Repairing Our Relationships with Exercise

Me! 5'4 284 pounds. Picture taken by the Amazing Kate Wodash - owner/instructor at the Mindful Body Center

I posted a couple of days ago about we get information about fitness and health twisted in ways that end up with people having less of both.  I mentioned in that blog that I had to repair my relationship with exercise and several people asked me to post about how to do it. To be clear, you can choose not to exercise – it’s a completely valid life choice. This blog is just about what to do if you want to exercise but you have some issues around it and/or are feeling stuck.

There are lots of ways that a relationship with exercise can go horribly wrong.  It seems like gym class is custom designed to reward kids who are into sports and shame those who aren’t so badly that their relationship with exercise is damaged well into adulthood.  I think that we can do better by our kids but for those of use who are just dealing with the aftermath we can still have a knee jerk reaction of never wanting to exercise again.

It could also have to do with unrealistic expectations.  One of the things that I think is the most damaging about how we deal with exercise is that people are led to believe that exercise will result in weight loss and that health comes from weight loss.  So people start exercising, they don’t lose weight, and they quit because they think it’s “not working”. In truth the research tells us that exercise will make us healthier but is unlikely to lead to weight loss (even if it does, the health and the weight loss are both side effects of the behavior – weight loss doesn’t make people healthier, it just makes them smaller.)  So if you are looking at weight (instead of metabolic health markers and/or intrinsic messages like how you feel)  you are likely to miss the actual benefits that you are receiving from your movement.

Sometimes a dysfunctional relationship with exercise is the result of rebellion.  If you are fat you are probably tired of hearing “just eat less and exercise more” or having people tell you that you should exercise without bother to ask you if you exercise to begin with.  Sometimes people just say screw it and don’t exercise as a way to give the finger to everyone who says that they need to exercise because they are fat.

So I think that if we want to repair our relationship with exercise the first thing is probably to let go of whatever way you got hurt around it in the past.  If you want health now then you probably have to forgive or at least forget your idiot gym teacher – unless you’re cool with them affecting your current health.

Next I think you have to figure out why you want to do this. If weight loss is your goal, you’re probably barking up the wrong treadmill.

You may want to decide who you are doing this for.  In my experience the problem with rebelling against people by being unhealthy is that we are the ones who suffer and we end up less healthy because of it, and the problem with doing healthy habits for other people is that we tend to resent them if we don’t like the habits.  But that’s just me.

Finally, decide what you are going to try first, set some reasonable expectations, and then decide what – if anything – you want to measure.

I always recommend figuring out what you want to try first in terms of exercise.  Then get a baseline and be totally ok with whatever it is.  So if you want to try walking, go for a walk.  If you make it 5 minutes that’s awesome.  It’s 5 minutes more than if you didn’t go.  Then set some kind of reasonable plan:  Maybe your goal is 5 minutes a day 5 times a week with the goal of increasing to 10 minutes in a couple of weeks.  Take it easy, you have your whole life to move your body and you do not want to be the fittest person in traction. You have nothing to punish yourself for and nothing to prove.  This is a whole new thing and this is the first day of it.

If you don’t like the first thing you try, try something else.  Try exercise with friends and alone to see what you like.  Consider mixing it up.  Consider not planning – Set aside the time to do the exercise, but allow yourself to choose whatever is appealing to you on the day.  Remember that you can break up the exercise into chunks – it doesn’t have to happen all at once to get the benefits.  Ten minutes in the morning, ten at lunch, ten after dinner is your thirty minutes – walking from the back of the parking lot or up and down the stairs totally counts.

If you are one of those people who just doesn’t like exercise I feel your pain – as a dancer I do stuff that I don’t like –  flexibility is really important for example but I do not enjoy flexibility work.  But it’s worth it to me to do it to meet my goals so I try to make cut down the misery as much as possible by listening to music I like or watching TV and I do it.  I also I find it helpful to remember that it’s me and my body tackling flexibility – not me against my inflexible body.

Maybe you want to consider getting a baseline of your metabolic health markers – blood pressure, glucose, etc..  Maybe you want to work with a health care practitioner (perhaps one who comes from a Health at Every Size(r) perspective.)

