Do you hate exercise? Do you dread making yourself go to the gym? Does it feel icky, hard and miserable? I have a few ideas that may help you.😎👌🏻 Hopefully you will see something here that will help shift you in to a more joyful and fun relationship to exercise – one that is filled with ease and grace.
I began talking about this a little bit on my Instagram stories a couple weeks ago, and I got so many responses! People really struggle with this, y’all. And I totally get it because that SO used to be me.
Given that there are literally about 100 times the number of people here on my blog than on my Instagram following, I felt it was important enough to talk about it over here. Hopefully this will bring more eyes on this issue, and therefore more help to people who are struggling with this.
Why people hate exercise
Resistance to exercise is very, very common. Any time you feel resistance to something that is actually good for you, it is a great time to reflect and figure out why.
There are two really common reasons I hear from my peer group with regards to hating exercise: (1) I don’t enjoy it, and (2) I am not losing any weight, so why bother?
Let’s address the weight loss one first. This one breaks my heart, to be honest. The belief I hear in that is that losing weight is all that matters. Heartbreaking, yet totally understandable in our current culture’s attitude toward weight and health.
I’m not losing weight, so why bother?
To see weight loss as the only benefit to exercise is extremely narrow and misguided, and let me explain why.
The latest in weight science suggest that our weight is not as controllable as we think it is, especially in the long term. This can be hard to hear at first, but ultimately it can bring so much freedom.
I dove into researching this hard after the birth of my daughter. I wanted to model a really great body image and a good relationship to food and exercise. I read and searched high and low, not just for any answer, but The Answer that was right for me. So this next bit is based on all that studying.
I first learned about this from Dr. Sandra Aamodt (plus, many others) and her work in neuroscience. I encourage you to check out her TED talk for a high level summary/ Cliff’s notes version of her work. She is amazing, and I am so thankful for her willingness to question the official narrative.
To understand how the brain regulates our weight, we have to dive into food a little bit. Food and exercise are linked, and they both affect how your body manages energy and weight.
You must know that our weight is managed by three different regions of the brain (that we know about, anyway): (1) the executive center, (2) the punishment reward system and (3) the energy balance system.
The executive center is the region we are most familiar with. It is the part of the brain that directs our action and our choices, and it is the only function our current culture acknowledges with regard to weight management.🙄
The executive center is like the CEO, and it takes on very structured, masculine type energy. It sets goals and makes choices to achieve those goals.
The resources in the executive center of the brain are finite and limited, meaning that you only have so much focused attention available on any given day.
This implies that if you devote a large amount of executive function to your food and/or exercise, you have less to devote to your family, career, social life etc.
Overuse of the executive function to try and manage weight may also cause you to become overly preoccupied with functions that (in healthy-minded, balanced people) are largely subconscious. When you relax around food and exercise, this frees up your executive energy for other things. You can read more about how this might play out in a post from my archives: 10 things that are worse than being fat, all caused by dieting.
So why on earth would you want to loosen the reigns on food, exercise and weight management?
Weight set point theory
Scientist are starting to see evidence that our brain chooses what weight we need to be behind the scenes, apart from our conscious mind. The brain chooses a safe weight, more likely a weight range of ten to twenty pounds or so. It can vary from person to person.
We don’t get am official memo, of course.😜 So if you want to know your set point, eat and move normally, without restricting or trying to create a calorie deficit. Eat intuitively and with your natural hunger cues. You will most likely arrive in this range where your body wants to be.
It is the weight that is effortless for you to maintain. It is the weight where you can get ice cream with your friends, or enjoy dinner out occasionally and live your life without stressing and obsessing over food or exercise.
When the body dips below this range, our brain may enact several behind-the-scenes mechanisms to help restore us to its desired weight.
Here is the rub, though: Our brains have little regard for BMI charts or cultural preferences. Individuality and body diversity are real.
Furthermore, the body has the ability to raise its preferred set point. Also, it is more likely to see set point rise than it is to see it fall. Perhaps this is due to most of human history, where food shortage was much more of a threat than over abundance.
Want to know what the most likely way is to raise your brain’s preferred set point weight? Prolonged restriction, weight loss or calorie deficit.😳 Yes, you read that right. It’s a cruel but true reality. Dieting and over exercising has the high likelihood of raising your brain’s preferred weight. And hardly anyone is talking about this.
So what are the behind-the scenes parts of the brain that do this, and how do they work?
