In this article I will share how my relationship with exercise has changed over the years and how I work to reduce the unhealthy aspects of exercise in my life and strengthen the positives. Scientists agree that getting regular exercise is a great thing for the mind and body. Regular exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, aid in recovery from illness and even make your daily life more efficient. Most of us can also agree that the average person in western society could probably benefit from getting a little MORE exercise. Due to this we are bombarded with media telling us to work out more this season, get flat abs, and present fitness models as #goals. While this could potentially be good motivation for some, I believe many more people than we realize actually suffer from these messages, myself included. When skipping a gym session to get lunch with a friend makes you feel extremely guilty, or when you have to do exactly 60 sit-ups (or any other set number) in order to feel like you’ve had a good work out, you might want to think about your relationship with exercise.My relationship with exercise: Between the ages of 13 and 19 I was a competitive road cyclist. I competed internationally on the New Zealand Junior Team and earned 10 national titles along the way. During this time in my life my athletic training and performance loomed very large in my emotional psyche. So much of my energy was bound up in whether or not I was doing the right training, if I was going to peak for the important races or if the selectors could see my potential. A small cold during racing season would be a catastrophe and I would feel that all of my hard work would be wasted. My whole life was consumed by cycling, not only the time spent actually on the bike. I would eat well (for cycling), build my classes around my training schedule (for cycling), miss birthday parties (for cycling) and go to bed early (for cycling). At the time this strict rigidity around my lifestyle was important for my performance but once I stopped cycling this mindset stuck with me even though I wasn’t training for anything anymore. Working out was often a private thing for me after then. I went to the gym most days and went on runs alone so that I could push myself extremely hard. If a friend asked to go together I would get nervous that I wouldn’t get a “good enough” workout. This continued for about a year after I stopped cycling competitively. Then one day I went to the gym with a friend, and about halfway through my workout she walked over to me and said “Robin, what exactly are you training for?” I was on the spin bike doing intervals that I had previously done in order to prepare for Oceanic Time Trial Championships. I was dripping in sweat and was taking my workout extremely seriously. I snapped at her because she had interrupted my threshold interval but then began to realize that she actually did have a point. I think that having an elite athlete mindset from a young age can cause us to become very intense and competitive with our sporting endeavors. This may not necessarily be a bad thing but if exercise continues to take up as much emotional energy in your life as it used to when you were competing, but without giving any return in the form of results, it can be incredibly draining. Not to mention the added media influence also causes a lot of people to have a huge amount of unnecessary emotions surrounded with getting regular exercise. I was (and still probably still am) addicted to the endorphins that pushing your body extremely hard give you. But I needed to remember that killing myself in a morning workout, when I wasn’t even training for anything, did seem a bit silly. These workouts left me tired all day and not present during my classes. My workouts had become very rigid; I did the exact same amount of cardio with the machine set on the exact same level followed by the exact same number of strengthening exercises with no easy days and no change in intensity. I began dreading the thing that once gave me so much pleasure. I would feel empty and anxious if I didn’t exercise. Working out is supposed to help reduce stress but it shouldn’t be the only tool in your stress reduction tool-box. After doing some research and speaking with a sports psychologist I decided that I needed to change my behaviors around exercise to enjoy working out again in order to heal my body, not burn it to the ground. Steps I took towards mindful exercise:
- - I started referring to working out as “getting my blood flowing” or “moving my body” in order to remind myself that this was the ultimate goal of getting exercise. Also as an added bonus it sounds super new-age-hippy when you tell your friends your going to the Rec Center to “move your body” after class.
- I made a list of different workouts I could do and put them in a jar so that I could pull one out whenever I wanted to exercise in order to mix up my super rigid routine. I included some of my old workouts but also added some such as a 90 min hike with a friend or simply taking my dog for a jog around the neighborhood. Believe me, the first time I pulled out one of these ‘not so serious’ workouts it was extremely hard for me to not race to the gym to do intervals but over time I learned that I didn’t lose any physical progress and that I actually really enjoyed these fun workouts.
- I also altered small things about my workouts in order to move away from the rigidity. For example, instead of running for 45 minutes at level 6, I had to get off at 43 minutes and walk away. This was impossibly hard the first time. In my mind I just kept saying “its ok, ill just run home to make up for it”, but that’s not what I did. I pushed through the uncomfortable feeling of changing my routine and after doing this a few times I learned that nothing catastrophic happened.
- I put a piece of paper over the cardio machine screens in the gym so that I could practice listening to my body rather than the numbers.