In my opinion the absolute best thing that you can possibly do is come to exercise on your own terms.

  • If you find the word exercising triggering, then substitute something else – movement, working out, whatever.
  • Celebrate every single victory.  Walked 2 minutes more today than yesterday?  Booty shaking happy dance – rock on!
  • Get the best equipment that you can afford.   Look for deals on shoes on ebay or or whatever.  If you are going to walk regularly your body will thank you for having good supporting walking shoes.  Danskin has a line called Danskin Now that is plus sized and (a reader told me) available in Walmart.  Old Navy has some stuff, there’s also Xersion wear, so does Junonia.  I’m not associated with any of these, it’s just what I’ve heard about.  Sometimes you can find deals on ebay as well.
  • Stretch.  It does wonders to prevent joint pain (much of which is from muscular imbalances or tightness that pulls on the joints and has nothing to do with weight).
  • Consider adding a little strength training- more muscle will help you move that big body around, support your joint health (since the muscle will take the load and not the joints)
  • Consider adding pilates – core strength is has been key for me.  It wasn’t until I was working with a trainer that I realized how wrong I was doing the DVD – if you can’t afford a class or trainer, consider paying for one session with a trainer to show you proper form and create a workout for you,  then you can work at home. (Sometimes you can go with friends and split the cost) When you master that workout, go in for another session. (If you’re in Austin I highly recommend the Mindful Body Center – I workout there and they are amazing!)
  • Go slow and if you feel some discomfort, honor that and take it easy.  Remember that mixing up your workouts can help you avoid injuries due to repetitive motion.
  • If you have access, water workouts are awesome, even done once in a while to give your body a break from walking or other higher impact activities.
  • Decide what you want from this experience and create the entire experience to work just for you.

Exercise serves you, you do not serve exercise. You are the boss of your exercise underpants!  Occupy your exercise underpants!

If you are looking for a place to talk about fitness from a Health at Every Size Perspective, join us at the Fit Fatties Forum!

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

35 thoughts on “Repairing Our Relationships with Exercise

  1. The main thing I have to do is throw out that old chestnut that I am exercising for weight loss and also the old “no pain no gain” track. I used to exercise for 3-5 hours a day, no joke, so I could attempt to stay below 200 pounds. It is impossible to do so, especially with my current work schedule.
    The funny thing is, I actually like to exercise. But my relationship with it is definitely badly broken.

  2. Also, the Jillian in my head tells me that because my sciatica is too painful when I work out on a treadmill or elliptical that I am “wimping out” because I either work out in the water only or by walking with or without poles. “No wonder you’re still a fat ass,” she screams.
    AND I need to get some regular walking shoes again and get rid of all those pairs of Reebok exercise walkers that I got, which only made my sciatica worse but that I was convinced would finally make me “not as fat.”
    Sometimes I just want to kick my ass a la Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar.

    1. I used to get terrible foot cramps when I walked and then I changed shoes and it helped tremendously. I realize you didn’t say anything about foot cramps, but since you’re looking for new shoes, I want to share the best advice I ever got for walking shoes. Get running shoes, their soles are more flexible, whereas walking shoes are typically less flexible so you end up essentially slapping your foot to the ground with step. With running shoes you roll your foot heel to toe like the foot is designed to do (for most people).

      1. What works for me (and as always, YMMV) is actually VOLLEYBALL shoes. I have a problem with rolling my ankle outward for some reason, and these are designed to stabilize for lateral movement – and they FIT, even though i’m 6′ tall and wear a size 12 shoe. I have land yachts where my feet should be LOL

      2. My feet supinate, so I have to have something that supports my ankle. So barefoot walking would be out for me. Running is too jarring on my bad joints, so that too is out. Gawd, Inner Jillian is screaming at me again for making so many excuses like a loser! One day I will get a machete and kill her. That will be good exercise right there!

