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August 28, 2009 / Katie

From Exercise to Pleasurable Movement

I really hate exercise. I do. It’s boring. It’s hard. It doesn’t feel good.

The word “exercise” conjures up all kinds of images for me. It conjures up the pain of dragging myself out of bed at 5:45 am to do an Abs of Steel video with my mom before school in junior high. Panting as I tried to push my college-age self to run more and walk less around Lake Padden in Bellingham, completely missing the beautiful scenery around me. Fear of being mocked a gym or trying to jog down a city street.

And you know what? I think exercise is bad for us. Yes, seriously. I think making physical activity into something we “have” to do, or into a punishment for being fat, is actually damaging because we end up moving less. Oh most of us start up exercise routines with vigor and resolve, but as soon as we have some tiny motivation to stop—we get an injury, our schedule changes, we just don’t feel like it today, and what’s one day, right?—that’s it, we’re done. Even worse, if we expect exercise to “burn off the pounds” but the scale just doesn’t collude with that, it’s another recipe for disaster. If it isn’t enjoyable or satisfying to us in some way, that is, if we’re not doing it for its intrinsic benefits, then we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

This problem is exacerbated even further when folks who are fat (or even folks who aren’t fat but think they are too fat) start thinking of exercise as a punishment for being fat. “I deserve to have to put in this hard work, because I let myself get fat.”

Let me tell you, this just doesn’t work. When I got my undergraduate degree in education, one of my professors emphatically told us to never, ever give extra homework as a punishment. Why? Because punishments are designed to be something that we hate doing or experiencing. It’s the nature of a punishment—if it felt good it would be a reward. And you don’t want people to psychologically link “I hate doing this” to something that is good for them!

So we all write our own stories about what exercise is, and for the vast majority of us those stories include one or more of the following: 1) the goal of exercise is weight loss; 2) it is something we feel like we “have” to do; and/or 3) it is a punishment for being fat.

This is truly a recipe for disaster; it is setting ourselves up for failure. And for me, and many others, the only thing this leads to is actually just doing less of it. Not only do we abandon the Sweatin to the Oldies video, we abandon the idea of doing anything physical for fun at all. Because we’ve never thought of it as something we’re supposed to like doing.

Health At Every Size proponents typically use phrases like “pleasurable movement” instead of exercise, and I like that. Let me tell you about some of the pleasurable movement I’ve engaged in lately. I’ve been sorting, organizing, and getting rid of things I don’t need anymore. I’ve been working on taping and painting the room I’ll be using as a counseling office at church. I’ve been going to NIA classes. I’ve been cleaning, walking, dancing, making love. All of these things are some combination of enjoyable, creative, and satisfying, and all of them give my body a “workout”—they get my body moving, get my heart rate up, give my muscles a chance to flex and move.

All of these things are more than just physical movement. They are physical movement and creativity. Physical movement and a sense of accomplishment. Physical movement and emotional and spiritual expression. Physical movement and love. These are ways of being fully alive in our bodies and present in the moment.

Now I want to make it clear that I am not saying it is bad to do the things that for me would be “just exercise” (for me, this would be jogging, aerobics classes, push-ups and sit-ups, etc.) because for some people those might not be “just exercise.” Someone who is training to run a marathon by jogging and running several miles every day may get a rewarding sense of accomplishment out of actually running that marathon just as I do out of painting a room. And I love swimming laps—I love the way my body feels and moves in the water—but for some people that would be “just exercise.” So I am not talking about the specific activity being problematic, I’m talking about the attitude with which we approach it.

Exercise is a pretty new construct. Throughout human history, we’ve gotten our physical movement through work and play. It seems that God has created our bodies to do both of these things, and to take pleasure out of these things. In fact, when we’re doing them right, there may seem to be very little difference between work and play. My own definition of that is that “work” is something that gives me pleasure after having finished it, and “play” is something that gives me pleasure in the moment while doing it. You may have a different definition. Either way though, moving through work and play is good for our bodies and it is good for the world. It brings out the best in us; our creativity, our enjoyment, our gifts to society around us, and it brings us good health.

Another problem with the construct of exercise that I want to bring up is the issue of class. Many people don’t have the resources to exercise in the way we are “supposed to.” Some people don’t have time, some don’t have money, some don’t have access to gyms or classes. So even the ability to be talking about the choice whether or not to exercise is a pretty privileged discussion, and I want to acknowledge that. I also want to acknowledge privilege that comes from being able to see physical work as this great, life-giving thing, since I don’t have to do it constantly. I know what it’s like to paint a room for myself to use for something; I don’t know what it’s like to paint the houses of other people day in and day out.

