Couch Potato to Athlete?

The most commonly disregarded piece of medical advice is to exercise. Its health benefits are enormous, wide reaching, and unquestionable.

So why, even when faced with warnings of dire health consequences if we don’t exercise, do most of us continue to avoid, resist, and procrastinate on getting our bodies moving?

In my experience, there are three basic camps into which we seem to fall. One is the denial camp. We see ourselves as people who exercise, but really aren’t doing it. If, when you look in the mirror you see a body that isn’t obese; if as you go through your day you aren’t stiff or in pain; if you think of yourself as a reasonably healthy, active person, and if you have no trouble doing the basic activities of your life, you may just assume that you’re doing enough to keep yourself fit and healthy–even if the last real exercise you did was to go for a hike two months ago. Denial is common in young, busy people, as well as in people who were once athletic but aren’t paying attention to the changes in their bodies. The basic belief is that the body is resilient and will easily bounce back when we’re not so busy doing something else. Then comes the shock of looking in the mirror one day and realizing that the “aging” that only happened to those “other” people suddenly applies to you.

Most of us, however, KNOW we “should” be exercising more. We just don’t. We’re in the resistance/procrastination/excuses camp. Somewhere in our identities, we just don’t see ourselves as people who exercise. Maybe we laugh with our friends about being couch potatoes. And we do find that most of our friends easily relate to feeling out of shape, tired, fat, and making any excuse not to exercise. It may be a result of childhood or adolescent experience of being the last one picked for the kickball team, being teased or bullied for one’s body type or level of coordination, skill, strength, and agility. Most women, especially as we age, think our bodies are unacceptable and feel shame and fear at the prospect of being seen in a swimsuit, a yoga outfit, running clothes or gym attire–much less being seen trying to do an activity we can barely do. The memory of being laughed at, or laughing at and judging other girls or women who dared to be exposed as being that fat or skinny, uncoordinated, awkward, clumsy, slow, is enough to keep most of us far away from any situation that would trigger those reactions. When I was a teen, even being tall and strong were the opposite of the desirable “cute and pretty” object of the boys’ adoration that made one popular. Unmentionable was the risk of being thought to be a lesbian–which went with the image of being athletic if one wasn’t a cheerleader or gymnast. What mattered more than anything was being popular.

There’s a HUGE amount of past negative conditioning around exercise that those of us now in our 60’s and 70’s–women at least–experienced when we were in our formative years. I believe it’s true for men as well, but in a different way. For men, it was more an issue of being shamed as adolescents for being skinny, weak, uncoordinated, short, fat, slow, instead of big, muscular, strong, and athletic. The only negative downside of being athletic was to be thought of as a “dumb jock”– but in my experience this was less of an issue in public high school than it was in college, when intelligence brought more social status. Certainly for men, financial success later in life gives one more social status than athleticism alone. Thus, the priority to work rather than exercise creates the result of not exercising when time seems limited and there are “more important” things to do.

The third no-exercise camp is the camp of obesity, illness, pain, and/or injury that creates physical limitations. Shame may play into the picture, but the largest factor is simply the difficulty of moving. The greatest hurdle is finding some way to get moving that doesn’t hurt or otherwise exacerbate one’s physical problems. This often involves learning new skills, getting special training, and/or using special equipment.

Because of my belief that the presence of pain and failure to heal from illness or injury always have psychological roots, and my experience seeing people quickly heal from seemingly intractable pain, to me the first step in relief is to explore these roots–before investing a lot of time and expense into physical exercise. If there’s a shortcut, why not take it?

For some of us, the pain, illness or other limitation may provide an unconscious way to get something else we’re not even aware we are trying to get–attention, validation, an excuse not to take risks we’re afraid to take, distraction from having to face our own lack of integrity.

Okay. All those theories are nice, and one or more of them may have you nodding in recognition. But what do you DO?

In my experience, self love and acceptance are every bit as important to the outcome of a healthy body as a daily exercise routine. Practicing loving, rather than rejecting yourself, despite your denial, excuses, resistance, procrastination, fear, pain, neediness, guilt, and shame, is an absolute requirement for sustaining any healthful change in behavior as well as for getting the most out of that change. It also has a direct, positive effect on the body, even without any external change in behavior. Therefore, this is the first step.

For some of us, taking action may go hand-in-hand with building self love and acceptance. It gives us something of which to be proud. Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword that can just as easily be used for self abuse when one is not taking that action, or used as a prod to drive one into overdoing it. It’s conditional love.

I find it healthier to believe that you are worthy of love, respect, and acceptance without having to earn it or prove anything. In other words, you are worthy just because you are. Everything contrary that you’ve learned along your life is just social and cultural conditioning that won’t serve you in living fully, joyfully, and healthily for years to come.

With that belief as a foundation, the next step is to begin to discover just how much you are already moving. Start with zero as the baseline, rather than measuring yourself against some ideal or long shot goal. Just allow yourself to be curious. You’re breathing, right? That means you have at least that much external/visible movement going on. Your heart is beating, and your blood is moving around, right? That means you have at least that much internal movement going on. Gold stars!

What else are you already doing every day? Getting out of bed? Walking or rolling your wheelchair to the bathroom? Sitting down? Standing up? Wiggling your leg when you’re sitting there in your chair? Lifting your arm to open the refrigerator or lift a fork to your mouth? Chances are there’s a LOT you are doing every day. This is the second step–just noticing, increasing your awareness of your movement. Research shows that just keeping track of moving causes people to move more. That’s one reason movement trackers like “Fitbits” are so popular and effective. We feel successful when we can see tangible evidence of what we’re doing, even if it’s just a digital count. Most of us know that it takes time to build muscles and gain strength, flexibility, and endurance, and most of us have given up when we don’t have any way to notice progress.

Next is choosing to move more. It’s best if you go for the smallest possible increment. One more step. One unnecessary lift of your arms over your head. One minute of stretching. The smaller the goal, the more likely you’ll reach and even want to exceed it.

Then comes adding another small increment. If it was one step yesterday, maybe it’s two today, and three tomorrow. Keep it feeling EASY, and keep it constant. Keep it in the realm of curiosity, where you get to discover with delight just how easy it is to do a little, and just a tiny bit more.

Any time you find yourself slipping into self abuse–whether criticizing yourself for not being or doing enough, or pushing yourself too hard, it’s time to return to step one.

These three steps are, in my experience, what it takes to rediscover the joy of moving. Once you have that, you can decide when you’re ready to engage in something more structured, like a class, a walking route, a gym membership, a swimming program, or whatever sounds like fun to you. If, in considering your options, you find yourself recoiling in horror at the thought, it’s time to go back to step one. Those early experiences of rejection of your body and its abilities may take a while to outdo with the power of your love.

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