    2. Also, the Jillian in my head…

      No lie, one thing that’s helped me is picturing the Jillian in my head (who sometimes morphs into the 9th grade gym teacher in my head) but recognizing that: 1) a lot of what she says is flat-out inaccurate; 2) almost all of it comes from a place of bullying and shaming, not helping.

      When I can name those voices for what they are, it’s a lot easier for me to work around them.

  3. Thank you Ragen! That really struck all sorts of chords with me. I still struggle with finding movement that I enjoy… I have always meant to take up yoga, but I went to one class locally and just felt utterly overwhelmed. Also I couldn’t justify the cost.

    But then you mentioned water workouts! I loooooove being in the water, and I love aqua aerobics. Of course, in my head, I had a pernicious little commentary along the lines of “well if YOU can do it, it’s probably not doing you any good”. Sigh! I’m my own worst enemy.

    I’ll start going back to aqua aerobics, and combining it with a swim afterwards. Maybe I can even take another stab at yoga in a few months 😉

    1. Water can be a great workout. What about dancing? Do you find any joy in it? Pardon me for just a sec for asking, I’m just genuinely curious. I have came across several people that say they don’t know of many activities they enjoy, and it’s hard for me to imagine that. Is the fear or dislike of sweating or breathing hard that is more prominent than the joy that can come from the activity or is it something else? Then I wonder about things like swimming, dancing, playing with kids or pets, or hell even sex.

      1. I don’t mind breathing hard or sweating. The problem is I’ve been so conditioned to believe that if exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss that I’m a failure at it so I don’t even want to try because I don’t want to risk being a failure. The sciatica pain and increased fibromyalgia pain with certain activities can also be a deterrent.

  4. I thought I was the only person who’d been turned off exercise by screaming gym teachers and the humiliation of always being picked last for teams. Being the slowest runner meant you had to join the ‘running class’ to improve your time around the track or fail. Harder exercise was the pubishment for not being good at something.

    I didn’t exercise at all for years [oddly enough I weighed less then than I do now]. My relationship with exercise is improving slowly through walking and challenging myself to walk farther and farther, but it’s taken 20 years to get over the damage caused by the disordered exercising taught in school.

  5. Ironically, I started my exercise and fitness journey as a rebellion– a rebellion against the people who said “Fat people can’t run”. Guess what– I can! (And I’m definitely fat.) Running’s not a viable option for everyone but I found that contrariness was a good motivator for me.

    1. I love this comment! I’ve been a runner all my life. I had twins, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and gained a ton of weight on the fibro meds. People told me it would hurt to run and maybe I should do something else. Enough people said it that it made me pissed enough to start running again. Yeah it’s different than before because of the weight. Not harder – just different. And it is painful but I’m actually in no more pain from running than if I stayed in the bed all day. Plus I get the mental happy!

  6. I was one of those kids shamed/traumatized by gym class in school. I was always a bigger kid, I developed breasts very early (age 10) and I am uncoordinated as anyone can be (dyspraxia). Finally discovering HAES and learning that all sorts of movement is acceptable, and beginning to focus on how I feel and the impact on my health rather than my weight has completely refocused how I feel about exercise.

    I’m eating better than I have ever in my life, and I feel better than I ever have. It’s been a complete transformation not only in my thought but in my soul as well.

  7. The best thing I ever did was get a pedometer and track my walking, partly because it gave me little goals to work towards and partly because it told me that I WAS exercising. I walk everywhere and always thought it wasn’t ‘real’ exercise because it didn’t involve a gym. Well my little pedometer told me that the amount of walking I do puts me in the ‘highly active’ camp. So I went from thinking of myself as a slack couch potato to realising that, actually, I AM taking care of my health.

    1. You know, I really hate to put a number on my exercise (miles walked, calories burned, etc), but your comment gives me food for thought. I travel for business and spend a lot of time walking through airports and hotels, etc, and wasn’t really counting any of it. Then I participated in a 5k cancer walk about a month ago, and it was no problem at all because of all the movement that I wasn’t counting. Now I’m curious!

