On exercise

Thursday was a sad day.

This may seem like a silly thing for me to say, given that many of you know that on Thursday my thesis had been approved by grad division at UCLA, AND I had gotten asked to interview for a really awesome job (I had a phone interview Friday! Think it went well but still waiting to hear.)

So ok, Thursday wasn’t totally sad. But I was genuinely bummed to have to say goodbye…

…to my exercise classes.

Seriously. I took yoga and an “intro-to-weightlifting” class at my school gym this quarter, and sadly everything ends before week 10. (1 quarter = 10 weeks + finals week. So I’m almost done!) They were awesome, and I’m going to miss them so much. And on a practical level, I really need to get on top of replacing them with new exercise routines sooner rather than later.

See, exercise is an essential component of my “staying sane” plan, an essential tool in my ‘moving forward’ toolbox. It helps get the tension out of all my muscles so I sleep better at night.  It makes me feel alive and strong and it helps keep my depression at bay. It’s something to do when I’m crawling out of my skin with nervous energy. And you guys, yoga has done so much for my anxiety levels and random stress-related back pain.

But you may have noticed… exercise was NOT in the ‘moving forward’ list of tricks. And I have to tell you: that was a very deliberate choice.

It’s not that I don’t like exercise, obviously. But I left it off the list because exercise is so so frequently suggested to people who are struggling, particularly with mental health issues… and I think that sometimes that’s not a great thing. See, while my other tips, like “be nice to yourself” and “make some comforting rituals”, seem pretty broadly applicable and innocuous, I know that isn’t true of exercise.

For a significant number of people, “you should exercise more” can be a really problematic prescription. If you have the right brain chemistry, exercise itself can become a dangerous obsession or means to self harm. If you’re out of shape or recovering from physical illness or just have always considered yourself ‘bad’ at athletic activity, exercise can be incredibly stressful, and sometimes becomes just another Thing You Are Bad At to beat yourself up about. (This is particularly true of those of us who are [recovering?] perfectionists.) If you’re also heavy or self-conscious about your weight, “exercise more” can feel like fat-shaming.

Basically, there are all sorts of situations where this advice sucks (feel free to brainstorm more in the comments). But let me put a less abstract spin on it–a brief story:

I have always been ‘the klutz’. I was the kid who always spilled her milk at lunch. I was the desperately uncoordinated one in gym class. I was always covered in bruises and scrapes. I sprained my ankles multiple times before middle school and once as an adult, and I’m still clumsy on crutches.

I was teased for this, as you might expect, though the vast majority of it was intended to be good-natured. It didn’t matter though. I either identified with the label so much that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, or I was biologically predisposed to this, or both… but regardless, I’m still The Clumsy One and am still terribly self-conscious about it, and that plus my perfectionism have melded to form this horrible um… tic?… of mine that I still haven’t completely gotten rid of.

Learning any series of coordinated movements or new physical skill, even relatively simple ones, is very hard for me. Or at least, my brain expects it to be. So a great deal of the time, when I am asked to do this, I panic/get frustrated very easily. And often if I’m being watched, I freeze entirely. My mind goes blank, and suddenly I’m the scared kid in front of a class with everyone staring at me. If someone tries to help me, I can’t even respond properly–I just shake my head and stammer “I…I can’t.”

It’s awful.

Once, early in a relationship, I went on a date where the guy attempted to teach me how to play pool.  I was excited! I really wanted to learn, I really liked the guy, and it was a fun idea for a date! But I was SO BAD at it, and suddenly I hated my stupid body and my stupid brain and I was panicking and trying not to cry because what kind of crazy person/jerk gets upset about being bad at something I was just learning?

So anyhow, this thing that I do… has a tendency to be a problem in exercise classes. I’ve gotten way, way better at controlling it/hiding it, but when I’m exhausted or under a lot of stress… sometimes I fail at that.

And no, that isn’t the end of the world, as embarrassing as it is to burst into tears while in downward dog*. But it does mean that on that day, exercise might end up being a net loss for my mood rather than a net gain. Which sucks.

These days, I can usually afford the risk of occasionally getting all weird and panicky–it’s worth it for the benefits I get from the exercise. But there have been times in my life that the equation certainly did not balance out that way, either because a specific activity stressed me out too much, or because I was just overall not holding it together very well, and could not take One More Thing. And at those times, telling me to exercise more would have just made me feel guilty and pathetic.

So anyhow, getting back around to my point. If exercise is a totally un-fraught thing for you that makes you feel good, that’s awesome and you should keep it up. But it just isn’t that simple for some of us, and I therefore have a problem giving “exercise more!” as un-qualified advice.

That isn’t to say that if you’re a perfectionist or prone to excessive/obsessive exercising or have physical limitations or whatever that you shouldn’t try to exercise as a means of improving your health/stress release. What I am saying is that you should know yourself and take whatever steps you need to to make exercise an actually enjoyable/beneficial thing for you.

Don’t work out in ways that make you miserable. If you hate running, try something else. If you’re prone to pushing yourself too hard, get a trainer or at least a workout partner who can help keep you in check. For anyone who gets easily frustrated/worked up when your body doesn’t work the way you want it to, I highly recommend including some activity that will help you become more aware of and comfortable in your body–yoga and other sort of mind-body focused practices can be good for this.  A nice dose of self-compassion doesn’t hurt either. I don’t have all the solutions here… but if you’re going to put the energy in to exercise, make it something that works for you, not against you.

