I really love exercise. If I could, I’d spend most of my time doing some form of it and mostly outdoors in the open. I’m utterly useless at technical sports since I lack almost all hand-eye co-ordination, but I’d be very happy filling my days with runs, especially on the hills, with hikes, with crossfit, with cycles, and with swims, especially in the lakes. Most years I think of a new sport I really want to do more of and it falls on my husband to point out our financial constraints for kit needs, or the question of how on earth to find enough time for them all. But I know I really want a kayak. And a paddleboard. And I’ll add another to the list by next year!
The joy of movement is abundant. From the physiological – the feeling of strength and power, in increased capacity in your lungs, the warm flush of the face, feeling your legs power through freely, or your shoulders pull through water, even the lingering ache of tired muscles in a kind of after-glow triumph. To the psychological – as the water consumes your thoughts only to rhythmic counting, or the mind wanders off as you pace yourself through something, the endorphins, the achievement at something which felt impossible, or noticing the simple beauty of the outside and the moment you’re in. I think there is so much good to be had in movement and activity that stretches beyond the usual public health messages. Whatever activity you’re into and what ever pace and intensity that takes. Because activity isn’t only valid when you’re sprinting up hills – enjoyable movement looks different for every person and all are valid.
But that sense of beauty from movement can only exist when exercise is not a punishment.
All too often exercise is a punishment for what we eat. It’s sold to us alongside a muffin as the amount of cardio one ‘needs to do to burn it off’. Thing is, when I eat a muffin it’s because I want a muffin, not because I want to exercise – why should I believe I cannot have one without the other? The fact is, I can. You can.
I am, we all are, worthy of food without exercise. Any food. We are all able to make choices about the food we eat without needing to earn it. We all deserve it without exercise. We all have an equal right to it. We don’t need to justify it, feel guilt or shame because of it, or compensate for it. Food is our fuel. And we need it to open our eyes each morning. Food is not parcelled up into ‘treadmill fuel’ or ‘bike fuel’ or ‘gym fuel’ bundles. Instead, it’s called a sandwich, or fruit, or crisps, or pudding. And each of those, and all the other types, mean fuel that we are allowed and need, all of the time; for movement, or in absence of it.
The function of exercise is for a healthy mind and body. Exercising as a punishment for food is the anthesis of this.
If we exercise because we need to justify our food or punish ourselves for what we have eaten, then the experience is wholly negative. Instead of being a celebration of strength and movement and ability and mindful escapism, it becomes a criticism. It’s not enough, not good enough, not fast enough, not hard enough, not long enough. We’re then also compelled to do it when we shouldn’t – pushing ourselves when we’re tired, sick, over-worked, injured, hungry. It’d be great if we all found a little time for exercise but equally we are all allowed to not want to do it too – whether through physiology, a change of plans, or heck, just because we’d rather catch a movie and eat a giant tub of popcorn *ahem, me, ahem*
When I run or swim, quite often my brain switches to a counting mechanism. I notice my strokes, or my leg movements, or the steps I take, the pacing. When my brain is full of that there’s no room for every-day anxieties and stresses – I get to leave those behind in a blissful hour of just being. How can one experience that with a brain full of attacking, judgemental, thoughts? How does exercise help and heal us in that way?
Sometimes I push a little harder, sometimes I don’t. Both are a celebration in their own way. Both mean I feel pride at my body for moving and living and gaining strength.
The function of exercise is for a healthy mind and body. Exercising as a punishment for food is the anthesis of this. If you’re one of those people, next time you exercise pick a sport or an activity you love. Try and engage your brain into noticing the way your body works; its power and its strength, congratulate your body for its effort, notice when it’s tired, rest when you’re ready, count motions not calories, measure your effort by your satisfaction not your pre-determined goal. See if you can find a happy place with exercise – and one without punishment.
Because here’s the secret – you don’t need to punish yourself for what you ate, ever.