Summer is finally here in the Pacific Northwest, and although options for outdoor physical activity abound, not everyone feels compelled to work up a sweat on our leafy trails and azure lakes. In fact, for many people, physical activity serves as punishment rather than pleasure.
The Problem with “Exercise”
If this describes you, you are not alone. Although movement is one way we can connect to and center ourselves within our body, everyone has a different ability (and inclination) towards movement. Even more importantly, many people have only known movement as “exercise,” a way to change rather than inhabit the body.
Look at any gym or fitness program advertisement and a barrage of slender, muscular young people grin back at you. These pictures suggest that participating in the activity will change your form to the pictured “ideal,” and can even imbed in your subconscious the belief that having an “ideal” body is a pre-requisite to participate.
Ironically, clinical studies have shown that people who move for their own internal satisfaction rather than to meet external health or appearance goals are happier, have a better relationship to food and their body, experience less weight fluctuation, and are much more likely to stick with activity for the long term. But these “intuitive movers” are often slender and able-bodied from the beginning. These individuals are given the opportunity to explore enjoyable movement on their own body’s terms, without pressure to exercise in order to “burn off” their thighs or “melt” their abs. People exposed to appearance stigma and extrinsic exercise pressures have less internal motivation to move, suggesting that we may have cultural assumptions about higher body weights and sedentary living backwards.
Finding Pleasure in Movement
The good news is that anyone can, with practice and self-compassion, learn to tune out extrinsic pressures and tune in to intrinsic motivation. Perhaps taking a walk when you want a break, or because it increases your energy, or helps you relax, instead of to lose weight. Over time, as you learn to trust your body and allow it to move when it wants to and not when it doesn’t, your body will shift from ornament to instrument. Not a shiny object to admire on a shelf, but an (amazing!) tool to use in whatever pursuit brings you the most happiness. Here are some helpful tips:
Experiment, experiment, experiment
Rather than set a “goal,” pretend you are a researcher, investigating how different activities make you feel. Find something that is fun to do, feels good while doing it, and feels good afterwards. If an activity doesn’t work for your body, remember that the activity failed YOU, rather than the other way around.
Listen for your unique harmonies
We don’t all feel good doing the same movements. Some people like doing the same thing over and over and developing advanced skill, others feed on variety and enjoy trying a new activity every week!
Focus on your strengths
What is your body already doing for you? Practice gratitude each day for all the amazing ways in which your body takes care of you and moves you through your experiences.
Start with “gentle” movement
If your body hasn’t liked being pushed and prodded into certain exercises in the past, introduce your muscles and ligaments to moving through space without pressure. Consider restorative yoga, playing in the pool, and meditative walking.
Avoid fitness classes that preach negative body messages. Look for activities like adult recreational sports leagues, boxing, karate, kayaking, social dance lessons, snowshoeing, plant ID walks, trail cleanup, volunteering at a local park, or even circus arts classes that focus on learning a new skill or completing a task rather than changing the body.
Make a playlist
Music can be a quick way to “tune in” to our own body harmonies. Put together a recording of favorite songs and turn it on when you are alone. Free your body to move to the music however if wants, and see what happens! This is YOUR dance.
Movement can be still
Even if chronic pain or mobility challenges keep you dancing to a slower beat, remember that just coming home to the body has physical benefits. Movement can be as simple as breath-work, which moves us from the inside out and relaxes tension in our musculature. Assisted movement, such as massage, stretching, or acupuncture, can also help the body feel good. Practice accepting your limitations, noticing your strengths, and reveling in the simple pleasure of having a body home that is all yours to live inside.
Written by: Anita Bermann MS, RDN