In last week’s post and episode we focused on an issue many of you had reached out about, the changes you’re seeing in your eating during this difficult time in quarantine. So many of you reached out saying it was hugely helpful and that it eased your mind, while also giving you some helpful and practical tools to guide you throughout this process. In some of the emails, comments and messages I received this past week, a few of you mentioned how you had been engaging in overeating, or having mindless moments with food, and then following these with restriction (oh that darn pendulum swing!), and more often than not, overexercising to compensate. Others reached out saying that you’ve been worried because you’re much less active during quarantine and are concerned with how this will affect your body. No matter where you lie in the spectrum of exercise worry and overthinking (unable to exercise at all due to anxiety and stress, or overdoing it), today I want to give you some support in this specific area, just like we did with mindful eating.
In today’s episode and post I’ll try to help you get reconnected to a movement practice that is perfectly suited for you, I’ll reframe our motivation to exercise in the hopes that we can pause that big pendulum swing from nothing to too much. I’ll give you great ideas of exercises and workouts you can do from home, and I’ll give you my favorite tool for finding the type of exercise that will work for you, based on tuning into the wisdom of your own value systems.
What is mindful exercise?
Like I mentioned last week, mindful eating is simply the act of being attuned before, during, and after the moment of eating. It is the ongoing practice of being present with the signals your body sends you when it comes to hunger and fullness and getting to know the language of your body, both when it comes to physical sensations and emotional ones, getting to know what foods satisfy you and which don’t, taking in the information on nutrition we have, and tying this in with what works for us when it comes to our time restraints, money restraints and preferences. It’s all about being able to push that pause button between the stimulus and the response so we can make attuned and mindful choices. As it is with eating, so too is it with exercise.
Our bodies are designed to move and take great benefits from daily movement, both physically and mentally. Exercise (and any form of movement can fall into this broad category, not just a soul cycle class) can help us when it comes to our cardiovascular health, immunity, bone health, mobility as we grow older, hormone balance, stress reduction, anxiety reduction and so many others. It also happens to be one of the best ways to connect with your body in this world we live in, in which we’re constantly overworked, overstressed and disconnected.
In this specific way, it is one of the easiest ways to get out of that overthinking mind, and tuned into our body and its signals, developing that much needed interoceptive awareness and in turn also improving our relationship with food because of it. From a psychological stand point, not only is it extremely helpful for our mental health, but it can be so healing when it comes to developing a positive body image and our confidence.
Where did we go wrong with our relationship with exercise?
I think most of us are probably familiar with two sides of the exercise equation, one long forgotten, and the other probably so present you still might be struggling with it.
So a little backstory. I hated gym class at school. I mean, hated with the fire of a thousand suns kind of hate. I didn’t like group sports or anything where I had to catch, kick, bat or throw a ball. I was afraid of the flips and upside-down-ness of gymnastics. I enjoyed swimming but the minute my mom put me on a swim team and they forced me to do hundreds of laps it took the joy right out of it. Here’s what I did love. I LOVED my ballet and dance classes outside of school. I loved the music, sometimes with a live piano in ballet. I loved the movement, the focus on coordination and learning the steps, the gratifying feeling of hitting all my marks and the almost spiritual sensation that comes when you move your body to beautiful music. I loved that it wasn’t only about seeing results in time, miles, weight lifted or points scored, but that my teachers taught me just as much about the perfect 5th position as they did about feeling the music, expressing feeling through your face and body movements, getting into a character, changing the tempo if the music became faster or slower. I was in love. I was also never the best, I started late, but I loved it with a passion. When asked back then if I enjoyed exercise or if I even did exercise I would also say: “no, I hate exercise and I only do it when they make me at school”. All the while I was going to ballet and dance classes every single day and being active every single day.
The second scenario came a few years later, the first time I started receiving signals and messages from everywhere around me. The one that probably plagues you if you’ve decided to read or listen to this episode. I learned, as most of us do, that in our diet centric culture, with impossible beauty and fitness standards for most of us common mortals, that exercise was seen and used to alter your body shape, lose weight, counteract the effects of your eating, or pay in advance for fun experiences with food you will have later. This is where our relationship with exercise started going downhill.
We’ve taken it, sometimes without realizing it, from a fun, delicious, feel-good activity our bodies love and thrive on, to the perfect self-punishing weapon. Built with our own hands, parts bought with our very own money, all to our detriment.
