by Kristen Wright, LMFT, former therapist at EDTLA
Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to start a new fitness routine? Those “thirty days of push-ups or sit-ups” or “do 15 of this and 12 of that a day to your ideal body in no time,” might sound appealing. But you may have already discovered it’s just another commitment that has left you feeling depleted and disheartened. What if this didn’t have to be a failure but the start of a new experience?
No, you are not lazy, inadequate, or hopeless. There! I said it and I firmly believe it. It is very easy to slip into a cycle of unhelpful thoughts. If you were talking to your friend that way, would your friend listen to you? Of course not! Saying “Get off that couch, you lazy cow” is no way to get it done. I used to think beating myself up would help me work out, and I had no excuse for not exercising. I now know that is not the solution.
Here are some strategies that may be helpful.
Rethink Exercise as Simply Movement
Exercise is often viewed as something unpleasant or punishing or even penance for eating. It shouldn’t be! Movement is much broader. It may be a dance class, a walk on the beach with your partner, a hike with a friend, or shooting hoops with your child. It could be jumping around to good music or playing on the ground with our pets or kids. It might even be just walking back and forth or stretching. Workouts come in many forms and all movement counts. Movement should be fun and have some freedom.
We need to reject the idea that a workout has to be 30 minutes to an hour, requires sweat, requires a shower, and must involve so many sets of different things. What if movement didn’t have to be so structured? If you are still trying to understand why workouts are difficult, it may be because in the past you only exercised when you also dieted. I find that many people with a history of repeated dieting have a very negative association with working out. Reframing it as movement helps with removing that association.
Welcome Those Rest Days
Balance is important. Sometimes rest is more important than exercise. Learn to listen to your body and all its needs. You may have had a bad day at work or you may be dehydrated. Everyone needs days off. When taking care of our bodies, we have to take care of our mental health. And sometimes the workouts won’t happen. But instead of thinking “I missed a day, and everything is ruined,” think instead, “Today I took care of my body by resting.”
Stop the Inner Critic
Become aware of your negative thoughts: “I can’t do this; I am lazy; I am a failure. I am too out of shape.” All of these jumbled thoughts weigh us down. We just can’t expect to operate under these conditions. You should talk to your body as you would talk to a friend. And when you do start being kinder to your body, pay attention to the peace and freedom that will follow. Remember: don’t push yourself to the point of negative self-talk. If the negative inner critic pops up, it is time to evaluate the workout and listen to your body.
Challenge Your Perfectionism
Not all workouts will be better than or even equivalent to the last. Watch and challenge that urge to make each bout of exercise more intense or more successful than the previous one. Try to remove performance measures from your exercise. You do not need metrics to measure the success of your movement. Try focusing instead on how your body feels. As well, after having a great week of workouts you might find that the next workout is barely anything. Don’t despair. Your body might be reacting to fatigue, stress, or just screaming for a break. Remember movement is still movement.
Recognize You are not Obligated to Move
In the words of Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN: “Health isn’t a moral obligation, and you don’t owe *anyone* the pursuit of health. Too much of the wellness world is caught up in healthism, and equating our worth to how much we pursue health goals. But the truth is that your value as a person and as a member of society doesn’t lie in whether or not you value your health.” Now how can this apply to you? Your worth as a person does not correlate to your fitness achievements. You are not a moral failure if you don’t exercise. You are not required to exercise!
You are the only one who can know what your body needs. Different bodies appreciate different activities. Just because your favorite fitness guru on Instagram says that “this” or “that” will get you in shape, does not mean it is something you must do. You are the leader and guru of your own body. So, let your body tell you what it enjoys. Find the movement that makes your body say “Ahah! That felt good, let’s do this again.” It took me many different workout classes and videotapes to find out what I liked. I had to invest and become the explorer and expert of my own body. Be your body’s best friend and explore what your body likes to do. Please don’t give up on a movement style your body enjoys because it doesn’t look like it is making a difference. Rather spend time enjoying how the movement makes you feel. Do you feel better afterward?