Exercise vs. Joyful Movement
My family is really big into fitness. Exercise is a big deal for us. I get asked about it a lot. “What kind of exercise are you doing these days? What do you like to do at the gym?”
Since beginning my recovery journey, it’s been hard to reenter a habit of exercise. My relationship with exercise is really complicated. It’s not that I don’t like it, in fact I truly love it. I was an athlete for my entire youth, and still get stoked to play sports. I’ve memorized all the benefits of exercise by heart: endorphins lift your mood for hours afterwards, better sleep, strength longer in life, better sex drive, and of course, supposedly lower weight. It’s not that I lack the motivation either, I’m excited about it.
The problem is that I have a tendency to overdo it, which makes me fearful of starting any kind of program.
During the six months leading up to my decision to seek recovery, I exercised to the point of injury three times. I was running 10k in the morning, walking a ton throughout the day to get well over 10,000 steps, and doing sports or yoga or weight lifting in the evening.
It was never enough for me. I went to sleep sore, exhausted, and hungry, unable to stop obsessing over how I should have run one more mile that morning or lifted one more set. I never had emotional energy or time to go hang out with friends or do any of my creative hobbies. I’d fall asleep vowing to do better the next day, calculating the number of calories I’d need to burn to make up for today’s shortcomings.
That obsession led me to hurt myself. I pulled my quad during my second sprint workout of the day after hiking 10 miles the day before. I could barely walk, experiencing a lot of pain when I did. It was like I could feel the injury snaking up my leg, radiating towards my knee or my hip. I couldn’t give myself the time I needed to exercise, that would waste too many potential calories burned. So I hopped back on the treadmill before I could even walk without a limp.
I ended up favoring my hurt leg and severely injuring my foot on the opposite side. It was plantar fasciitis on steroids. Putting any weight on my foot felt like driving blades in-between the bones. Again, I kept going, terrified of what would happen if I didn’t.
I favored that foot and hurt the other, again because I refused to give myself time to heal. Now, I couldn’t walk one block to the bus stop, let alone run. That was when I began to consider that there was something wrong with the way I was engaging in exercise.
I’m not saying that anyone who exercises a lot has a problematic approach to movement. There are plenty of people who workout in the morning and play sports in the evening and don’t have any mental health issues associated with that practice. What indicated that I was sick was my obsessive thought patterns and compulsive behaviors around exercise.
I was literally obsessing over exercise in the clinical sense of the word. I was plagued by constant thoughts about exercise: researching different types, measuring it in different ways, planning out elaborate workout programs. My behavior was compulsive. I couldn’t not exercise, even when I was in serious pain or sick with a cold. If I ever didn’t exercise sufficiently (which was often because I was setting incredibly unrealistic standards for myself), I would punish myself with more exercise or less food. Exercise wasn’t about feeling good, it was about seeking an unattainable goal — thinness — and “earning” my meager food portions.
It is possible to have a healthy relationship with exercise that doesn’t involve self-hatred or overdoing it, but I don’t have that yet. My relationship with exercise is still fraught, and I have to be really careful not to tumble down the rabbit hole of obsessive/compulsive patterns around it.
In recovery, my therapist taught me to reframe the way I thought about exercise. Instead of thinking about it as “exercise,” which to me conjures imagines of treadmills and CrossFit and sweating in a grey smelly gym, she encouraged me to think about it as “joyful movement.” What type of movement makes me feel good, right now? What type of movement is my body craving? A mantra in the #bopo #fatpositive movement is “any movement is good movement.”
A lot of times these days, it’s walking. I love meandering up the dirt road in our neighborhood that winds through the Chuckanut Mountains with my dog. I don’t need a pump up playlist or a heart rate monitor or $200 shoes or spandex to do it. I often do it in my Birkenstocks and sun dresses, spending hours getting lost in my thoughts and appreciating the beauty of my home. Walking is exercise. More importantly, walking is something that feels good in my body and that I can do without going crazy.
Lately, I also spend a lot of time rock picking in the plot of land that will become my garden one day, if I can remove all the god damn rocks. I was rock picking one day recently, unearthing big boulders from the glacial till, and Amelia came trotting up with a stick in her mouth. The dog sleeps most of the day and can barely walk up the stairs, but good lord she loves playing fetch for hours. So I took the stick from her and chucked it as far as I could, then hurried to lift the boulder I was working on, walk 25 feet to the rock pile, and put it down, then run back to the garden plot so that I could start digging up another rock by the time she got back and needed me to throw the stick again.
That’s exercise, too. I thought about times I was paying close to $200 a month for a CrossFit gym membership to do basically the same exact movements I was doing now. Recovery and reimagining my relationship with exercise has saved me thousands of dollars and countless hours of mental energy.
I’ll leave you with these two cents: Consider with a critical eye your thoughts and behaviors within your relationship to exercise.
Do you use exercise to “earn” your food?
Do you beat yourself up if you don’t make it to the gym on a given day?
Do you engage in exercise that brings you joy — not just a runner’s high — and adds value to your life, as opposed to exercise that feels mandatory, isolates you, or occupies an unnecessary amount of emotional energy (disproportionate to the amount you spend on other hobbies)?
I certainly answer yes to those questions a lot of the time. If you do too, let’s chat. Together we can unlearn practices that cultivate self-hatred and build a path towards joyful movement.