.  We can certainly choose that, but in the end we are the ones who are likely to suffer.

If you find yourself stuck in a bad relationship with exercise, I would suggest finding an activity you like and doing some of that.  If “traditional” exercise (step aerobics, anyone?) isn’t your thing, find something that is.  Gardening.  Dancing around in your living room.  Tai Chi.  Cleaning your house. Whatever floats your boat.

I would also suggest choosing the activity each day (“I think I’d like to do some gardening today”) instead of making grand future plans (“I’m going to work out 2 hours a day, 6 days a week”).You can block out time in your schedule for movement ahead of time, but consider picking what you most feel like doing to fill that time as it comes around instead of way in advance. That way it will never feel like you are slogging through something that you don’t like.

One of my favorite things about making healthy behaviors my goal rather than a specific weight or size is that I get to succeed early and often.  If my goal is to move three times a week and I do some gardening today, then I hit part one of my goal.  Time for a butt-shaking happy dance of success and victory!  If I dance around the living room on Friday and take a pilates class on Sunday because that sounds good to me, then I’ve kept my commitment to my health, had three awesome successes, and enjoyed myself in the process.  Now I’m in a healthy place mentally and physically which supports me in keeping my commitments to health tomorrow and the next day.  Woot!

You can make whatever choices about your health that you want.  I just suggest that you be certain that they are truly your choices and that you’re not making them because of, or to spite, anyone else.

11 thoughts on “Exorcising Exercise?

  1. GREAT post. You so nailed this issue — where exercise is used as a Tool For Evil by the diet industry and it feels like the only response is to reject the whole notion of physical activity… except for the fact that exercise can make you feel so darn great and healthy (at every size!).

    For about a year, I decided to Be A Runner and did two half-marathons… until a stress fracture forced me to stop and after a few months off, I realized that as much as I loved achieving those running goals, I also spent every single workout yelling at myself for not being faster, going further, working harder. So unpleasant! These days, I am not working out “as hard,” but I am moving in ways I enjoy (walking in the woods by my house, gardening, doing yoga). Which means I actually want to get out and do it. Which is probably a much healthier longterm exercise strategy. But it’s still hard — if I don’t exercise for a few days, I start to beat myself up and think I’m being so unhealthy. I really have to retrain my brain to give myself credit for workouts that aren’t as intense. Your suggestion of making it more about “what would I enjoy today” rather than “I will work out X times a week for X amount of time” is REALLY smart. I’m definitely going to try that!

  2. This post is a keeper! I mean, all your posts have been, but this is one that relates closely to a reply I posted a month or two ago, about my seriously dysfunctional relationship with, ahem, “moving my body” and the notion of “exercise.”

    One cool example of what you wrote about here: The other day I had planned on doing an exercise video while our teenage neighbor amused my children. But, wait a minute! Is an absolutely fabulovely day outside! Perfect temperature, sunny, blue skies…mid-afternoon in the high desert. Dang! Forget the DVD in my den, I’m putting on my headphones and going for a walk! Outside!

    It was lovely. My temptation now is to berate myself because I walked kind of slowly. I barely broke a sweat. I only walked for 30 min. So it doesn’t count as exercise, right? It was a mere “stroll.” I’ll never get fit that way. I have to push myself a lot harder. Those are the “voices” I’m fighting and struggling with.

    How do I get past all that and learn to find the joy in moving again?

    Probably one day at a time.


  3. I really loved this post. I think its important to just have some kind of movement in your everyday life as well. It bothers me that people forget that cleaning the house or doing the dishes or going for a nice slow walk outside can be exercise as well. I don’t have to go to the gym and work out on the treadmill for an hour for it to be consider exercise.

    I think once I stopped saying that I was going to go to the gym to work out for such and such a time. Exercise became more enjoyable to me. I still don’t like going to the gym but man when the weather is great I love to go walk outside and feel the sun on my skin!

  4. Regan, great post and great advice! I agree that choosing to do whatever you feel most like doing is the way to go; I always have passes to a variety of studios and activities so that I can wake up and think “Yes, Spinning feels right today”.

  5. I am very, very resistant to the concept of “exercise”. I think it’s sold as the be-all and end-all of weight loss and I loathe the idea of having to move your body as some kind of chore.

