Perhaps a more accurate title for this post would be “what happened when I stopped putting pressure on myself to exercise”. Because for the past month that’s exactly what I did.
I know, I know for someone who preaches exercise and just generally promotes an active lifestyle it seems pretty out of character to choose to be sedentary for a month. I suppose I have some explaining to do.
I’ve been very honest with you regarding my struggles surrounding food, but I’ve stayed away from vocalizing my issues around exercise. Partially because I’m still pretty in the thick of it, but also because I feared being called out as a hypocrite.
I find I’m much better able to sort through my thoughts and share them with you guys when it’s in hindsight, but this time I’m hoping that sharing my struggles as they happen can both inspire you but also recruit you to help me. I want you to know that my life certainly isn’t perfect and I definitely don’t have this whole health thing figured out.
I’m telling you this because lately I’ve been realizing that my relationship with exercise is far from healthy.
Exercise has been and I suspect will always be my vice. Learning to eat intuitively was a challenge but learning to move intuitively has proved to be one of my biggest obstacles.
I often find myself wishing I could just un-know information. Wishing away the number of calories burned while running, the benefits of strength training, how to build muscle and stick to a training plan. Yearning to get back to a time when exercising was something you just did, rather than part of some larger goal you’re trying to achieve.
But these days, I find it hard to let this information go. Suddenly, “only” working out 4 days a week riddles me with guilt and anxiety and irrational fears that even I can’t explain. Rather than celebrating the fact that I moved and challenged myself for 4 days, I focus on the 3 days that I didn’t.
Did I balance enough cardio to strength?
Am I stronger than I was last week?
Can I run a little further?
These kinds of thoughts wax and wane in my brain. When I think them through objectively I realize that the entire purpose of exercise (to keep me healthy and strong) are being entirely negated by my stress surrounding it.
It reached a point where exercise was just another thing on my to-do list adding pressure and anxiety to my life. It stopped being about moving my body, but whether I was meeting the expectation I set for myself as an active person.
Interestingly, these thoughts have nothing to do with how I look – thoughts that plagued me for many years in the past – but with whether I was living up to my brand. A brand that encourages movement and exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.
But what I’m beginning to learn is that no amount of physical activity can help us tackle our mental health. Being healthy and in my case, inspiring others to be healthy requires that we support our mental health as much, if not more than our physical health. I’ve come to realize that my disordered relationship with exercise has been threatening my mental health. That I was putting my body first, and my brain second, forgetting entirely that they depend on each other to function at their best.
So what did I do? I stopped exercising. Entirely. With the exception of a few workouts here and there (you try going on vacation with Fit Foodie Finds…), I took exercise off my to-do list. I ditched the goals, and the expectations and gave myself permission to move if I wanted to, but with no plan dictating how to do that.
Having a dog prevented me from becoming entirely sedentary, but besides our daily walks I learned to embrace other ways of supporting my body. Instead of dragging myself to the gym, I read a book. Instead of forcing myself to go to a class, I sipped a new tea and took a nap. I did everything my body was telling me to do. I relaxed.
So what happened?
Everything. I put no specific timeline on myself for when I’d dip my toes back into working out but here I am a month later feeling invigorated and slightly more aware of how damn smart our bodies really are.
And for those of you wondering, here’s what didn’t happen:
I did not balloon or turn into a sloth whale (yes, this is what I imagined in my head). I don’t own a scale, but none of my clothes fit any differently and I still felt pretty bad-ass going bathing suit shopping.
I didn’t suddenly notice a new roll on my tummy or less definition in my arms. I didn’t have to go out and buy new jeans or spend the entire month wearing moo-moos.
In fact I feel a lot more comfortable in my body than I did before this experiment.
More importantly, here’s what did happen:
I became a lot more aware of how great it feels to prioritize self-care. In some crazy way, taking that time that I normally allotted to working out and instead dedicated to doing what felt right to me made me a better person towards others. I was more attentive and patient because I felt less pressured or burdened.