Punishment reward system
This system will probably sound familiar to you, once I verbalize what takes place. When our body dips below our brain’s preferred weight range, or even if it sense the possibility for restriction, our brain will start sending out extra signals to try and entice us to eat more!
It does this by releasing certain hormones into our bloodstream. You can read Dr. Aamodt’s book (Amazon affiliate) if you want to know all the glorious science-y details.🤓 I’ll try to stick (mostly) to laymen’s terms over here.
Food will taste so much better to you, and you will feel physically hungrier. Food will have much more of a pull than it does for somebody not restricting. Emotional eating will become almost certain because you have primed yourself for it with restriction.
Not only that, but our brains will change our preferences to be drawn toward foods that will put weight on us the fastest. Yes, really. Sounding familiar yet?
Ever feel out of control around food? Restriction, not inherent personal defect, is the most likely cause. There are real biological responses to restriction. There is some evidence that the mere thought of restriction will cause your punishment reward system to kick in.
The best solution I have found personally: chill out around food. Like, seriously, drop all the restrictive tendencies toward any types or amounts of food. It sounds terrifying if you are somebody who has micromanaged your food for a long time.
Intuitive eating is what the buzz word is, and it actually get misused a lot to try and sell weight loss. But true intuitive eating is a great tool to developing a peaceful relationship with food.
Ironically, chilling out around food has granted me the most calm and healthy vibe with food I have had my entire life. When left to my own preferences, I generally make very good choices. And I don’t feel the least bit of guilt when I do enjoy “fun foods.”
Honestly, I am not all that drawn to them anymore. I barely even notice the bowl of candy in front of me at a conference. I do not much care if there are cookies in the house. If I truly want some, I’ll have some and move on. It takes up very little mental energy or “will power.”
So if you want to calm down and work with your punishment reward system, focus on enjoyment. Find foods that satisfy you and nourish you at the same time. Enjoy fun foods without feeling guilty. Tune in to how you feel during and after, and tweak as you wish based on that.
But what about those people who have amazing will power? You know, those people who can power through and stick to a rigid eating plan no matter what, even when they are not satisfied. That leads us to the next part of the brain.
Energy balance system
Our energy balance system is arguably the least controllable part of our weight management system. It has the ability to completely undermine our executive function, and it will override a really strong-willed person who ignores those enhanced hunger and reward signals.
It is controlled by our subconscious and parasympathetic nervous system. This works in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet.
When our weight drops below our brain’s preferred range, the energy balance system has the ability to turn down our thermostat. Some people will refer to this as slowing down our metabolism. This is likely what is happening with all those Biggest Loser contestants who regained all their weight.
Here are some of the noticeable ways that can play out. People have been shown to move less, such as fewer nervous ticks, and even drop core temperature. Fatigue and lethargy may take place. Also, hair may fall out, and women may lose their menstrual cycles.
This is the body’s way of prioritizing functions in order of importance. In short, it is helping you stay alive.
To optimize your energy balance system, you have to feed yourself and eat enough. It’s the exact opposite of what we are beat over the head with, unfortunately. Having enough energy (food) is super important to your energy balance system.
Let me assure you, exercise has TONS of benefits, even if you never lose one single pound from doing it. Here are just a few:
- Reduces stress
- Improves digestion
- Builds strength
- Improves heart health
- Lowers blood pressure (yes, even with unchanged weight)
- Lowers cholesterol (yes, even with unchanged weight)
- Enhances mental clarity
- Produces endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals that make us feel happier and more at peace
- Promotes body confidence
- Improves sleep
There are a few more that are less proven, but that I have experienced myself. When I go long periods of time without moving, I feel myself getting energetically stagnant with lots of stuck energy and emotions. I became much more attuned to this when I stepped into a career where I depend on my creativity to support me financially.
I need exercise like I need to breathe. My creativity shuts down when I don’t move my body, and I start to feel weird and off when I don’t exercise.
Case in point: It is a proven fact that exercise is very, very beneficial to you on all levels (physical, mental, emotional, energetic), even if you never lose a single pound.
I don’t enjoy exercise
If you don’t enjoy exercise, I want to invite you to (1) tap into your current beliefs about exercise, (2) attune to yourself and (3) lean into enjoyment. Allow me to give you a few prompts to get the ball rolling to attune to yourself.