Then we wonder why we can’t stick to it, find the motivation to exercise, or make it a part of our life without it invading our every thought, and without it creeping into our mental health when it comes to self esteem and body image.
If we had someone in our life who we were having a toxic relationship with, someone giving us reprimands after eating, someone stopping us at the gate demanding more before we sit at the table, someone making us judge, sometimes daily, what may or may not have changed in our waist size. If we had this person tell us that 15 minutes isn’t enough so we might as well not do it, or that 1 hour isn’t enough so we’d better cancel our plans and stay at the gym for double that time. If we had this punishing friend that was hurting our self esteem when injury, lack of motivation or a stressful time kept us away from our regular practice. If we had this friend also rebel, pushing us to overeating because we feel we won a prize after exercise, and then the same friend turns around to shame us right after, beginning the cycle again. If we had a person like this in our lives, it would be so easy to see that this relationship isn’t healthy, and we’d make sure to step away and find ourselves a new one. Our relationship to exercise has turned into this unkind friend for so many of us and it’s time to change it.
Changing the spotlight
We’ve all had this connection between weight loss, altering our body size and exercise ingrained in us. It’s going to take some time to shift the focus, but ironically, it’s with that change of focus, with reducing the control and obsession, that we’ll actually find a peaceful place with exercise, and in many cases, it will become a greater and more constant part of our lives.
If we imagine a stage, with a spotlight shining on that core belief that tells us quietly “you need to exercise to change your body because your body isn’t good enough”, I want you to picture it, and make a mental effort to turn it off, move it to the side, and turn it back on, this time, shining on motivations that are kinder, more sustainable and more important.
What should I turn the spotlight on?
Exercise and movement can help you improve many aspects of your health regardless of what your body looks like now (cardiovascular health, bone health, immunity, blood pressure, among many other health markers).
Exercise and movement can help you tune into your body and its signals, improve interoceptive awareness and that mind body connection that can in turn help your relationship with food as well as give you a very grounding feeling that helps ease all the pressures we’re under.
Exercise and movement improves your body image and self esteem, even when your body doesn’t visibly change.
Exercise and movement helps us sleep better, giving our bodies ample time to rest, digest, regenerate tissues and heal.
Exercise and movement takes us out of that busy monkey mind, relieving stress and anxiety.
Exercise and movement can help us disconnect from stress and re-connect with other people if we do this with others.
Exercise and movement can be a powerful moment of connection with ourselves.
Exercise and movement improves our creativity.
Exercise and movement boosts our energy (contrary to what many people believe).
Exercise and movement, especially when you can shift the focus and that spotlight, can help you practice living in the gray, reducing black and white thinking and other cognitive distortions (check out ep. 143 and 144) that are so damaging to our relationship with food.
Exercise and movement can mean more time with family or friends.
Exercise and movement can mean more time spent with our beloved companion animals or our kids.
Exercise and movement can mean more time outside in the fresh air or in nature.
Exercise and movement means we’re listening our body’s need to stretch, move and and use our muscles, tendons, joints and bones, in a way they’re designed to do and that will keep our bodies agile.
Exercise and movement can mean a path back to our center and our sense of ease and well-being.
We'‘ve been conditioned by society to think that a smaller size of jeans is the end all be all, but isn’t this list more important? Even if you still worry abut the jeans (trust me I get it!), what if we just gave the other perspective a try for a bit, leaving the jeans in the dark, back part of the stage, giving these new motivations their shining moment, and we see what happens.
Exercise in times of quarantine, what you can do from home
I’ve found movement to be so incredibly helpful in stressful times like these, but we also might be facing restrictions in what we can do. In Spain where we live, we aren’t permitted to walk outside except for walking our dogs for a very restricted time period and only within 250 meters from your front door and back. Gyms are closed, tracks are closed, swimming pools and sports centres are closed. This doesn’t mean though, that movement and all its benefits, are out of reach. There are so many types of exercise and workouts you can do from your own living rooms, that many years ago we created a whole library with some of our favorite options, both free and paid programs that you can browse through until you find something that is right for you, Netflix style. From pilates, to cardio, to yoga, to high-intensity, boxing, dance, martial arts, weight training. You can take a look at our favorites by clicking the button below, but before you head on over, remember that we’re talking about mindful exercise, and that means tuning inwards, letting your body, time restraints, energy levels, likes and dislikes guide your choices, not external rules or regulations.
