This post comes from a reader question I received a while back. Can you train for a race or have exercise related goals and still have a mindful relationship with movement? There’s no black and white answer here, but I hope this post helps guide you through some processing that will allow you to discern if your relationship with exercise is healthy and mindful…or not.
My body used to tense up when I heard the word mindful. For some reason the word almost annoyed me. I am not a naturally chilled out, zen, deep breathing and “connect to your body” kind of person. I like productivity and forward motion and why do I need to be mindful when I could just move through my day in a way that made sense to me? But what I’ve realized, is that mindfulness doesn’t just mean me sitting on my floor with incense burning and taking deep breathes with my eyes closed. No. Mindfulness, is simply a state of being aware of something. Merriam-Webster defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” I can wrap my mind around that.
I think of mindfulness as essentially being aware of my body and experiences in a way that fosters compassion and kindness towards myself versus shame, guilt and judgment. And cultivating that state of being is going to be different for everyone. What is mindful for one person will not be mindful for another. Yoga could be the most mindful movement for one person, while anything but mindful for another. Running 5 miles could be mindful for one person, while being anything but mindful for another. And also, mindful movement for one person could change from day to day or week to week. Movement will look different as our lives change and it should look different.
Yoga is usually what comes to mind when people think of mindful movement. At least it does for me. And if you’re new to intuitive eating, mindfulness, being kind to yourself and this whole transition from diet culture to being present in your body and practicing self compassion…I think it can be really helpful to practice yoga before you choose to do other forms of movement. I also think it’s really important to recognize when you need a complete break from exercise. If you’re someone who is intensely preoccupied with having to exercise, I’d strongly suggest taking a step back from formal movement for at least a few months…maybe even longer. This is to help you heal your relationship with exercise and recognize that exercise is something you can enjoy and something you can do to enhance your health…but you do not need to exercise to maintain your body size or eat xyz food.
So all that to say, if you’re new to this whole mindfulness idea, I’d give yourself time and space and the appropriate circumstances to practice awareness of your physical and emotional state when it comes to movement. Here are a couple good posts from Kylie that might be helpful for you.
Now let’s tease through answering the question of whether or not training for an athletic event or wanting to make some level of progress in any realm of physical activity is considered mindful movement. For me, the things that come to mind that I might work towards are training for a half marathon or a marathon or being able to lift heavier weights or last longer in a group fitness class (for example, not take as many breaks). The activities that come to mind for you might be different. Here are some questions that I think are important to ask yourself when deciding if that form of movement is mindful and healthy for you both physically and psychologically.
What is your motivation for _____ workout?
Before you choose to partake in any race or competition or any sort of workout routine or workout for that day…ask yourself why you are doing it. Are you doing this out of freedom or are you doing this out of fear? Answering that question can be a good barometer in helping you decide weather or not your motivations are healthy. Scroll to the bottom of this post to figure out if the movement you are engaging in is healthy. In short, if you are doing exercise to manipulate your body size, to find value or worth, to justify eating, or to punish yourself than that movement is not healthy.
How do you feel in your body when you are moving in ____ way?
Often we just go through the movements – run at x pace or keep up with everyone else in the class or lift x amount of weight because we should – without any consideration of how our body is feeling. It’s not about suffering through a workout at any expense. If that’s your mindset, I’d strongly encourage you to take a break from intense movement. Before you begin any movement, ground yourself into how you are feeling both physically and mentally. Do you have any aches or pains? Are you low on energy? Are you absent mentally? If you’re not mentally and physically prepared to exercise, stop right now. Choose something else that actually helps you care for yourself. Only after you have established a solid awareness (while withholding judgment the best you can) of how you feel in your body should you continue with whatever movement you are about to do.
Are you goals and your workout schedule flexible?
If you are training for an event, you probably are following some sort of schedule. That’s fine. But is this schedule flexible? Can you switch around days and take unplanned rest days, even rest weeks, without beating yourself up and/or anxiety. Back when I first started running marathons and half marathons, my training schedule was fixed and very rigid. I had to do each workout (preferably on the exact day it was prescribed) and hit the paces suggested or I felt like I wasn’t training well enough. There was a lot of negative self talk, guilt and judgment if I didn’t follow the plan. Even if I didn’t get enough sleep, I woke up to meet my running group on the track. If my body was tired, I pushed through.