    However, I love activity. Being active, and having activity in my life makes me feel great, it gets things done and makes my body work at it’s best. Plus activity can be found anywhere, whether it’s traditional chosen activities like bicycling or running or whatever, or if it’s things like zooming around a building site as part of your work, or spending a day at the beach with friends, or just getting stuck into the gardening.

  6. I’m always embarrassed to comment so long after a post, but I thought I’d add an observation:

    I personally have a hard time separating a specific type of exercise from what was going on in my head when I was doing it. I still can’t do the workout I was using when my eating disorder was in full-swing; even though it makes me feel great physically, it gets me all triggery. Ditto for the one I was doing in the last stage of my recovery (the “I’m never going to diet again, but exercise must be the magic bullet, so let’s do it like crazy” phase): I’m continually tempted to push myself too hard and berate myself while I’m doing it, because that’s where I was emotionally.

    I’d like to do them again someday (the second one, especially was great for my dancing), and I’m trying to desensitize myself by incorporating one or two exercises at a time into my happier-headspace workouts.

    Obviously, everyone is different*, but for me, doing totally different types of exercise (that didn’t have unhealthy associations in my head) was a really helpful in the “exorcism” process.

    (*I happen to be a really strong associator. Smells, movements, passages from audiobooks, all trigger strong sense impressions.)

  7. I came here from your most recent post. I am still struggling with adding “exercise” to my daily routine just as I am still struggling with enjoying food/not feeling guilty for eating.

    I never realized how much damage I suffered with all the “Diet N’ Exercise” propaganda that I eagerly absorbed during the past oh 25 years. 😦

    However, I am excited. I am starting to see what’s in front of me but I need to just do it. I’m so glad I found this movement. Thank you again.

  8. Thank you for the reminder that activities other than sports can be exercise. I still associate sports with humiliation and pain.

    What do you recommend for those of us who hate exercise, but wish to improve mobility and fitness? I have NO tolerance for heat or pain (temp over 70 degrees leads to horselike sweating, irritability and lethargy). I also have a dislocated and arthritic hip that limits walking ability and range of motion.

    Does physical activity “count” if done in an air-conditioned room?

    1. The only reason I know of to exercise in a hot room is for certain extreme flexibility work, a la Bikram yoga. It’s easier to stretch a warm muscle than a cold one. But that’s why people “warm up” their muscles (you can just do gentler kinds of exercise before any intense stretches). And in every yoga class I’ve been to, pain was definitely discouraged. 🙂

      ABSOLUTELY, exercise in air-conditioning still counts!!!

    2. I know of a few things you can try:

      1) Seated dancing

      There’s a whole genre of exercise videos that can be done in a chair. Some of them may be more exercisey than you’d enjoy, but a few should be more fun. I know there’s a chair belly dance workout on Amazon, although I can’t speak to the quality. (Belly dance is SO MUCH FUN, and while classes are usually focused on hipwork, which wouldn’t be suitable for you, there are also a lot of ribcage movements and pretty arm movements that you might like.) I think they also have a chair latin dance program.

      You can also do it yourself: put on some music, sit down, and dance with your upper body, or maybe moving your legs only as much as is comfortable.

      2) Very gentle yoga

      I don’t know if a regular class would be appropriate for you, but if you can afford it, you might want to take a few private lessons. A good teacher should be able to help you figure out which poses are safe for you, learn to do them properly, and put together a sequence that you can do on your own.

      You could also look for a restorative or “yin” yoga class. Those are all relaxing, gentle stretches, and they move slowly, so the instructor should have plenty of time to help you find modifications that work for you.

      I also really like the “Pure Tranquility” yoga DVD from Rainbeau Mars. It’s all gentle, accessible stretching since it’s supposed to be a pre-meditation program, not a workout. She does it cross-legged on the floor, but you could probably do it in a chair if that’s more comfortable.

      3) Swimming (arms only?)

      I am NOT a fan of swimming (I love the water, but laps put me to sleep) but it was the only thing I could do when I got tendonitis in my toes last year. I ended up getting a waterproof MP3 player and a swimmer’s snorkel, and zoning out with my podcast while I swam. I don’t know if your hip allows you to kick, but you can swim with just your arms. My pool had special floaters for arms-only swimming, but I didn’t need them.

      I will say that this whole scenario was pretty expensive, but if you have a community pool and don’t need the MP3 player to keep you from dying of boredom, it may not be so bad.

      That’s assuming that getting to and into the pool won’t be an issue for you, that you don’t mind bathing suits, and that swimming is fun for you.

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