From "No Pain, No Gain" to Joyful Movement: Thoughts on Exercise

What do you immediately think about when you consider the word “exercise?”

Chances are, you may have thought: pain, exhaustion, boring, gross, “good” for me, terrible, difficult.

What types of activities immediately come to mind when you consider the word “exercise?”

Chances are, you may have thought: running, going to the gym, spending a long time on a machine like an elliptical, doing intense exercise classes.

It’s interesting that in our society exercise has become so laudable and praise-worthy, and yet many people find it unbearable. In fact, we believe that in order for exercise to “count” it has to be difficult and painful.

As the New Year began, many people rushed out to get gym memberships, vowed to get “in shape,” and pursued exercise in a way that brings to mind the words above. However, it’s about around this time where people stop going to the gym and stop their exercise routines.

Slogans like “no pain, no gain” are supposed to motivate us to work harder. And yet, in my experience, these slogans and associations we have around exercise, defining it as difficult, painful, and hard, generally motivate no one to continue to do it.

Here’s a small nugget of truth: movement is helpful for our bodies. It is true that activity is correlated with better health outcomes. When I say health, I truly mean HEALTH and not weight loss or physical appearance. I also want to be careful about this because no one has to be healthy, and health doesn’t have to be anyone’s goal. You don’t have to be healthy, and you certainly don’t have to meet unrealistic appearance standards.

So, let’s be clear, movement is simply helpful, not the end-all-be-all to someone’s health status. This deserves another blog post, but health is impacted and defined by a million things, many of which are out of our individual control.

If movement is helpful, doesn’t that mean that everyone should be exercising? My simple answer is NO! The way in which we have culturally shaped exercise means that it is inaccessible, boring, un-enjoyable, and PAINFUL, so why the heck would anyone do it?

I invite everyone to consider your movement history, starting when you are a kiddo. Did you enjoy moving your body? I don’t mean organized sports or gym class, although you may have enjoyed those. I mean playing tag with friends, jumping for joy, shaking your booty to your favorite song, moving without self-consciousness and with abandon. When did that start to change for you? When did you begin to see movement differently?

Each of us has unique movement needs, just like we have unique nutrition needs. Many of us are struggling with injury, illness, or physical limitations which further impact our unique movement needs. When exercise becomes defined by “no pain, no gain,” boy can we get caught in a shame spiral about how we are moving or how much we are moving. Basically we are beating ourselves up for not meeting an unrealistic standard.

Shame is NEVER a good motivator, by the way.

I invite you to look at your current movement with curiosity and compassion. I invite you to check-in with your physical sensations, your current context, and your current limitations. I invite you to reframe exercise in a radical way. In fact, I don’t want you to do that, even. I want you to throw away the term “exercise” and all it’s ridiculous associations, and instead consider what movement you may want in your life. On the other end, I invite you to consider what movement/exercise is no longer serving you.

Happy moving, or not!