The relationship between exercise and health is not always as positive, despite the wealth of evidence that exercise protects against many health conditions. The social and scientific sanctioning of exercise as beneficial for health can often mask its unhealthy side. A negative relationship with exercise can compromise physical and mental health instead of optimising it.
Cultivating a healthy relationship with exercise can be challenging for different reasons. Whilst it can be tempting to think of an unhealthy relationship with exercise being when someone over-exercises, there's way more to it than that. From my clinical experience, people use exercise as a maladaptive coping mechanism, they are too burnt out to exercise, or they abstain from exercise because they don't feel safe when they connect to their bodies.
Unhealthy exercise can result from various factors that include; personal exercise history, physical condition, emotional experiences, belief systems and sociocultural influences. This might look like; exercising to appease feelings of food-related guilt or shame (emotional), exercising solely for aesthetic reasons (sociocultural) and exercising with inadequate nutrition or whilst injured (physical). Unhealthy exercise tends to be very disconnected. It's engaging in exercise regardless of whether it's safe or self-caring. It is the opposite of being mindful. It's mindless.
Reasons for lack of exercise
This is where the usual advice from the fitness industry gets my goat. When someone doesn't want to move, guilting them into doing so complicates things. Many barriers may prevent a person from engaging in exercise. Understanding that, as opposed to "pushing through", is a good starting point. Too often I hear the word "lazy" when, in fact, the person is experiencing burnout, has low energy availability, is holding a lot of difficult memories associated with exercise or doesn't feel comfortable in certain fitness spaces (especially those to hold marginalised identities) or doesn't feel safe to connect to their bodies (which is more common than you might think).
Another reason is having a rigid idea of what "counts" as exercise. This is why I often use the words movement and exercise interchangeably. For me, they are the same. However, I have had several clients tell me that for them "movement" feels more accessible to connect to as self-caring. See what this is like for you.
So, where to (re)start?
In all cases (and I do mean all), start slow. The biggest mistake I see people make is that they overdo it. Usually, because they are extrinsically motivated. That might look like wanting to do x amount of sessions in a week, wanting to run a specific amount of miles or completing a fitness challenge. Whilst there's nothing wrong with any of these things, it becomes problematic when a person is rigidly set on them.
My post-half-marathon injury
I'll share a personal story as an example. Back in 2012, I trained for and then completed a half marathon. I didn't enjoy any of it. But I had raised money for charity and had told everyone I was aiming to do it in under 2 hours. I did precisely that and it felt horrid. I then needed eight months of physiotherapy afterwards (several soft tissue injuries). I wasn't allowed to run for those eight months either. Honestly, I was okay with that because, for the first time in my life, I didn't want to run.
When I was given the go-ahead to return to running, I was excited about it again. The advice was to stick to a couch to 5 km plan. I remember thinking, "what's the point?". But I followed the advice given. Soon after, I was back to my regular running distances again.
At the time, I put the injury down to my weight and not being built for longer distances (because everything was about my body). But the half-marathon was only 3 miles more than the weekly 10-mile social runs I would do with a running club. How fast did I run those 10 miles? I have no idea because they were social runs. I never timed them. I loved it. I loved chatting to people as we ran, looking at the sites. It was comfortable. And yes, completing 10 miles did bring about a sense of achievement. It was the joyful experiences and the people that motivated my runs.
Mindful movement principles
For some of you, feeling and respecting the difference between healthy and unhealthy movement may be challenging. Here are four guiding principles that will help you reframe exercise as a form of self-care that benefits both your mental and physical health. These principles were developed by Rachel Calogero and Kelly Pedrotty (2007) in a chapter titled 'Daily Practices for Mindful Exercise.
Principle 1: Sensing the self
Movement rejuvenates the body, not exhaust or weaken it. Connect to how your body feels before and after exercise. Ask yourself what kind of movement your body feels like it needs today? Where do you want to move your body? For example, indoors, in nature, alone, with others, with music, in silence, cardio-based, resistance-based? Get a sense of what the body needs. Moreover, continue to do so as you move.
Principle 2: Supporting the self
Movement is a beautiful way to understand your body's cues. Mindful movement enhances the mind-body connection and coordination. It does not cause confusion and dysregulation. Rather than focus on numbers, move your body in a way that feels natural and kind to your body. You'll notice there will be days when you want to get sweaty and days when you want to focus more on flexibility. You might have planned a high-intensity session but notice that your hips feel like they need some strength and conditioning. It doesn't have to be either or, but sometimes it might. Supporting your body and working in partnership with it helps build gratitude for your body and allows you to do and cultivate compassion and acceptance for any of its limitations.
Principle 3: Strengthening the self
Healthy exercise alleviates mental and physical stress. Whereas unhealthy exercise exacerbates and contributes to it. Be mindful of the thoughts that are present whilst you move. Notice whether they are kind and motivational or punitive and harsh. Check how your body recovers from exercise and movement. Is recovery slow? Are you turning up to subsequent exercise sessions feeling revitalised or still stiff from the last one? Frequent injuries, colds, tiredness, low sex drive and poor sleep quality are all possible ways the body can tell us that it is over-stressed.
Principle 4: Enjoying yourself
Reevaluate what you are discounting as exercise. Maybe you like hula-hooping (or is that just me?), dancing around your room, hiking or even Pilates (ahem). You'll know it's mindful when it provides genuine enjoyment. Despite what pop fitness culture would have you believe, exercise should not be painful and punitive. When movement is intrinsically motivated, it is more likely to cause less stress, increase satisfaction and be more sustainable. If you're dreading your exercise, it might signal that you need to switch it up.
Mindful movement is a form of self-care. Healing from a problematic relationship with exercise can be challenging. However, embracing mindful movement is an essential part of the journey to body liberation. With patience and compassion, you can find what works for you.
Calogero, R. and Pedrotty, K., 2007. Daily practices for mindful exercise. In Low-cost approaches to promote physical and mental health (pp. 141-160). Springer, New York, NY.: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/4157/1/Calogero_2007.pdf