Our bodies were built to move. That is the simple, scientific fact. But somewhere along the line, getting our bodies to move has become a burden. For many people (young women especially), exercise can become a black cloud of anxiety and failure to meet expectations. Think about it- how many of us are sitting at our desks, dreading the pain of an hour long spin class or coming up with reasons why we “don’t have time” to go to the gym? We praise each other when we work out, and give ourselves an internal beating when we don’t.
I know I have been there. Growing up, my family was exercise-crazy. Many times I would wake up to find that my siblings had already run six miles together and my parents were on a 50 mile bike ride. Throughout middle school and high school, I felt constantly inadequate around these athletic super- humans. I was plagued by shin splints and despised the elliptical. Partially due to the family attitude towards exercise, I suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression throughout high school and the beginning of college.
And then I discovered the world- literally. Sophomore year of high school, I signed up to participate in a trip through a student adventure travel company. Over the next three years, I ended up going on several trips. Each one involved constant movement- hiking, swimming, surfing, manual labor- you name it. I came to many realizations over the course of these trips. However, one realization changed my life in a very tangible way: exercise does not have to suck. The catch? I needed to change my definition of exercise, expand it from the restrictive definition used by my family and society. Hiking is slow, rhythmic, and contemplative. Surfing consists of fits and spurts of activity, interspersed with long periods of waiting. Manual labor involves lots of walking and bending over, heavy lifting and dragging. You wouldn’t believe how many calories you can burn just by walking around for a whole day.
I am here to argue that there is no “should” and “shouldn’t,” no “bad” “good” or “better” exercise. It is all just movement. Find out what kind of movement makes you happy and keep doing it. For instance, I hate the unnatural positioning of a stationary bike, so I don’t make myself go to SoulCycle. I much prefer the natural movements of running and walking, so I do so on alternate days. I’ve learned to let myself fully enjoy a good power walk without feeling guilty that it’s not “enough.” Whenever I have the opportunity to hike, I take it. Learn what feels good to your body, and learn to listen when it says, “nope, this hurts.” If the elliptical makes you feel like you want to cry, try racket ball or rock climbing. Invite a friend to play tennis. Unless your goal in life is to win a triathlon or the Tour de France, there is no need to make something so necessary so uncomfortable.
Here is the ultimate irony I’ve stumbled upon: the higher the expectations that we impose upon ourselves, the less productive we will be towards that goal. Throughout high school and college, I have slowly let go of my lofty goals for a perfect “fat-burning” workout that will result in a toned, tan, and beautiful body. Focus on the process, not the results. Because in my experience, if you find a physical process that you actually enjoy on its own merit, the results will follow. But by then, they will be irrelevant.