Healing My Harmful Relationship with Exercise

I have a confession, even writing the word exercise brings up junk for me.

How do you feel about exercise?

If you are anything like me, you have lived a large portion of your life loathing it. Working out has represented punishment, torture, a “have to,” misery.

If you love exercise, you are definitely in the minority but I encourage you to read on so that you might better understand what causes some people to disengage from the process of moving their bodies.

Remember when you were a kid and “getting to play outside” was the highlight of your day? My eight year old lives for the time of year where she can spend all evening after school playing in our backyard. Remember Recess? Tag? Hide and Seek? Playing on the swing set? Remember when all of that felt like play? When did moving your body become the most dreaded thing in the world? Now, if you are anything like me, you work all day and long for a cozy couch and your favorite Netflix show. Going outside and playing is the furthest thing from relaxation you can imagine.

This isn’t your fault. It hasn’t happened because you are lazy. You don’t need more brow beating, “fit-spiration,” or motivational speeches. You don’t need another “starting tomorrow I am forcing myself to wake up at 5am, even if that means I only get 5 hours of sleep.” Not wanting to exercise isn’t a motivational issue, you have fallen victim to a psychological phenomenon.

The more you think of something as punishment the less you want to do that thing. I think we all instinctively know this. The reverse of this principle is why we give a dog a treat when they follow instructions. It’s also the same principle that drove me to order a box of matchbox cars from Ebay a few weeks ago, in hopes that they might help me potty train my toddler.

For so long we have used exercise as punishment. People exercise to the point of injury under the banner of “no pain no gain” or “just do it.” We talk about how we “should” go to the gym.

I used to go to a camp that had a motto; “You don’t have to do the dishes you get to.”

The concept is that if we change our language around something it can change our perception.

I was a million light years away from viewing exercise as a “get to.” Mostly because exercise and I had entered into a painful, harmful, abusive relationship.

What would it take to heal this relationship and feel like I “get” to move my body because movement is enjoyable?

I started to think of two activities, for me, that I could do all day every day and never get tired.

Skiing and Hiking.

I have skied for 4 days straight before and will usually ski from the moment the lift opens until the moment the lift closes. I don’t even think of it as exercise. In fact, I do this as a vacation. My muscles get sore from time to time but I love it. I love seeing the beautiful mountains. I love the feeling of the crisp air on my face. I love riding the lift and chatting with my family and friends. Skiing is exhilarating for me.

I also have a great deal of love for hiking, One of my dreams is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. We have hiked for a week straight before and even though I do eventually long for a hot shower and a bathroom with doors and such I never get tired of being out in the wilderness. Backpacking is peaceful to me,

I realized I have never used these two activities as punishment. They have always just been things I enjoyed. They are things I do to get away from the stress of life. Realizing this helped me find other things I enjoy and let go of a few activities that I had a terrible relationship with.

I learned that I love a dance based program called Refit. I love to start my day with a dance party, it always brings a smile to my face. I love joining their on demand classes and dancing with my goofy middle child on a Saturday. This is my perfect cure for a rainy, wish I could get outside and move day. Refit also gets bonus points for being a relatively body accepting community!

I have become addicted to nightly walks with the hubs. Let’s be honest, I sit a lot. Basically my job description is “sit and listen.” These nightly walks have become perfect remedies for my lower back pain. They help me decompress emotionally and physically. I find myself needing this much more than I needed Netflix. Bonus- we catch up on what our days were like and this has been a huge benefit to our marriage.

I have always been a lover of Yoga. Nothing beats yoga on a friday. This is the day where I have the most time, so I like to take this peaceful space and honor my body through gentle movement. I like to challenge myself in new poses and relax into familiar ones.

Many of my clients have had such a bad relationship with movement that they can’t imagine loving to exercise again. I don’t even like to use the word exercise anymore. I often encourage these clients to not jump back into a routine and just give themselves time to process out their feelings about moving their body. It is important to wait until you are ready, especially if exercise has ever been compulsive or self punishment. Going right back into a self punishing exercise routine is a little like a rebound relationship. It will never lead to a healthy relationship with moving your body. It will only do more harm.

Instead, I encourage clients to wait until their body is ready to move and to chose activities like Yoga, dance, or walking that are gentle and keep them in the present. I encourage clients to notice more the way their body is feeling in movement, to have gratitude in that process, and channel their inner child. I also encourage resting if their body is telling them to rest.

I have relearned how to love moving my body, but this was a long and difficult process. One that had to unfold slowly at just the right pace. This relearning has been an exercise in and of itself.

I now find myself feeling comfortable in my body, joyful and exhilarated by what I am capable of, and more likely to move because of this.

If you have developed a harmful relationship with movement, I encourage you to discuss this with someone who specializes in restoring those relationships. In my practice I often say that therapy is important for any healing any harmful relationship and this extends beyond our families and friends. This can include the harmful relationships we form with food, movement, and our own bodies. There is freedom from that, I have been on this journey and have experienced the joy of being able to play outside again. What would that journey look like for you?

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