Building a Relationship with Exercise

03 Apr

I’m certainly not being innovative when I use the analogy that many people have problematic relationships with exercise. Ragen Chastain wrote about this in Repairing Our Relationships with Exercise and some discussion in the comments of a later post of hers where she also brought it up Projection is for Films not Fatties got me thinking about it more.

I think Ms. Chastain has nailed why many of us get soured on exercise early on.  Gym classes ruined it for many of us who were not natural athletes, whether we were fat or skinny or in-between. They often became a place where the kids with natural talent got noticed by the teacher who was, at my school, also the coach for all the teams, and the rest of us were left humiliated. Everyone might have something they are good at physically, but in school the things that are actually valued are limited. Even worse when the school is small and the sports options are even sparser.

I was one of those kids, utterly uncoordinated. I do feel I was lucky, however, as when I was a teen I discovered I liked to run. I wasn’t fast, if I tried to go too fast I tripped over my own two feet. I didn’t have great endurance as it turns out I have underdeveloped lungs. I had hated running in gym class because being pressured to “keep up” often left me in a humiliating heap. I liked to run slowly, with “bad strike” (I am a mid-foot strike runner, which was “wrong” according to our gym teacher and other “experts” at the time, although is now rediscovered as a safer, more natural stride).

I learned, for myself, that what I need in an exercise relationship is to not have expectations placed on me by others and to keep it far from competition. I can enjoy things as long as I don’t feel I have to meet goals set by others. I might set my own. This has let me have good relationships with various other forms of exercise. Although not all. I definitely have a preference for fast and aggressive “personality” in my exercise.

What others might need to heal their exercise relationship issues will be different. It’s important to remember you’re not looking for a relationship with all exercises, only the right exercises. We don’t give up on all romantic relationships just because of one bad break-up, right?

Oh, wait we do. Often. “All relationships/men/women are alike! I’ve had it!” Sometimes such a break from relationships is important. It allows us time to heal, time to forgive ourselves for what we might see as our own failure and to realize that it probably wasn’t us but the person. Or exercise. It gives us time to evaluate what we really want out of a relationship. And then we can date, not get too involved at first the next time around.

It’s obvious when discussing personal relationships with people that there are other people and they are different, I think it’s often difficult in the fitness world where we often go through fads of This is The One to see that about exercise. But there really are a lot of options out there. It’s okay to date a few until you decide which ones are good matches. It’s okay to see that one isn’t right, that it’s no fun, that it just doesn’t work out for you. You do not have to commit immediately.

In fact, while being monogamous may be a preference for many in romantic relationships, it’s never really a good idea with exercise for various reasons.  One is that very few things out there offer a complete package of strength, endurance, flexibility and balance training, so first we need to be involved in things that offer what might be missing in others. But both our minds and our bodies need change from time to time. The body adapts, we hit plateaus and become more prone to injury if we do only the same things all the time. The mind becomes bored, even when doing things that we might enjoy for a time. Those of us who might be exercise-commitment oriented might need to consciously alter our training; those who are more flirtatious and like to have flings with various exercises might actually do better. You may find the ones you continuously go back to but even then, remember, no form of exercise is going to be hurt if you go dally with another for awhile (I cannot speak for some instructors, of course, so please remember and remind them this is between you and the exercise and is not about your relationship with them).

A key to relationship issues, both with people and with exercise, is unmet expectations. Often, nearly always, exercise promises weight loss, beauty, health and athletic prowess. And the truth it that it can’t deliver, this is a hard truth too given the lies we are told. Yes, some lose some weight, but often not the amount they are promised and long term, extreme weight loss is rarely successful. Yes, a fit person often radiates beauty, but few of us will meet the extremely narrow beauty standards our society pushes on us. Yes, exercise can increase our body’s ability to function, but only a few out there will be great athletes. Yes, exercise can help us gain better cardiovascular health and make us stronger, but there are illnesses which it cannot touch.

I can run better than I could because I do run. But I’m not going to win any races. In order to have the relationship I do with running, I had to learn to accept that. I had to take running for what it does give me. A sense of joy, of freedom, of my own accomplishments which might seem nothing to anyone else let alone someone who has won races.

So a major part of developing a healthy relationship is to appreciate exercise for what it actually does offer. The health benefits we do get, the greater functionality we get, the joy that glows through us when we find our own accomplishments.  And the shear joy in spending time with the exercises we do enjoy. Whether it’s the mutual fun of a fast-paced class or the quiet solitary peace of a private Yoga session or the grunting forcefulness of a powerlifting session or a multitude of other options.  If we find joy in the exercise itself, we can realize that we don’t need to listen to false promises and we can simply realize the relationship is the thing itself.

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