Are you really hard and rigid with yourself? Do only rigorous types of exercise “count” to you? Do you embody the belief of “no pain, no gain?” Are you able to take the day off when you feel cruddy or have a cold? Do you *have* to hit a PR (personal record) before you leave the gym? Are you a slave to your fitness tracker?
Before I elaborate, let me acknowledge that individuality is legit. Everybody is different, and needs with regards to exercise are different. Heck, even each of us has changing needs, and we need our exercise to look different from season to season in our own lives.
I know lots of people in really life who LOVE CrossFit, for example. I know people who thrive when they are training for a long distance endurance race. I know people who LOVE bootcamp and squad-style workouts. These people are not bad or wrong with their exercise anymore than you are if you don’t like any of that.
The KEY is to be able to attune to your own self and your own needs, your own enjoyment on an ongoing basis. And KNOW that your needs are always in flux. They change, and that is totally normal.
Find exercise you enjoy
What was most life-changing for me was to lean into enjoyment with my exercise. When I gave myself permission to choose activities that are fun and enjoyable, I suddenly quit resisting exercise. Swimming and walking outside are currently my top two, and I love them both!
I gravitate toward it and looked forward to exercise. It became super easy to stay active. Mind-blowing, right? 🤯
What is actually happening when you tap into enjoyment is that you are working with that punishment reward system, rather than against it. You are harnessing the power of that reward system in your brain to propel you to keep moving.
You are literally aligning yourself with your own joy. It is such a beautiful and fun thing to experience!
Attuning to yourself
So how do you find exercise you enjoy? You learn to attune to yourself. It may take some trial and error, but here are a few prompts to get you started. What would feel really good to do? What would be really fun? What do you enjoy?
Asking these questions allows you to be able to come into alignment with your own personal needs and preferences. You begin to pick activities that you are already aligned with, and it will seem so easy to exercise. It will make a HUGE difference, trust me.
To give you a few visual metaphors for what is actually happening, picture yourself trying to swim upstream against a current. This is what resistance looks like. This is what happens when you try to force yourself to do something you hate or that isn’t in your best and highest good for your whole self. It feels hard and unpleasant.
Now to contrast that, imagine that you are in one of those lazy river deals, like at a water park. The flow is gentle, and you are aware of which way the water is pulling. You get in that current and swim with the flow, and it is super easy and enjoyable. This is you taking aligned action and engaging in exercise that you enjoy. It is easy, fun and enjoyable.
So I shouldn’t push myself?
I am not telling you to never push yourself. There are times when this may feel great and be exactly what you need! You have to be the one to know this for yourself.
For example, one person may sit at a desk all day for her job. Doing a really tough workout may be just what she needs. To her it feels like blowing off steam, and it feels like a great release.
To a different person, one who is very stressed out and exhausted from her day-to-day life, this may not be a great choice. This person may want to just walk while listening to great music, or play outside with her kids.
The point is, it is totally up to you! You get to decide and make your own empowered choice. Most of us don’t need our workout to look like an episode of Biggest Loser to be effective or beneficial.
Put down the fitness tracker, if you need to
I used to wear a FitBit years ago. When I started working to move more intuitively and tap into enjoyment, I noticed that I got sidetracked by my fitness tracker. It was pulling me way too far into my executive brain. I wanted to lean more into enjoyment.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but your fitness tracker works for you, not the other way around. You are not subject to it, and you are not a slave to metrics. You are a person with complex needs. Feel free to put it down for a while if you need to. It really helped me to do this!
Here is the truth: You are infinitely more wise about what you actually need than a fitness tracker will ever be. Plus, those things are biased! They are not going to tell you to sit down and take it easy, put your feet up and drink a cup of tea. But that may very well be what you need most.
I went about three or four years without wearing one. I recently got an Apple watch, which came with an activity tracker app. I was wondering if my sense of freedom and self trust would be affected aversely by my Apple watch. But I am feeling great so far! I am willing to turn it off if I need to, but I am actually really enjoying it.
I hope this has helped you to think about exercise in a different way! I hope you will realize how much freedom you have, and that you do not have to be boxed in to any one way of moving. I hope you can see how to work with yourself, rather than against yourself.
The truth is that we can all benefit from some form of movement. If you are not feeling great about your current regimen, try changing things up. If you are currently not moving much, tap into how you feel about that. Lean into enjoyment and fun, and see where that leads you.
I hope you enjoyed this! Be sure and stay connected on social media.