      1. It’s definitely not for everybody! I lent it to a friend of mine who is very driven and goal oriented anyway, and she got so hung up on making the numbers tick over that she began to get obsessive about it and neglect other things. But for me, it’s been wonderful, because of the revelation that I AM exercising and not only that, but some of my favourite activities – window shopping – are actually incredibly good exercise. During last year’s post-Christmas sales, my pedometer told me I’d walked more in a day than an Amish farmer does at the height of harvest season. Nobody accuses an Amish farmer of being a slacker! Airports are another place that make my pedometer tick up a lot, because nobody ambles round an airport – it’s go, go, go, and that’s quite a lot of movement.

        It changed the way I viewed myself. I used to feel a sense of shame about not going to the gym and saw myself as a bit of a lost cause. Then I had this objective little piece of equipment telling me that I actually do a great deal of exercise – far more than if I was mostly sedentary and then went to the gym three times a week.

  8. Great post – I agree with Buttercup that “Exercise serves you, you do not serve exercise” is the best takeaway! Ding, ding, ding!

    Somehow gym went from being about juggling scarves and active playtime to the Presidential Physical Fitness Test of Torture. Sucked the fun of exercise right out of my life! Made it about competition rather than my personal health.

    It took me a long time to realize/admit that no matter how hard or intense I work out, I just don’t lose weight like that and avoided exercising for years b/c what’s the point, right?! Laying on the couch IS fun! But then somehow my goal changed and I like working out now because I like to feel strong and healthy and RAWRRR! After many different attempts, I found something I really enjoy (Pure Barre) and now I exercise for health but also to do something nice for my body. It’s self care that involves sweat, not couches. Although sometimes that’s nice too… ; )

  9. I second the recommendation for skilled advice. I’ve found the The Five Tibetan Rites (sort of a cross between yoga and calesthenics) to be really valuable, but I couldn’t get into them until I used T5T by Carolyn Witt, who’s taught the Tibetans to 700 people, and who’s described warm-ups and modifications.

    I count my blessings that school only damaged my relationship to exercise and singing– I think the same thing happens to a lot of people about reading and math.

    Ragen, have you run across Robert Cooley’s The Genius of Flexibility? He teaches resistance stretching so that stretching turns into a sort of strength training. I’ve done a little with it– enough to convince me that he’s on to something about getting more flexibility by tightening a muscle while stretching it– but I don’t like strength training, so I haven’t pursued it.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for the great comment. Resistance training (also known as Ki-Hara) is the flexibility training I use – my pilates teacher is got certified in it by Robert Cooley and she introduced me. It really helped me make a lot of flexibility gains quickly.


  10. My ex-trainer once got so frustrated with me. We’d been working out HARD three times a week for well over a year. Her exact words were “YOU SHOULD HAVE LOST 60 POUNDS BY NOW!” So, of course, in her mind, I was failing because of what I was eating.

    Anyway, we’re still friends, but she’s no longer my trainer. At this point, I’m working toward believing that my hour long water exercise classes three times a week are quality time, helping my health. What I really want is to box. I’m hoping that after we move in January, I can get a bag to hang in our garage. Boxing and dancing are pretty much the only movements I enjoy.

  11. Yep yep yep!!!! Thanks for this post, Ragen! I agree completely!! When weight loss is the goal and people don’t lose weight, why keep exercising? But if health and strength and quality of life are the goals, there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.

  12. Yeah, the way PE is designed can destroy love of movement for a lot of people. I had a gym teacher in grades 7-9 that graded on our success on the presidential fitness exam – to get an A you had to be able to run an 8 minute mile (6 for boys). I started at an 18 minute mile. I am not built for running, for sure. LOL. She told me that if I got to under 10 minutes, she’d give me an A. I ran harder than I ever had – and this was after a full year of training specifically for this run) and vomited twice, my vision blurred and then dropped to a pinpoint until I was literally running blind… and I ran into the back of a school bus. I was so damn determined to do it that I got up and kept going (!!?!?!), and still couldn’t get under 11:30. That kind of pressure will make a person hate exercise.

    1. So true that some people are just not built for certain activities. I remember a gym teacher sending a note home to my mom because I failed a jump rope module. I was a DD already in the 7th grade, and jumping rope hurt. That same teacher discouraged me when we did a weight-training module and I showed some enthusiasm about it. It took me decades to pick up freeweights again.