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In summary:

I’m sad that yoga and lifting are over, (and even sadder that graduating means replacing school gym courses with more expensive private alternatives or going without) because they’re damn good for me. They make me feel good. But I work hard to make that true–it’s takes effort to be kind to myself when I feel like my stupid clumsy body is sabotaging my idiotic pursuit of perfection. And I know I’m not alone–lots of people turn exercise into a stick to beat themselves with, either out of guilt for not doing it enough/doing it ‘wrong’, or by OVERdoing it.

So yes, exercise! (In particular, do yoga, because I swear, stretching and mindfulness are fucking magic!…. Ok, not really, but they make me feel awesome, so forgive my cheerleading, ok?) But being kind to yourself and your body needs to be a priority, and that requires different things for different people. So even if exercise has done awesome, awesome things for you, be mindful about your evangelizing–what works for you is not everyone’s magic bullet.

———

*This actually happened to me this quarter… my neck muscles were spasming and I got so mad at myself for not being able to hold poses because of the pain that I started sobbing. Flattering story, I know.  My adorable sweetheart of a yoga instructor handled it so well though, and I’m quite grateful for that. Mr. Adorable Yogi is also a musician, if you’re so inclined you should click over and check him out.

7 thoughts on “On exercise

  1. Thank you! Being a ‘clumsy one’ myself (and a closet perfectionist), this post has been incredibly heartening. In the past, the only real physical activity I would participate in (occasionally) was swimming – you can’t fall down when you’re swimming. The panic, the traiterous muscles that will never do what I want – you’ve really hit a chord here. So thank you! I think I might even look into some yoga classes. 🙂

    1. Aww, thank you! Glad I could be useful.

      Definitely check out some yoga. Start in a beginner’s class, of course, and find a teacher you feel comfortable with. Good luck!

  2. Excellent post. Seconding pretty much all of it.

    While the clumsy thing doesn’t apply to me as such, the label I picked up from a decade or so of sports lessons was that I sucked at anything that involved a ball moving through the air at speed. This encompasses pretty much every sport taught in the UK – footie, tennis, rounders – and because I also cannot *stand* running, athletics wasn’t particularly fun either. I got it in my head that I really cannot catch anything, such that I surprise myself every time I catch things when they’re thrown to me! The sports I did like were ones that encouraged aggressive tackling from the defenders. Thing is, I’m actually pretty damn good at martial arts and I love dancing and I did both of these things outside school hours.

    I stopped doing sport during undergrad, and after a hellish first two terms of post-grad I finally attended a women’s self-defense course taught by a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor. It was great! I felt so good after class and began to feel like I could do things again. It didn’t alleviate my depression at the time, but it kept me going, and it was the one regular activity in my week. I also discovered yoga at the time, and my flexibility improved so much I could reach my damn toes in a forward fold!

    I started attending a new yoga class this term and the instructor is lovely. The best thing about her classes is the body awareness practice we do to start and the relaxation to end. I’ve been learning to spot when I’m holding onto tension, and when I feel upset enough to cry, and on days when I’m not upset, I’m so relaxed afterwards that I just don’t want to move. Bliss.
    🙂

    1. I’ve also done and enjoyed martial arts… and also pushed myself too hard at it and been miserable and covered in bruises. So I love it, it’s great exercise, but I need the right frame of mind and the right instructor. I know some people want a hard-ass pushing them really hard 100% of the time, but for me that’s a disaster. I want to be pushed some, but I also needs a teacher who emphasizes respecting our bodies’ limits.

      As for yoga, yay for good instructors! The mindfulness/body awareness stuff is so, so helpful. 🙂

  3. So glad you are loving the yoga, Keely! And I definitely feel you on the clumsiness stuff–you remember how I was in highschool. 😉 I have a few friends from college that STILL tease me about my lack of coordination. (one good friend was in the dorm shower stall next to mine when I accidentally bumped a shelf and all of my shower supplies dropped on my head. so awesome). And my dad frequently says “Walk much?” when I trip over nothing in particular.

    I’ve never had much anxiety about the klutz thing though. I usually just laugh it off, and I really doubt that anyone in their right mind is holding it against you ever. It would be absurd to expect perfection from anyone beginning anything physical. As a kid, I used to watch cartoons or tv shows where the young protagonist would pick up a new skill, excel at it instantly, and be labeled “a natural.” I think that happens a lot in kids shows, and for years I expected that to happen to me. I would think “I shall pick up this pool cue, shoot in every single ball, and I will have FINALLY found my calling.”

    Fast forward to the present day, and I’m STILL waiting to be a “natural” at something. The only thing I’ve been a “natural” at ever is writing, and it’s not because I’m a natural. It’s because I practice all the damn time. *sigh*

    That was a big tangent. Sorry. Just know that I feel your klutz pain (so many bruises!), and that no one is judging you for not being perfect….except you.

    Also, yoga is awesome, and I’d love to learn weight lifting. It’s supposed to be so excellent for you. If you’re broke and not interested in paying for yoga classes, check out the youtube channel for Tara Stiles. She has great yoga fitness videos! Some are more active and some are more mind+body together. Just type her name in the youtube seach bar and you’ll find hundreds of videos. Plus, they’re free! <3

    1. Thanks for the yoga tip! Hopefully I’ll find someplace reasonably priced nearby my new apartment, because I love going to an actual studio and having an actual instructor, but youtube yoga is definitely better than no yoga!

      1. hahaha! i agree! i just started a WONDERFUL yoga class with an amazing instructor because I need someone who knows yoga to shift my body around and tell me how to get the most from every pose. Still, if you’re jonesing for a yoga fix (lol) and you haven’t found the right studio, the youtube videos are great. I did them for months in Costa Rica, since all the yoga studios there are geared toward rich expats who can afford $120/month classes in a 3rd world country

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