November 19, 2014

Stop “Shoulding” Yourself to Exercise: Revitalizing Fitness with Mindful Movement.

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*Update via The New York Times: “…a timely new study offers encouragement, suggesting that by paying more attention to the experience of exercise itself, even the most reluctant of exercisers might begin to find pleasure in movement.” Read the full article.


Do you find yourself exhausted even just thinking about exercise?

Perhaps you are experiencing a negative relationship with exercise and movement.

How about this idea instead?

If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.

The craze of fitness and thinness in our culture has placed our attention on the wrong things. Exercise is likely to become boring and monotonous when individuals are only focused on calories, weight, muscle sculpting or speed. I love running. Running is my passion.

And yes, I’ve heard it all. “you love running?! It’s so boring. Why run when you have nowhere to go…” But for me, I feel alive and grounded when I am in nature, trail running. So maybe running is just not your thing. If that’s the case, then find your passion and do it. Intentionally set time aside and really allow yourself to enjoy it. Exercise and movement are prime times to connect with the mind and enjoy the body.

Here are some things that can help us be more grounded and present in physical exercise:

1) No music or distraction.

Pull out those ear buds and connect with the environment. Let’s use our senses to notice the world around us. When outside, listen to what is around you.

Are there birds chirping, cars running, people talking? Really see what is in the environment. How many different kinds of trees, birds or buildings are around? Take note of physical sensations. Feel your hair brushing across your neck and socks around your ankles. What scents are in the air; dirt, leaves, a freshly mowed lawn? Take time to be present in the environment and in your body. Oftentimes, people use music or podcasts to distract themselves. When individuals try to just “get through” exercise it likely feels monotonous, dull and unexciting.

Exercise becomes exhilarating and more fulfilling when connecting with the self, the earth and communing with the world around.

“If your mind is dirty you can run 10,000 miles, but where have you gotten? If you go for a 1-mile run and you’re passionately engaged with the world, who cares about the other 9,999?” ~ Scott Jurek


2) Attune and attend to the body.

It is important to stop ignoring the body and become mindful of our experience of pain or discomfort.

Allow and attune to sensations of pain. Notice if there is a storyline that comes along with the pain. Become familiar with thoughts and fears like: “will this pain ever go away?” “Is this pain a more serious symptom of something else?” “Are my lungs collapsing?!”

Oftentimes, the discomfort we feel is less intense when we detach from the storyline and actually allow ourselves to feel the pain in its raw state. Here are some tips on noticing pain detached from a storyline: Locate where and notice how the discomfort moves through the body. What kind of pain is it, burning, stretching, soreness, pulsing? When we stop viewing pain and discomfort as an enemy we can allow it to be a kind messenger.

3) Finding motivation.

Feelings of dread, apprehension or exhaustion are common even before starting to exercise. Once again, explore these thoughts in a kind manner.

When we allow ourselves to feel challenging emotions, we will notice storylines. Fear of failure and injury are common thoughts underneath apprehension. When we curiously explore these fears we will notice how they affect our relationship with fitness and ultimately ourselves. Permitting these feelings builds awareness and self-compassion. Beliefs about ourselves will transform when we consciously invite them into our exercise practice.

There is much that we can learn about ourselves, our fears and our dreams through movement. Exercise is an excellent way to learn about how we relate to and value ourselves.

4) Gentleness and exertion.

Music and podcasts can be so distracting that we can ignore our physical feelings and ultimately what our body needs. Many times, people push past the point of exhaustion. If we find ourselves pushing too hard, we will likely not want to exercise again because our experience has been painful and unenjoyable.

When we provide compassion to our exercise practice we will slow down and listen to our bodies. When feeling tired or feeling sick it is okay to stop. Allowing permission to sit in the shade, stretch for a while, and stop in the middle of a workout are all ways to provide compassion for our experience while attuning to our needs.
On the other hand, we can push ourselves a little harder when feeling good.

Exercise can also become boring and tedious when keeping the same pace or difficulty level. When we push ourselves a little harder, pick up the pace or go a little farther we will be proud of ourselves and feel good. Listening to our bodies needs allows us to be gentle when needed while allowing growth and advancement.

“If we do not push ourselves enough, we do not grow, but if we push ourselves too much, we regress. What is enough will change, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In that sense, the present moment is always some kind of beginning.” ~ Sakyong Mipham



5) Mix it up.

Finding a new trail, a different dance class, or joining a class with a friend provides refreshment and joy into our exercise practice. Keep things interesting by switching up the environment. Run in the rain or the snow. Try Bikram Yoga. Join a hip hop class. Go for a bike ride to the library. We can liberate ourselves from dutiful exercise when we engage in movement and exercise for the joy of it rather than because we “should”.

“Humans aren’t built to sit all day. Nor are we built for the kinds of repetitive, small movements that so much of today’s specialized work demands. Our bodies crave big, varied movements that originate at the core of our body.” ~ Scott Jurek

6) Don’t give up—give it time.

Building endurance and strength takes time. It may be uncomfortable in the beginning and at times throughout one’s fitness. That is okay and to be expected. Be patient and allow time to build up duration, fitness and speed goals.

Above all, do what you love. If you don’t love it simply don’t do it!


“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” ~ Rumi



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Author: Erica Cohen

Editor: Renée Picard

Photos: courtesy of the author 


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