What’s The Big Deal About Exercise?

“I’m just one of those people who hates exercise”. That’s what I used to say. And I believed it. Man, did I hate exercise. I felt angry (and guilty and ashamed) at the mention of the word and, I have to confess, I’m worried some of you may stop reading this post for the very same reason, but I hope not.

In the past, if a slim person said to me “I’m just going to the gym” I would be outraged and think “why the hell are you doing that? You’re already thin!  You don’t need to go to the gym”.  It was my assumption that you only exercised to lose weight.  It didn’t occur to me that people might exercise because they enjoyed it.

After all, what was enjoyable about exercise?  Nothing.  All that pain and sweating and discomfort.  It felt like punishment.

And it was.

I was punishing my body for being too big, for being wrong, for being defective, for being shameful.  I told myself I had to do something about it.  I needed to get a grip, give myself a good talking to, get my s*** together.

That was how I approached exercise and that’s why I hated it.

It was about taking a body that I considered shameful and attempting to transform it into something “acceptable”, nothing else. With that as my starting point, I was doomed to failure.

Why?  Because if you approach exercise purely from a weight loss standpoint, you tend to “attack” it rather than find a way to work it naturally into your life. However much you exercise, you tell yourself it’s not enough.  Rather than a means of looking after yourself, you use it to compensate for eating too much or to give you the right to earn what you’re going to eat.

Despite the fact that you’re unfit, you don’t listen to your body about what it’s capable of right now.  You just push it to get rapid results.  And because you don’t see those results quickly enough and because the entire experience feels like torture, you give up and never want to do it ever again.

Subsequently, in exactly the way that you form damaging beliefs as a result of dieting, you develop negative beliefs about exercise according to your experiences: “it’s too hard”, “I can’t do it” and, of course my favourite, “I’m just one of those people who hates exercise”.

We often adopt the same all-or-nothing approach to exercise that we do to eating.  In the same way that it’s either “I’m restricting or I’m bingeing”, it can be either “I’m going to the gym every day for 2 hours and totally crushing it or I’m doing absolutely no exercise whatsoever”.

But where’s the middle ground?  Because just as you can have a healthy diet without having a perfect diet, you can have a fit body without having a “ripped” body.

Realistically, how much time do you have for exercise? 20 minutes a couple of times a week?  Fine.  5 minutes every other day?  Fine.  Whatever you can manage is fine.  If it’s manageable it just becomes a normal part of your life, not a Great Big Deal or something that you dread.  And if you change your experience of exercise, you change your beliefs about it.

The reason I’m telling you this is because if you begin to normalise your eating and your relationship with food calms down, a very strange thing can happen.

You get messages from your body to move more. Something within you gently urges you to be more physically active.  Obviously, when I first started receiving these messages I ignored them (because I was just one of those people who hates exercise, right?). Luckily, my body is smarter than I am and the messages became so persistent that I couldn’t disregard them any longer.

My clients are often amazed to receive similar communications from their bodies and these experiences contribute to their developing self-trust.  It’s astonishing and gratifying that the body they’ve despised and abused most of their life is still attempting to co-operate with them.  It’s as though their body is patiently saying “I know how you feel about me, but I’m still here and I’ll work with you whenever you’re ready”.

They also have to work with that part of them that might feel self-conscious about slapping on the lycra and hitting the gym.  While it’s likely they’re going to experience some self-consciousness trying something new, it’s no good if they’re feeling overwhelmingly insecure.  Better to start gently with an activity that suits them, rather than signing up for a 12-week hardcore Butts ‘n’ Guts Power Pump Killer Body Booty Camp (OK, I made that up).

“But I won’t lose weight that way” you might say.  Don’t let weight loss be your motivation. Rather let it be a by-product of your improving relationship with yourself.  You don’t lose weight from a starting point of “I hate my body”:  you lose weight from a starting point of “I value and appreciate my body and I want what’s best for it”.

I’ve come to believe that, rather than punishment, exercise is an expression of self-care – a way of demonstrating to your body just how much it means to you. Exercise is an ally when life is demanding and challenging. It helps balance you emotionally and psychologically.  It helps negate years of derogatory messages and body-loathing and striving to be perfect.  It helps you prove to yourself you’re worth looking after.  It helps you feel strong.  It helps you feel good.  It helps you respect and make peace with your body.

And that’s a very long way from “I’m just one of those people who hates exercise”.

That’s why it’s a big deal.

Here’s a great post by Dr Juliet McGrattan about how to make exercise more enjoyable.