Health is not an optimal way to make physical activity relevant and compelling enough for most people to prioritize in their hectic lives…We should count any and every opportunity to move that exists in the space of our lives as valid movement worth doing.
~ Dr. Michelle Segar
I taught group fitness classes in an athletic center for 7 years and more or less squandered the “perk” of having a free membership. Much of it was due to the logistics of time and distance: managing a roster of classes taught at multiple locations, coordinating childcare, and being a single-car family with a staggered lineup of activities. The rest: my hard-to-shake sentiment that gyms suck!
But when the frenzy of a hectic period collided with the pressures of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, I knew that soothing myself with a 20-minute meditation practice wouldn’t be effective. So I decided to burn off the stress with some tension-busting cardio. However, instead of feeling relaxed and restored, I found myself getting increasingly disgruntled.
Creeping in was the crazy-making noise of negative self-talk! I replayed frustrations and common scenarios that had (or would) hijacked my self-care routine; imagined the endless hours and superhero dose of willpower it would take to reach my pre-pregnancy weight; and lamented how little I had appreciated my body in the past. Then a clear voice cut through the chatter. Enough! This is not healthy. I jumped off the elliptical and headed straight to the sanctuary of my favorite park where sunshine, open air, and quiet woods always nourished my sense of sanity and well-being.
As a practitioner and advocate of the principles of mindfulness, I recognized in that moment that exercising in a state of duress and dissatisfaction would only feed my discontent. I, like so many others, transformed what is intended to be an endeavor to improve health into an act of self-violence. Yes, even the seemingly noble goal of self-improvement can be fraught with violence. The struggling and striving to be better — to be or have enticingly “more than” in this area or “less than” in another — can lead us to unsavory places. Comparing, criticizing, loathing, harming. For me, the gym can be a hostile space where self-contempt breeds like staph bacteria on a locker room floor. Far too many people are hating themselves into exercising.
I vowed from then on to only move in the spirit of self-love: to saturate every cell and fiber with affirming thoughts and feelings; to strengthen and energize body, heart and mind with meaningful activities (like walking in nature) that made my muscles sing. I refused to participate in or propagate the “self-improvement hustle” (inescapable in the fitness industry and, well, our culture in general) and recommitted myself to cultivating self-understanding. A core tenet of my spiritual traditional, it is through diligently seeking to know ourselves that we can make skillful and compassionate choices. When I have a case of the blahs, I listen deeply to take the appropriate course of action: sometimes it means I rest and turn off my brain, at other times it signals that I must hit the trail for a run to unravel tensions and uplift my spirit.
Reframing exercise in this way enabled me to integrate it more consistently into each busy day. It no longer felt like an agonizing chore that generated guilt if I had to keep putting off (like the clean basket of laundry that takes days to fold, hang and stow). Other key factors in making exercise more sustainable for me:
1) Letting my partner know just how essential it was to my well-being (teaching classes did not count) and requesting extra support from him around scheduling adequate time for self-care. Bonus: It proved to be beneficial for both our endeavors to correct physical imbalances and rehab from long-standing injuries.
2) Turning exercise into a social event. Aside from being an ambassador of a running group, where organizing and leading weekly runs kept me accountable to my commitment to train several days a week, I began setting up walking dates with my girlfriends. Bonus: We share news, laugh, contemplate, problem-solve, air grievances, blow off steam and…save money we’d spend on food and beer!
The gym is still not my first choice — not when the park is closer and free — but I’m now fully inoculated against the toxicity I once experienced there. Running on the treadmill or lifting weights, I am fortifying myself with a deep care and respect for the vitality this body of mine possesses.
Read more about Dr. Segar’s research on reframing exercise:
NYT.com | Rethinking Exercise as a Source of Immediate Rewards
[updated on 30 March 2016]