I felt an overall contentment with my life. This one is kind of hard to explain, but I just felt like I was a lot more present and took a lot more enjoyment out of the small moments in life. Taking Rhett for a walk, cuddling and watching episodes of New Girl with C, meal prepping a couple meals for the week. I cherished these moments a lot more.
Taking the pressure off myself to do something I felt like I was supposed to be doing, made me realize how many other things I burden myself with because I feel some inexplicable sense of commitment. I’m someone who puts a lot of value in my word and also wants to do everything, all while doing it perfectly. Realizing that life doesn’t fall apart when you can’t get that workout in, also helped me come to terms with the fact that I can’t do it all, and I certainly can’t do it all perfectly.
And finally, I realized how much I really do love to move. After a couple of weeks off I went on a run and it felt amaaaazing. Today I went on a hike in Arizona and tomorrow may bring more of the same. But I also am getting comfortable with the idea that I don’t know what tomorrow will bring and if all it includes is a walk around the block, I’ll be happy with myself.
I’ll never be able to un-know everything I’ve absorbed regarding working out and the fitness world, but I certainly can become better at listening to my body’s cues. At understanding when it needs a HIIT workout, or when it needs a run. Or sometimes, a bath and a sleep-in is exactly what it needs.
I’m not changing my tune when it comes to exercise. It’s like brushing your teeth, you just have to do it. But you don’t have to torture yourself in the process. I think goals and fitness challenges are great. But just because your friend is training for a marathon and your boyfriend just completed Tough Mudder doesn’t mean that going on a 30 minute walk isn’t enough. You’re allowed to go to the gym one day and lift weights and not be on a training schedule. You can go on a run that is shorter and slower than your last and not feel like a failure.
Likewise, you can slow down, eat a piece of chocolate and go to bed early and still be doing as much good for your body as that muay thai-yoga-crossfit class.
Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants to get moving, but it’s important to remember what you’re moving for. I realized that I what I truly prioritize is feeling great. Do I want to be strong? Of course. But I want to be strong enough to move a box without breaking my back or carry my future children. I don’t need to lift a 250lb barbell above my head and I don’t need to run a sub 4 hour marathon.
If lifting that barbell makes you feel great, then more power to ya! But in the same vein, if you want to do a strength class one day and a spin class the next and then never do either again, that’s totally cool too. You’re allowed to be inconsistent. You’re allowed to move for the sake of moving and not because you have to achieve a goal. It’s easy to get wrapped up in this idea that we need to exercise to meet or exceed a challenge. That if we’re not dry-heaving on the ground, the workout was worthless. But our workouts don’t need to be the most effective for them to be worthwhile.
This isn’t an excuse to stop moving or permission to become a couch potato. It’s just a reminder that we don’t all need to perform like professional athletes on a strict training schedule to get the benefits of exercise.
I guess what I really learned from this whole experiment was that our bodies are ridiculously-crazy-smart. In some weird-twisted way, I had to eliminate exercise entirely to realize it’s benefits. And I also had to take a break from it to remind myself how important it is to care for other aspects of our being.
In moving forward, exercise doesn’t feel like another thing on my to-do list. I have no idea how many times I’ve worked out this week and I don’t care how many times I workout next week. I’m not perfect and I know this won’t be an easy road, but I’m taking it day by day. I’m asking myself if I’m moving because it feels good and I want to or because I feel like I have to. If it’s the latter, it’s important that I assess how I could make a better use of my time.
What I’m trying not to do is feel guilty around exercise. To constantly remind myself that it doesn’t matter how much or how hard I worked but how it made me feel. This isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by people posting their latest #workoutgoals and fitspo images. But I’m going to give it my best shot.
I hope you’ll join me in trying to become more intuitive with our bodies and how we move them. Honestly, I could use as much support as I can get. But if the least I can do is get you to ask yourself whether this statement applies before your next workout then I’ll have done my job well. I certainly hope it resonates with you as much as it resonated with me:
“I’m working out because I love my body, not because I hate it.”
Let’s all give our bodies a little more love, because we’ve got one life to live and it’s the only one we’ve got!