  13. I really loved going to Curves when I didn’t have a kid. I just wish they weren’t so weight-measurement minded. I think you were suppose to get weighed and measured every month. There would be times I just ignored it – I didn’t see a need. Now I understand why I felt that way. I mean, it’s a great circuit to get your heart-rate up and great for those of us who don’t like just walking for 30 minutes straight. It was also kind of odd when they would tell you “haven’t you already gone around your -however many times they told you makes 30 minutes-.” It’s like, “Yeah, I did, but I feel so great I’d like to do more. You have a problem with this?” I’m hoping to go back to them when the kiddo’s in school, but hopefully out here where I moved there’s some more HAES-minded folks who run the place. If not… guess who will be schooling them? 🙂

  14. I keep coming back to this to read comments because I really, really need to start getting some movement in my life.

    I was active formerly. Hiking, walking, swimming, biking, bowling. Fell and had a serious fracture (tibial plateau crushed and pushed down 2.5 inches, compartment syndrome, six surgeries, almost lost my leg, 3 months between hospital and rehab, five months away from work). The damage to my leg is permanent. I have severe circulation issues in the left leg from that and now I’m drifting into diabetes. I’ve been on metformin for a couple of years but it’s not working well any more and I’m starting to get neuropathy in my fingertips. (I am seeing my doctor soon to see about adjusting meds)
    I need exercise. I need movement. Movement hurts. I walked for months. I walk to the bus stop, it hurts. I walk downtown on my lunch, it hurts. I try yoga, it feels good, but I can’t get consistent with it because I can’t do it in front of anyone and I am not ever home alone any more.
    So many hangups, so little time. I feel like I’m killing myself slowly but I can’t seem to do anything to stop it. can’t afford a pool membership. that was the only thing that didn’t hurt. a year ago I fell in the ice and snow and hurt my leg again, had to stop taking the dance classes we couldn’t really afford anyway. So I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I’m a knitter and a spinner and I can’t lose the feeling in my hands. I just can’t.

  15. Oh, I wish I had seen this earlier! I live in Lansing, and would love to go to this tonight. I can’t seem to find any information about the screening. Google, why are you failing me now?!?!?

    Well, I’m going to tell myself that it was the fancy, pre-order your tickets kind of screening and that I couldn’t have made it anyway 😦

  16. This is a timely post for me. Throughout last summer I met and fell in love with zumba but started to get triggered by the lack of body diversity and diet talk, even by the instructor. I was with these very thin women and theres the fat me… in the mirror… and then to see them talk about their diets it became this glaring, “they are terrified to look!” the shame I felt (and continue to fight as I grow in self acceptance) overwhelmed me so I stopped going and stopped working out. period. even though working out makes me feel so good. I just wish so much that exersize did not also include all the diet talk, the body shame, even when its implicit, the lack of different bodies. i really wish i could find a HAES workout group near me…

  17. I always feel like a bit of a traitor for enjoying the “traditional” gym workout. Clinical depression runs in my family, and I’ve found that the best way to keep it in check is cardio several times a week. I feel like I “should” be doing things like dancing or taking up martial arts, but I’m a klutz and I feel uncomfortable. Just hopping on the elliptical and breaking a sweat is an incredible release of tension and stress for me. I also weight train 3 times a week, and that’s so numbers-focused, but it makes me feel like a bad-ass. I slow lift; the whole process of maintaining good form, controlling the whole movement from beginning to end, and counting out the time to lift and lower is very meditative for me. (How ironic that I feel like I’ve accomplished something when the weight number goes up, not down?) Yet I’ve learned not to mention going to the gym to my friends, because I’ll get ripped into or made fun of for it. Sometimes you can’t win for losing. 😦

  18. Thank you for linking to this – I had no idea about the Fit Fatties forum, and I’ve recently begun shaming myself into movement. You know about how long that lasted, I’m sure. I’m excited to maybe have a place to discuss exercise with people who get me!

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