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.