It seems to me that God has created our bodies to be enjoyed, to get work done, to express creativity. God created us, made us in “God’s image,” which I think means we have a bit of the creativity of the Creator within us. We are built to create; to move our bodies in ways that bring things into being. We are not created to sit around all day doing nothing with these glorious bodies, and similarly we are not created for back-breaking (sometimes quite literally) labor that does not bring us joy. For those of us who are privileged enough to have a choice about these things, I hope we can move beyond a construct of exercise, that doesn’t take into account the incredible gift of movement through these fabulous bodies, and move toward a construct in which we find pleasurable ways of moving that bring out our creativity and help us to live fully into the precious gift that is our life.

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14 Comments

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  1. JenniferP / Aug 28 2009 5:11 pm

    What a gorgeous, fantastic post.

  2. LivingTheQuestions / Aug 28 2009 6:18 pm

    Well, I’ve been thinking about starting a blog, but you keep saying what I want to say, and undoubtedly with more grace. Truly: a gorgeous post. And I like your point about the links between creativity and movement: I enjoy “exercise” so much more when it’s in service of something else: making my dogs happy with a long walk, getting myself to work on my own steam (rather than with gasoline), cleaning the kitchen top to bottom, building a garden. This also coincides with thoughts I’ve had recently, about how our culture’s insistence on thinness keeps us so incredibly self-absorbed. If I am worrying about how to use more calories than I consume (according to some bogus online calorie counter), I am just not going to be able to focus as much on the world around me, the people and plants and animals around me.
    Anyway: gorgeous post, yes.

  3. meerkat / Aug 28 2009 7:07 pm

    This still isn’t framing physical activity as something we should do because we want to, rather than something we should do whether we want to or not. Because what if there isn’t a form of exercise I actually enjoy? Then I’m going against God’s plan for my body. So with HAES, I’m not so much kicking myself for not exercising, but kicking myself for not enjoying it enough that I actually want to, because everyone is supposed to want to.

    • Katie / Aug 28 2009 7:31 pm

      Are you saying there is no physical activity whatsoever that you enjoy doing? Because I am saying we need to think beyond exercise and just focus on movement that we enjoy. Some of the examples I gave for myself included things others might consider exercising (walking, NIA classes, swimming laps) but other things do not (cleaning, painting, making love). I honestly had not considered the possibility of someone not enjoying any activity that involves their body moving… and I’m still having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea. Either this is a serious blind spot for me, or we are misunderstanding each other somewhere.

  4. LivingTheQuestions / Aug 28 2009 8:37 pm

    “and undoubtedly with more grace”

    I meant… you are writing with more grace that I think I would manage. On rereading it, I saw that it could look like I was saying the opposite.

    Again, thanks for the post.

    • Katie / Aug 28 2009 10:00 pm

      Yeah, I gotcha the first time around, but I appreciate the clarification :) Thanks for the comment! I’m delighted you’re here, and I absolutely love your username. Living the Questions—seems to be the story of my life. Beautiful :)

  5. wriggles / Aug 29 2009 4:59 am

    Brilliant post, thank you for saying this.

    I am unutterably sick and tired of being told how we all agree that exercise it good for us; we most certainly do not.

    I have lost so much patience with the term, that it has actually come to be almost repellent to me.

    I feel the same way now as I felt after years of pursuing healthy lifestyle-noun, not adjective we move for two reasons, for a purpose e.g. to get from A to B or for the sheer unadulterated joy of it.

    Exercise fits neither therefore is of no interest.

    As for meerkat, I totally hear you, your feelings are correct, that is what happens when you frame movement as exercise, it ceases to be a pleasure.

    It’s not the activities that cause the displeasure, it’s the FRAME (that of exercise)

  6. Lyndsay / Aug 31 2009 10:25 am

    I love this entry. I am about to try gym exercise to see if it’s pleasurable movement because I’m forced to pay for the gym in my student fees. Even I find out I don’t like cardio machines, hopefully I’ll like one of the drop-in classes like nia. That sounds like fun.
    Growing up, most of my exposure to exercise was volleyball, basketball and running, the first two in gym class every single year and the third everywhere. I don’t like any of those three. Though later I found out a bit of basketball outside of gym class is okay. Anyway, gym class gave me a bad idea of exercise. Later I realized physical activity can be fun when doing Ultimate Frisbee, squash and other things with friends. It is harder in winter though if you don’t have much money.

    • Katie / Aug 31 2009 1:27 pm

      Yeah I have actually been putting off going down to the 24 hour fitness because my husband can get super-cheap membership (like $10 a month I think) through his work. I haven’t been swimming in a long time. I just need to get on it; but I’m so anxious about being fat in a gym!

      Anyway, I hope you do find something you really enjoy! I love NIA classes because not only are they just fun (great music, a variety of fun movements) but the instructors I’ve had have all emphasized that it’s supposed to be pleasurable so if something doesn’t feel good, modify it for yourself or do something different! I hurt my back a few weeks ago so I haven’t been able to sustain a whole hour of dancing like that, but I can’t WAIT to get back to it when I’m all healed up :)

  7. Katie / Aug 28 2009 9:58 pm

    I approved this because I was so amused that this post ended up on some kind of weight loss feed, and thought some of my readers would be amused by it too! 8-)

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