Moving Well to Live Well: Taking the Shame out of Exercise and Moving Towards Health.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, or an expert on eating disorders or compulsive exercise. If you suspect that you or someone you love may struggle with harmful eating patterns or a harmful relationship with exercise, please call the confidential National Eating Disorder hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
For me, movement is a part of living well that is completely integrated in my life.
It did not always used to be that way.
As a child, my natural inclination to run up hills, slide down them on my bottom, climb trees, and crawl along the ground to find ladybugs and lizards characterized the beauty of my desert childhood. However, like many young girls, these inclinations were often stifled not only by expectations imposed by family and teachers, but by expectations of society, especially with regards to little girls whose bodies were round and powerful (as mine was) as opposed to lithe and svelte.
Like many girls who grow into women, it took several years for me to reconnect with my natural inclination towards movement as a beautifully raw form of self-awareness, present-moment focus (what we often refer to as mindfulness), and reminder of the inevitable pain (from injuries, muscle tension, and inevitable falls) and triumph (the sensation of one’s heart beating beautifully in one’s chest) of being alive.
As a human being in our culture, exercise is so often tied up with expectations and multiple references to expectations of how we should look and how we should be able to move. Scientific studies link regular engagement in moderate exercise to improved health outcomes and improved outcomes for individuals struggling with depression and anxiety. Recent research on childhood trauma acknowledges the limitations of interventions which solely take a “neck up” approach and acknowledges the potential benefits of practices such as yoga, which integrate the full potential of the body and its connections with the brain and mind to instigate empowerment in trauma survivors.
In spite of this exercise continues to remain for many of us a chore that we find difficult to finish, if not insurmountable. Below, I outline some basic suggestions for how to begin to overcome these obstacles outlined above.
Integrate honoring your body into your day to day routine.
Learning how to be present and honor my body and my breath throughout the course of my day is something that has been a tremendous challenge for me. Like many challenges in life, I have found this practice to reap enormous benefits.
I often find that when I begin to feel my chest strain or feel ungrounded, simple wiggling my toes inside my shoes and allowing myself one breath to take a pause introduces compassion towards myself throughout my day. When washing my hands I allow the warm water to flow over my hands for a few seconds and focus on the sensation of the water on my hands, as I do during my after dinner evening routine of washing dishes, even though I have a dishwasher I can use.
If you have a moment in a private or semi-private space, such as your car in the parking lot before going into or after work, you may gently place your palm on your heart, take a breath, and honor the effort your body made to get to where it is in the moment. As much as our mind likes to trick us into thinking otherwise, our bodies are a part of who we are. Just as we are deserving of compassion and understanding, our bodies are as well.
Focus on the act of movement, rather than the form it takes or where you do it.
Many of us when trying to get into fitness or exercise, especially after long periods of inactivity, may focus on external narratives, or stories that we learn from the media, our friends, our family, or even mainstream “common sense” regarding what exercise we think we should do. When we focus on the sensation of the movement we engage in, as we may have done as children, we develop a different relationship to exercise and fitness and are able to find more fun in the process. Just as all children are drawn towards running on the playground, climbing monkey bars, or dancing to the radio, try different activities until you find one or two that allow you a sense of joy.
For many of us, traditional athletic endeavors, such as running, swimming, or cycling will allow us that freedom. For a lot of us, though, specifically those of us who did not grow up in surroundings which encouraged athletic endeavors, or for whom due to histories of trauma, depression, or other forms of emotional struggles have been disconnected from our bodies, we may need to try several options and look outside of the box to find our embodied joy. If you are in a major or mid-sized city, there are likely to be free or community-based yoga classes available to try. These classes often use a more straightforward and therapeutic format than classes you may find in a studio and can be a great place to start for people beginning or restarting their journey towards wellness.
Accept that setbacks are an inevitable part of your journey.
I recently travelled for a yoga retreat. I spent hours considering what clothes to bring, what phone numbers to have with me, and calculated the exact amount of spending money I would need for my trip. When I practiced more challenging poses such as headstands and handstands, I made sure to practice them in the safety of the beach with the assistance of my teacher and fellow students. All my cautiousness turned out to be in vain, as I suffered a terrible knee contusion and cuts to my hands when I tripped and fell in the dining room when reaching for a glass on a table.
Other than being a little embarrassed at my clumsiness, this experience highlighted a dilemma I address with clients all the time. When we engage in something worthwhile and leads to a better life, there are risks involved. One of those risks is failure. This may mean getting injured. This will probably mean, especially at the beginning of your journey, being in a room where everyone is performing their tasks better than you are.
And you know what? This is inevitable. It means you’re challenging yourself, and challenges move us forward.
When setbacks happen, let some appreciation for the fact that you have engaged in the journey at all set in.
Appreciate yourself for showing up to life and living it, with all the sweat, awkwardness, self-judgment, and joy that is wrapped up in living in a body.