From “exercise as punishment” to “exercise as self-care”

(content warning: references to disordered eating and self-punishment)

I am often asked, “How do you find the time to exercise?” I think this question comes from folks who are busy, just like me, but who also maybe expect exercise to be a bummer and uncomfortable, something they “should” do rather than something they want to do. It’s easy for these cultural messages, like fat-shaming messages and obesity concern-trolling (“I’m just worried about your health!”) to turn something that could be fun and enjoyable into something punishing.

If we go beyond these critical cultural messages about “diet and exercise” being the gateway to a moral and worthy existence, we can find that there are so many ways to have a body and so many ways to move it. To me, choosing something that is enjoyable, gives me positive feedback, offers a community, shows me growth over time, and that I can commit to consistently has been the best way for me to “find the time” to exercise.

It took me several years to find a kind of movement that I enjoyed doing. In that process, I also began learning a practice of self-care through developing protective boundaries that support me doing what I choose to do with my body. One of those boundaries is to make a sincere commitment to myself to show up for myself. For me, that means committing to my gym schedule unless I am overtrained, overstressed, or need to compromise for work or family.

My ideal gym schedule is somewhere between 3-5 days per week depending on what the rest of my life requires from me and what I feel I can commit to, and so that is what is programmed for me. I’ve tried anywhere from 3-7 days per week, and I’m at my happiest when I commit to four days a week and give myself bonus days if I feel up to it. I will adjust this frequency depending on what else is happening in my life, such as stress, travel, or work and home obligations, but unless I am severely ill/injured or on vacation, I have a commitment to myself that I trust my program and show up as planned.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE HERE: I do this not because I think I’m “bad” if I don’t go to the gym. I do this because of how much of my self I have invested in my lifting. My community is there. I can see proof of my work making me stronger. Lifting gives me consistent feedback only when I consistently show up and put in the work. I need this feedback in my life, and over time I have benefitted from it.

My history with exercise is complicated. As a young person, I enjoyed moving my body.  As an adult, going to the gym turned into a form of punishment. It became a painful experience of taking out all my hatred of myself onto my body. I would also use exercise to punish myself for eating too much. Yes- I have a history of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. While I won’t get into the details of that, I will say that weightlifting and CrossFit coupled with intuitive eating and psychoanalysis have transformed my punitive and self-destructive mind by helping me understand my relationship with myself, and opening up new options for interacting with my body besides self-hatred and self-punishment.

Eating, exercise, and training can actually be containing, supportive, encouraging experiences, and can offer me positive feedback and a sense of wellness and goodness. I’m so fortunate to have discovered this! But I did not stumble upon it by accident. I realized over the course of a couple of years of exercise-as-punishment that how I was approaching my body was unsustainable, and only served to reinforce my self-loathing.

Psychoanalysis gave me the freedom and psychic space to heal, and I could begin to give myself permission to make different choices about how I approached exercise. Now, lifting has become a space where I have committed to taking care of myself. It has given me an opportunity to trust the process. I have seen amazing strength and skill gains through my programming, but the programming only works if I stick with it.

My commitment to training is different from my commitment to exercise. When there is a competition coming up, I train for that. I made certain trade-offs in the rest of my life to prioritize training. But when there is not a competition on the horizon, my goals and commitments are different. For example, at the moment I am on summer break from my doctoral program, so I have a lot more time to commit to training. Once school begins again after my contest, I know my priorities will shift. At that time, I expect that my focus in the gym will be continue increasing my strength, but at a slower pace since I will have much less time to train and to recover than I do now. During the school year, I will focus more on exercise to support my life as a therapist and student rather than on the intensity of training and competition, which sucks up a lot of psychic and emotional space (not to mention 12-15 hours a week of actual gym time).

In my next post, I’ll share with you some things that have worked for me to keep myself consistent and accountable. Until then, I hope if there’s one thing you remember is that this is all a process. This is your life. Life itself is a process, one which unfolds and shifts and grows and evolves. There is only one final outcome, and that’s death, so everything else is simply a part of being an alive human being. You are always learning! You will make mistakes as you learn! And if you pay attention to your wins and your errors, and don’t let the shame monster gobble you up, I believe you can learn how to live your life in the best way that works for you.

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My cat srsly knows how to self-care. We can all learn a lot from hanging out with my cat.

One thought on “From “exercise as punishment” to “exercise as self-care”

  1. Pingback: How I balance life with training | The Mental Life of Weightlifting

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