Digging into our value systems to get even more mindful regarding exercise
Recently I did one of the most powerful personal exercises I’ve done in a while, and it had to do with letting our own value systems guide the way when it comes to our eating and the overall way we react to life. It’s a powerful mindfulness exercise that will tell you so much about yourself.
In this exercise we were given a list of hundreds of values, things like honesty, kindness, courage, safety, security, generosity, friendship, commitment, community, professionalism, patience, serenity, health, connection, confidence, and the list went on and on. We were meant to pick the top three. It was a list of hundreds of values so you can imagine how hard that was!
Typical me, I narrowed down the selection to my top ten, then chose my three from there, then used a green marker to circle many others that I felt drawn to and wanted to focus on, then I used a purple pen to circle ones that I feel so connected to but that I still need to work on. Then I wrote the word “less” next to the value of “control” and “perfectionism”. Pretty soon the page had 5 different colors, circles, dots and a legend below. I know… yikes!
The thing is, I didn’t realize just how much value systems influence our lives and our decisions, and just how much we can refocus our attention when we notice what is truly important to us.
Yes, of course I’m going to share what my top ten and three were, because I’m getting to how this helped me with my exercise journey.
My top ten: Calm, fidelity, grace, humility, insightfulness, kindness, grace, love, loyalty and security.
My top three (almost impossible to choose as all of these I just mentioned and many others are so important to me): calm, humility and kindness.
Others I circled included things like: awareness, bravery, commitment, gratitude, honesty, simplicity, imagination, intelligence, decisiveness, compassion, community, family, expressiveness, connection, enthusiasm, energy, confidence and the list went on an on with little marks of many colors.
My values, my movement
When I did my values exercise I was going through a particularly difficult time going through the loss of our beloved dog of 18 years Nala. The last few weeks of her life had been so stressful and painful, and the grief (which rattled all previous grief) had been so difficult to navigate. My body told me in so many ways that exercise was out of the question. I was too sad to do my usual workouts even though I knew exercise would boost my mood. My body felt heavy and overwhelmed to run outside. I got too teary eyed with yoga. All I could do at first was take walks with Carlos and our dog Vega (not realizing that this was my way of my body saying exactly what type of movement I needed. Why so many of us ignore walking as a wonderful form of exercise I’ll never know!). When I did this values exercise, a few words started linking together in an invisible chain that suddenly made perfect sense:
Calm, grace, serenity, confidence, enjoyment, playfulness, creativity, poise. All things I had marked on my list. All things that reminded me of my time on the barre in my ballet class, with my Lithuanian and Russian teachers marking the steps, and the songs of Tchaikovsky on the piano. As if by magic, the next day I saw an ad (and have seen many since), of online ballet classes for adults. I bought my first few videos, and thus ended my hiatus from exercise, going from thinking I just couldn’t do it, to finding joy in something I had long lost, since I stopped dancing after my mom died many years ago.
What’s new? Everything!
When we go through any challenging times, and the COVID-19 quarantine certainly qualifies, it’s normal to need a new normal. It has happened to me so many times throughout my life. This is where mindful exercise comes in. We can tune back into how we’re feeling, what our bodies feel like trying, we can dig into our value systems and find what we’re craving emotionally (so important!), and give it to ourselves in our movement practice. This will not only strengthen our bodies, but especially our hearts and minds.
This way someone who has their values centered on energy and strength might love the power of weightlifting.
Someone who values community might love the group sports I dreaded as a child, and even if group sports aren’t permitted now, you can gather the family in the den and do a zumba class together, or do a live streaming class with many other people joining from afar, enlist some of your friends so you know you’re all dong it together..
Someone who values calm and tranquility might find joy in yoga.
Someone who values power and being ferocious might enjoy boxing.
Someone who values achievement might love any sport with rankings and races.
Someone who values awe and wonder might find hiking in nature the best fit.
When times change and our focus changes, we can reconnect with ourselves and do this exercise again, and modify what we do. I’ve had periods in which I love running because I love connecting with nature. I’ve had moments in which I’ve loved very fast paced dancing and others in which a more technique based and calm approach like ballet works like magic. This is mindful movement and mindful exercise. It means the cues of what, how much and when to move come from you, not external sources.
I hope our little workout library helps you find some joy in movement in these tough times, and if you’re interested in doing a similar values exercise to the one I did, click here for a good list of values to choose from.
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