Thursday, February 3, 2011

Big-E Exercise

I have a lot of baggage about exercise.

I've been trying for a while now to get past it, to stop remembering how it felt when I was a teenager and to start moving forward to life as an adult, who wants to be healthily active and feel good about it. I've finally gotten to a point where exercise generally feels kind of nice. Not if it's too rigorous, but a nice walk in the park, or a few rounds of wii sports or a little bit of freestyle dancing can feel really good, can get some tension out of my body and help soothe me in a bad mood. But it was so much not always that way.

When I was young, exercise was just what I was supposed to do in order to lose weight. In my last post about The Sign, I noted that this baggage is why I was so pissed off, and why I think it's so important that people learn that exercise has other benefits. Because this is what I remember - this is what it feels like when the only thing exercise does for you is make you slimmer.

I'm going to stress that I don't mean for this post to reflect things that I was taught about exercise, necessarily. This is just the way that it felt and the things that went through my mind. Even if I were being taught the opposites, these were what i learned.

(ironically enough, I write this post while under doctor's orders to limit my walking due to an oh-so-lovely strained muscle in my foot. Thanks, ice.)

The first thing that happens is that only Exercise with a capital-E counts in your thoughts. Walking doesn't count - going FOR a walk might sometimes count as Exercise, but it generally isn't strenuous enough and you feel lazy if that's all you do. Walking around because you're at the mall for a few hours doesn't count as Exercise, even when you've done a solid few hours of ambling. Swimming with friends doesn't count - Thlingan and I grew up together, and his family had a pool. I remember going over there and feeling the obligation to swim laps, so that my swimming would count as Exercise. Because just swimming around and playing on pool toys and floating didn't count.

 This is all important because you don't feel allowed to feel tired if you haven't Exercised. You don't feel allowed to not Exercise, even if you've been little-e exercising. Because if walking around doesn't count, then you haven't Exercised. And you're supposed to Exercise every single day. Three days a week isn't nearly enough. Try six. Or seven, ideally.

The only real Exercise avaliable is the treadmill in the basement. The one that tracks how many miles you've gone, minutes you've walked, your speed and your calories burned. I was always a slow walker no matter what (and choose to walk for exercise partially because I can't jog any faster than I walk), and I tended to top out at a comfortable speed of about 3mph. I remember at least a few times my dad would walk down and find me Exercising, only to tell me I wasn't going fast enough for it to count as Exercise. I had to be going faster, because walking at what was a sort of clipped pace wasn't good enough. It had to be strenuous. You had to break a sweat, you had to be out of breath. It had to be unpleasant, or it didn't count.

And the calorie count on the treadmill. I'm still thinking through a post about the wrong ideas I got about calorie counts. Suffice to say, once you become aware of calories in a vacuum of context, numbers start to look very scary. I knew how many calories were in the Lean Cuisine meals my mother praised me for eating for lunches. And I knew that even after my requisite half-hour of Exercise, I hadn't gotten nearly that many burned. All of this work, sweat, unpleasantness and out-of-breath, and I haven't even burned a hundred calories yet? How can I even think about being hungry, or wanting a snack later that I haven't preemptively burned away?

You start to get into ruts. For me at least, it's difficult to make new habits, and Exercise never, ever became second-nature. It was often something that skipped my mind because I was busy doing other things, like writing or homework or relaxing. But see, if I was supposed to be Exercising six or seven days a week, and I forgot to do it one day, suddenly I now have an obligation to do it every single other day of the week. And if I forget two days, forget it! I've already fallen short of the goal imposed on me, so why even bother?

When you don't lose weight in a given week, that becomes the biggest mantra. Why Even Bother? Why Even Bother putting yourself through something so unpleasant when it doesn't work? You don't lose weight, ergo Exercise does nothing. Because no one is teaching you that exercise is good for your heart - except to tell you that Exercise will lower your cholesterol so you don't die (you're about twelve years old, for the record). They try to teach you that exercise can help lower stress and help your mood - but the way that you've been taught to Exercise, you only push yourself harder and risk injury if you try to work out while you're stressed. They tell you that it's fun to exercise and that it feels good. They tell you that if your muscles are sore, it's "a good hurt". But it's not. It's not fun, and it's painful, and it brings no benefits. It's not worth it. Why Even Bother?

So you quit.

You rebel. You fight with your parents when they order you to Exercise. You fall in love with writing the way you loved reading before.  You sit on the couch every minute that you can. It becomes a power struggle. When they do get you on the treadmill, you turn the speed up if you hear them coming so you can pretend you're working harder than you are. You learn to cheat. You learn to lie about it. You just want them to stop trying to make you Exercise when it's not worth your Bother. And all the while you feel like you've failed. You're weak, you're lazy. You just don't want to lose weight. You're such a pathetic weakling that you never built up any actual stamina the way they told you that you would. It never got easier. But even if it had gotten easier, they would have told you that you weren't allowed to have it be easy. You would have had to turn up the difficulty even more, and it would never, ever, ever have ended. And it would never have been worth it.

I feel incredibly lucky to be escaping from this mindset. Thinking of Big-E and Little-e exercise is helping me break away from the bad associations. Little-e exercise IS becoming funner, and more easy, and less unpleasant. I'm hoping to start up a yoga class soon and discovering a love of dance, and in NYC I'm walking a good 20-30 minutes daily just to get to class and back. But more importantly is, even as I'm struggling to make sure that I actually do stay active because it's healthy, I'm trying to take the pressure off. If I don't end up getting out one day, it doesn't mean that the rest of the week has to be frantic. If I'm injured or sick and don't exercise, I can pick it up again when I feel better.

I'm not all the way there. I do still freak out about it. And I do have plenty of days where I just don't want to Bother. But I'm learning, and I can feel now, finally, that I'll get to a healthy level of activity as I keep growing. But I write all this up for the people who were like me and need to hear that it didn't have to be this way. And I write it, though they may never read it, for parents who think they're just looking out for their kid's health in forcing Exercise. Yes, it's healthy, yes it's a good goal to have active kids....but that up there is what it felt like.


  1. Hi :) I wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your blog. And also that I've really had some epiphanies about exercise lately. I have the opposite problem from you. I was a serious athlete as a kid, and as an adult it was just what I did to lose weight. I'm working toward getting myself to a place where exercise is what I do because I'm an athlete, and I really love being an athlete. Maybe working toward a goal other than weight loss would help you, too. A race maybe, or being strong enough to participate in some kind of sport (for me, it's roller derby. And skiing.)

  2. that's probably a good idea - part of the trouble is I just don't enjoy vigorous physical activity all that much. I like swimming with friends, and I like walking around, but I don't feel like being an athlete or in an organized sport. I do want to take fencing back up someday, when funds allow it and I can find a place. And I've just stumbled over a nice cheap yoga class that I'm going to try out tomorrow. Structure is going to be good for me, I think, a set time weekly that I can go do a particular thing. It's just the exercise I like is generally not very strenuous.