An Improvement on Movement: Healing Your Relationship with Exercise
by Andrea Wachter, LMFT
We are all born with the natural desire to move, play, and rest. But thanks to the fear-based messages that the fitness industry and our culture bombard us with, many of us lose our innate inclination to move pleasurably and rest plentifully.
What most of us naturally engage in as kids—playing, climbing, biking, dancing…and napping—becomes either constant cardio counting and fitness classes, or barely exercising at all. Others bounce back and forth between the two extremes: “I must exercise in order to be a valuable person and earn my right to eat,” or “I hate exercise, I have no energy, what’s the point?”
Many years ago, I took up running and innocently got caught in the web of fear-based exercise. I loved running when I first started. I felt free while I was on a run and happy when I finished. My body felt strong, alert and pleasantly tired. At a certain point, however, my motives shifted and I became obsessed with running every day, regardless of the weather or my energy level. Simply put, my motivation was fear. I had to run in order to feel that I was entitled to eat. Not only that, I’d learned from endless articles and “experts” that daily exercise was good for me, and the more the better.
What began as wanting to take a run turned into having to. I fanatically started calculating my running times and disallowing myself a day off. I began fearing and refusing situations where I might possibly have to skip a day of exercise. I realized I was no longer running for the pleasure of feeling my body in motion; I was fueled by fear and running for a sense of self-worth.
I remember the day I admitted to myself that running was no longer fun and that I actually wanted to stop. But then the fear kicked in: What will happen if I quit running? What will happen to my body? How will I get that energy boost for the day? How will I know what to eat?
I shared my feelings with a dear friend who had traversed a similar path. She told me about her journey from fear-based exercise to peaceful movement and guilt-free rest. I asked her, “If I go from running 5 miles a day to only exercising when I feel like it, how will I know what to eat or how much to move? What if I never want to exercise again?” She smiled lovingly and told me to follow my intuition, that I could trust it, and that I didn’t need to calculate or count anything. I just needed to listen to my body and reach out for support when the anxious feelings and thoughts took hold.
Somewhat skeptically and extremely scared, I decided to give it a try. I told her I would take one week and only move how I truly wanted to; if after that week, something unforeseen and terrible happened, I would reevaluate the plan. I have never looked back. Aside from running across the street if the light changes, I have not run in many years. I would if I felt like it, but that urge has simply not come. I walk slowly when I want to. I walk fast when that feels right. I bike or do yoga when I’m in the mood, but if I’m planning to exercise and my body doesn’t feel like it, I often end up in the bathtub with a book. I look inward for guidance now. I ask my body how it wants to move. And I rest, a lot.
Yesterday, I thought I might take a walk but ended up spending that time in bed reading—guilt free! I then went to work, ate delicious, non-diet meals throughout the day, and went to bed without a trace of shame or remorse. Today I plan to take a walk in the forest with a dear friend and I will not be calculating my cardio, my calories, or my credibility as a human being!
Along my journey from fear-based running to peaceful movement and guilt-free rest, I had to face and feel a lot of feelings. I had to challenge and change a lot of outdated beliefs. I got a lot of support and I had a lot of motivation. I wanted peace. I thought I would get it from all the running and “clean” eating, but what I really got from that path was stressed and scared. When I expressed my emotions and challenged my beliefs, I discovered what I was really hungry for and there was no longer anything to run from.
I often ask my clients, “If you knew that you could never gain or lose a single pound until the day you die, how much would you exercise? How often would you rest?” Faces soften, deep breaths are taken. I hear responses like this: “I’d walk slower.” “I’d go for a swim.” “I’d rest when I didn’t feel like exercising.” “I’d stretch and dance—and nap.”
When exercise is no longer linked to self-hate and weight, we can begin to follow our body’s natural cues, move how we want, and rest without a shred of shame. The diet and fitness industries may not have taught us how to eat, move, and rest without guilt or fear, but we can learn to do so when we trust our body and our intuition.
So, here’s to joyous movement, sweet rest, and a peaceful relationship with your body!