I counsel and write frequently about mindful eating. This week, it struck me that a lot of my clients have been looking for help with exercising mindfully. They don’t call it that, but I hear things like:
“I feel bad if I don’t run six miles; but after I do that, I am completely wiped out and exhausted the rest of the day”
or “I know I should be exercising more, but I feel demoralized going into the gym”
or “I walked three miles today, but that doesn’t feel like enough.”
In each of these cases, my clients want to move, but they are moving according to some prescription that they hold in their heads -- or that was handed to them by another well-meaning health professional or parent or friend. What they aren’t doing is listening to their own bodies’ wisdom about how much activity is enough or right for them.
Let’s take the example of the runner who feels compelled to run so many miles per day, but whose body is not recovering well from it. Marathon runners know that training requires lots of miles, but it also requires lots of calories from food. If you are running your planned number of miles, but feeling more exhausted than energized, then you are probably running more than your own self-care will allow. Are you eating enough food to sustain and support that level of running, particularly if it’s daily? You may be surprised by just how many calories runners need in order to repair all the muscle fibers and tissues that break down and build up with regular running. In fact, if we don’t eat enough calories, we can’t build muscle doing any kind of physical activity. Muscle building is anabolic, which means that it requires extra food above and beyond the food that our bodies need to survive and function well.
If your body is getting enough food (particularly enough carbohydrates and protein), enough sleep, and you are not training beyond your body’s capacities, you should be able to recover from your physical activity and feel good (albeit a little sore) the next day. If your exercise routine is wiping you out, then it’s time to take a look at your eating and other habits. Maybe your busy lifestyle is tiring enough, and exercising every other day would be more sustainable than daily workouts. Maybe two times per week is really enough for you right now. Just because the Surgeon General makes particular recommendations doesn’t mean that the advice is right for every person under every circumstance. Take a look at what level of exertion and frequency your lifestyle can handle. Try eating more if you feel like you aren’t recovering well between workouts. Many clients are surprised that just adding more food (often carbohydrates) gives them more energy and helps their bodies recover better from physical activity.
High-intensity exercise like running is certainly not for every body. Nor is going to a gym. The person I mentioned above who felt humiliation and shame going to a gym may not be choosing the right form of movement. Often when I interview someone about their exercise habits, I ask them to name ways of moving their body that feel good. If going to the gym and taking the stairs-to-nowhere feels good, so be it. For many, however, gym exercises become boring, repetitive, and something to dread. Often working with a sensitive trainer to mix things up and make movement interesting helps. Finding forms of movement that feel more motivating and fun helps sustain interest. Walking outside -- particularly now while the New England weather is mild and the trees are gorgeous -- will often feed the senses (and fulfill our hunger for nature) much more than staring at a TV in a gym. Clients of mine have discovered dancing, yoga, kayaking, swimming, martial arts, gardening, and other forms of movement that help them feel more connected to their bodies and to the joy of movement. One of my clients recently joined a women’s hockey league and finds it exhilarating and fun; the treadmill wasn’t doing it for her anymore.
I once had an injury and needed to do some strength training to help me get stronger as my knee and hip healed. I hate traditional strength training, even though I know that it is good for my body. I find it boring and it feels pointless to me in the moment, so I have no interest in sustaining it, even though I want to have a strong, able body as I continue to age. Put me in a kayak or on my bike, but don’t make me lift a dumbbell or ride a bicycle that’s nailed to the ground! During my injury recovery, Peter Benjamin, the practitioner who helped me with my healing, made strength work fun. He taught me exercises that I could do with my daughters around the house, threw heavy balls back and forth with me (playing ball is way more fun than lifting weights!), and generally made the experience of strengthening and healing fun and interactive. I’m so grateful for that experience and for what it taught me about what I personally need in order to keep making movement a joy and a part of my life.
Lastly, I frequently hear clients say that they did some walking, or they worked an 8-hour shift on their feet, or they did some stretching and yoga -- but “it’s not enough.” Enough for whom, I ask? Often my clients have Schwarzenegger-like expectations. Our bodies benefit when we ride our bikes to the store, walk from the subway station to work, wait on tables or patients, and dance around in the yard with a toddler. You might get up from your desk if you sit a lot (set an alert on your computer if you need to) and stretch and move in the way that your body tells you it needs. If you tune in, your body will likely tell you how to move. Find ways to be creative and move spontaneously in your life, so that scheduling exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or another to-do list item. And let it be enough.
I just ran a few errands outside on this gorgeous day. I walked for maybe 20 minutes total, and since I saw clients all morning and sat a lot, I unrolled the yoga mat that I keep in my office and stretched my back and hamstrings. I also remembered some of the strengthening exercises that Peter gave me long ago to prevent re-injury and spent a few minutes taking care of my slightly tired, slightly stiff forty-something body. It was probably a total of 35 minutes of “exercise.” This was not Schwarzenegger-level aerobic, strength, or flexibility work, but it was just right for Heidi Schauster on a day when she had already worked a fair amount. I felt good in my body afterwards -- energized, rejuvenated, and not wiped out. I enjoyed the autumn leaves and the fluffy clouds on my errands and out my window. After a short meditative rest (shavasana) to close my movement activities, I went back to my chair. After this bit of movement and mind-clearing, I was able to sit down, feel creative, and write the blog post for this week that wanted to be written.
Keys to Mindful Movement: (Schausten-egger style)
- Find activities that you love and that really energize you. Do you like to move alone, with a friend, or in groups? Do you like high-intensity sweating, gentle yoga, or some of both?
- Listen to your body. If you feel too sore, tired, and spent after exercising, you may be doing too much at a level that is not sustainable -- or your daily activities plate may be too full for that level of physical activity.
- Never ignore injuries. Soreness when you use new muscles is normal, but pain is a message from your body. What is it trying to tell you...?
- Throw out all the “shoulds” that you have about exercise. How do you like to move? How often does movement work with your level of fitness and lifestyle? You can always do more when your body asks for it or your schedule allows, but working out hard and not getting enough sleep, for example, is a recipe for burnout.
- Think outside the box (or gym). Find ways to move in your daily life. And, yes, taking the stairs and walking or biking downtown does count!
Our bodies were designed for movement, yet we sit and stare at screens more and more these days. We need to move more than ever, but if we mindlessly exercise -- not listening to our bodies and what they are telling us about what feels good (and what feels lousy), then we can develop a challenging relationship to physical activity that is not unlike the struggles with food that are so common among us today.
Get out and play... Smell the roses or the crisp autumn air... Shake your thang...
Movement, like eating, is a pleasure that sustains us and should remind us that being in a body is not so bad. Honor you body’s wisdom.
What kind of movement are you hungry for? Today... In this moment...