Why Bother Exercising?
February is a time for exercise enthusiasm to dwindle and affection for sweet treats to increase. I've also been on a baking kick lately, which is probably not helping my friends either, so I'm certainly to blame. It's also the time when magazines start their "summer diet bikini blitz; lose weight in seconds" spectacular. With that being said, I have to ask the question, why do we exercise or move, and what is our motivation?
1) Achieving a certain visual aesthetic (look trim, long lean, chiseled, etc.)
2) Achieving a certain performance goal (i.e. run/bike/lift a certain amount)
3) Feeling a certain way (movement can connect you to your body; which might make one move better throughout the day, at work, etc)
4) Because we're supposed to, even if we don't like it.
5) Because it helps get us out of pain or discomfort
There are of course a myriad of more complex reasons that we may or may not exercise, and why we may choose the exercise modalities that we do. All of that being said, most mainstream media focuses exclusively on category 1: achieving an aesthetic appearance via exercise or movement. The catch with this is that it neglects the bigger picture of what movement and exercise can do for our bodies on both a cellular, psychological, and neurological level. It's also creating a cycle of extrinsic motivation, based on rewards. It also imposes the notion that a movement teacher must look a certain way, regardless of their age, health, injuries, etc. I've been catching up on some of my body nerd podcasts, including the most recent episodes of Pilates Unfiltered, and one of the guests, Anula Maiberg, said it best, "I can't teach someone to be thin but I can teach someone to move well." Additionally, most teachers or trainers will only see clients once or twice a week for an hour, which means that there is a plethora of other weekly time spent that will affect weight, including eating habits, stress, other exercise, walking, etc. Expecting three hours of weekly work outs to suddenly change your entire aesthetic appearance is unreasonable, at best.
With the other categories of motivation, the goals are most likely very different than with the first category, in that the body's ability to perform and move is being taken into consideration. Aesthetic motivations often divorce the appearance from function (i.e., someone looks in excellent shape but may be in pain or not be performing well). The biggest shift for me in the last ten years was moving into the "how do I feel when I do X," and out of the first category of appearance motivated exercise. I've found this more intrinsically motivated system to be more sustainable over time, rather than a reward based, aesthetic motivated one. This brings me to my next question- does your movement or exercise habits serve you, and what are your larger goals? In working with yoga or pilates clients, sometimes people want to achieve certain poses or exercises which may be way beyond their current skill set. Someone may wish to do a shoulder stand or headstand, but with their lack of upper body strength, it won't actually serve them in a functional way, aside from "achieving the pose." The client might not actually "feel good" after the practice, meaning that it is a destructive or biologically taxing movement choice. The ability to feel sensation in the body, as well as pain, movement awareness, etc, is something that's not heavily emphasized in traditional exercise. Yet, it's something that I think is critical- is your exercise helping you move better, feel better, have more energy, etc? Or have you divorced your ability to feel the body in exercise contexts?
If you have a movement practice, whether it's lifting weights, running, pilates, yoga, or some combination of other disciplines, how does it serve you? How do you feel when you do it (or don't do it), and what would you like to improve? If you're a yoga or pilates practitioner, there are most likely some poses or exercises that don't serve your body well- not every exercise is for everyone, and some movements are destructive. Whatever your habits are, it might be worth an inquiry...after you finish your Valentine's Day treats.