First off, I want to preface this article by saying I am neither a doctor nor a fitness expert. I will not be writing about how to exercise for weight loss, nor will I tell you how you “should” be exercising, as there are plenty of articles on that topic already (not to mention that there is a lot of controversy about the “best” ways to work out that things get overwhelming pretty fast). If you need to exercise with the express intent of weight loss, or for medical reasons (ie, to manage diabetes or high blood pressure), I absolutely encourage you to work with a doctor and a qualified physical trainer, if you have access to these resources.
The point of this article is to draw on my experiences as a bigger person (5’6″ and 250# at time of writing this) who is physically active, enjoys exercise, and has dabbled in a wide variety of movement styles. This article is primarily geared towards bigger people as a starting point for enjoying exercise as part of a “Health at Every Size” lifestyle, but it’s also for anyone who hates exercise and wants to shift their attitude towards enjoying movement. I believe that everyone, all lifestyles, and all bodies, have the potential to enjoy some kind of exercise: our bodies are designed to move, and they require movement to function at their best.
In this first installment, I want to tackle the reasons that I think people dislike or fear exercise:
1. Body shame (internal and external)
Exercise forces us to be present in our bodies, and many of us (present company included) are ruled by our heads, putting our bodies second as we spend long hours sitting at desks, in the car, and in front of the TV. Maybe we’re not comfortable with the way our body looks or feels, and movement forces us to face that in ways that make us feel uncomfortable or depressed. Maybe we feel like we’re so out of shape that there’s no point in even trying. This video actually motivated me to re-start my yoga practice, because it’s fucking amazing:
(For the record- I think losing 100 pounds in 6 months is kind of insane, I am more into the fact that he went from being in crutches to being able to run again, and how joyful he looks at the end.)
Another thing- which most people won’t tell you- is that movement releases the stress, anxiety, and emotions that we “somatize”- ie, the unreleased stress and emotions that we hold in our bodies as a coping mechanism to get through our days, that often manifests as back pain, tight muscles, and physical fatigue. Movement releases this energy in a way that can feel overwhelming, frightening, and almost nausea-inducing. I have cried (as well as becoming euphoric) in more than a few yoga classes , and have even experienced becoming physically ill when I begin an exercise regimen, because your body is releasing a lot of built-up toxins as well as psychological stress. This is why it’s important to start out slowly, and be gentle with yourself.
2. Exercise related-trauma.
Maybe it was always being picked last for team sports as a kid, on the assumption that you were no good as an athlete. (And maybe you weren’t the best athlete, but you were never given a chance to develop those skills, when you were always forced to the outer edges of the playing field.) Stuff that happens as a kid can haunt you well into your adult years. Maybe it was an exercise-related injury, a bad experience with a coach or trainer who used humiliation as a motivational factor (I’m looking at you, Jillian Michaels), or maybe you were simply made to feel out of place as a bigger person engaging in exercise. It’s ironic that even as fat people are encouraged (or even shamed) to exercise more for their health, they’re also shamed or singled out when they exercise in public places. When I was 12 years old (and a big girl then, as I am now), I enjoyed running as a solitary pursuit, and became quite good at it. I remember the day in 7th grade P.E. that I lapped all of my classmates on the track, and the sense of pride I felt when I realized I was the fastest runner in my class (or more realistically, the only one who was really giving it my all). I also remember the anger I felt as a group of boys laughed at me, yelling “Look at Porky Pig go!” Well-meaning people often engage in fat shaming because they claim to be concerned for the health of fat people, yet, fat athletes are often ostracized and treated as a joke- after all, how could someone that fat actually be fit? I’m telling you, you can, just as I knew that the boy who called me Porky Pig couldn’t handle that I was kicking his ass.
3. Lifestyle Conflicts
Time and money are huge factors for why we don’t exercise more, which I addressed a fair amount in my previous essay about HAES. Fatigue, stress and illness can also be discouraging factors. I almost never went to the gym while dealing with a crisis in my personal life a year ago, because I simply couldn’t make it a priority when I felt so completely drained. (The irony is when we are the most stressed that we need movement the most, even if it’s just gentle stretching.) I also experienced a bout of recurrent illness this winter that completely threw me off my game- I was literally getting sick every two weeks, and every time I felt well enough to start working out again, I’d become ill, yet again. It FUCKING SUCKED, but I had to show myself compassion instead of guilt- it wasn’t as if I was avoiding exercise out of laziness. I do find, however, that as hard as it is to get into an exercise groove, that once I’m in it, it because a habit forming source of pleasure that I crave and look forward to. My current regimen involves jogging/walking intervals at the track across the street from my office at lunch time (with squats, lunges, and other strength training mixed in), and yoga classes at a studio near my house about 3 days a week (these classes ain’t cheap, but they’re worth it to me), as well as some solo stretching, dancing, weight lifting, and yoga practice at home. I actually look forward to these breaks from sitting at a desk all day, and my energy and stress levels are vastly improved as a result.
4. We haven’t found a form of fitness that is a good “fit” for us yet.
I’m one of those weirdos who loves the gym, especially posh gyms with nice facilities (I had a membership at the delightfully pretentious David Barton for 2 years). However, you shouldn’t be going to the gym if it feels like a gross obligation or chore (or else you need to find a way that it doesn’t feel like a gross obligation or chore). You will get more benefit from exercise you enjoy, as you will be more present in your body, and more motivated to do your best if you’re having fun. Consider that as one of the fattest countries in the world, we are also one of the few countries in the world where having a gym membership is considered normal for anyone other than a career athlete. (This post about going to the gym in France is pretty hilarious.) Again, most of us don’t get enough incidental exercise in our lives, and we’re exercising because we want to lose weight, or because we’re “supposed” to, and that really sucks the fun out of it. There are a million options for fitness that are not the gym, which I will explore more in future installments. Personally, I really learned to enjoy exercise when I took up Capoeira when I lived in Japan (the eye candy made it SO worth the three hour training sessions). Cecelia Strick9 stays fit by pole dancing- a workout that lets her wear sexy boots and heels. Shoshanna loves the sense of humor and body acceptance yoga has given her.
These are just a few examples of thinking outside the gym, and I’d love to hear from YOU what’s keeping you from exercising, what keeps you exercising or what types of movement you’ve found that really gives you joy. In future installments I’ll address the why and how of making exercise pleasurable, tips for transitioning into an exercise routine, and some different things to try both in and outside of the gym.