I remember back when I was running with the Charlottesville Track Club, I showed up at 5:30am for a speed workout one Wednesday morning. Mark, the guy who has been coaching Charlottesville runners of all paces for decades coached us through 800 meter repeats. I finished the second repeat and he asked me why I was breathing so hard. I told him I didn’t know. And he looked straight at me and said, “You shouldn’t be breathing that hard, your body is tired and you’re done for today…go cool down and then rest up because that’s far more important than these speed intervals.” He was gentle, yet firm. At the time I didn’t know how to care for myself so he needed to make that decision for me. If that story resonates with you at all, you’re exercise is not mindful and I’d encourage you to take a step back.
Does the exercise connect you with your body or does it disconnect you from your body?
Whatever the movement, if you find yourself disconnected from your body….that’s not mindful. Are you aware of your breathing? Is it rhythmic and can you feel yourself inhale and exhale? Even if you’re running or moving fast you can feel your lungs expand and deflate as you inhale and exhale in a rhythmic way. Breathing grounds you. The cadence of your breathing should align with the intensity of the movement. Are you aware of how your muscles and bones feel in your body? Do you feel like you’re muscling through the movement with a tensed body and mind that wanders or wishes for it to be over? Or are you aware of your body and how it feels? Do you feel strong, healthy and present while moving? If you find yourself mentally or physically fatigued, dreading a workout or feeling disconnected from your body in any way, that movement is no longer mindful and you should choose either another form of movement or something else that helps you care for yourself.
Is this helping you live a better life?
If your primary goal isn’t taking care of yourself and feeling good, then that type of movement is a behavior probably isn’t serving you. I highly doubt anyone reading this blog is an elite athlete where your career and livelihood is on the line.
If your worth and value are contingent on whether or not you exercised that day or how long or how intensely you exercised that day or if you followed your training plan that day….that behavior is no longer healthy. If your exercise routine socially isolates you, it’s not healthy or mindful. If your exercise routine creates unnecessary stress in your life or burden on your relationships, it’s not healthy or mindful. If your exercise routine doesn’t allow you to live in line with your values…stop doing it. Yes, I love the idea of training for a half marathon with my running friends, but with all the things going on in my life right now, doing that in this season doesn’t help me live in line with my values. If the type of movement you choose to do isn’t helping you living a meaningful, fulfilling and joyful life…I would highly encourage you to stop doing it.
This list of questions is by no means exhaustive so if you have any insight or a personal experience you’re open to sharing please leave your thoughts in the comments!
I love your perspective, Robyn! After watching the Boston Marathon on Monday, I am seriously considering training for & running a half marathon. Thankfully, running wasn’t a form of exercise that I abused during my ED & I actually have a pretty healthy relationship with running. But it did make me stop & think about WHY I want to train & if it’s a good option for me.
I’m so glad the was helpful for you as you process your decision Miley and what is best for you!
This was VERY helpful. I’m not a runner, but I LOVE to ride my bike and I LOVE to take spin classes. I’ve done the MS150 three times (rode my bike 150 miles from Houston to Austin over a two day period). Due to life happenings, I haven’t done it for the last three years and I MISS it greatly. I’m seriously considering training for the 2019 ride and was stressing about the training and the ride because like you, if I’m not beating last weeks time, or if I thought I was going to miss a training because I was sick or over tired, then in my mind I was a failure. This has given me more clarity as to the fact that I do love to ride, and I do love the cause that I ride for, but I was dreading the training. I can train, and more so, I now feel like I can NOT train if the weather conditions are bad or if my body is not healthy, and that will be OK. Thanks so much for this!
I’m so glad this was helpful in bringing some clarity Meri! Having flexibility is so important – I’ve been on both sides so know that I too get it 🙂
This is so great, Robyn! My thoughts on body movement have changed throughout the years of my disordered eating and exercise. Now, at 60, I’m eating and moving so much more intuitively! I feel strong and I’m so thankful that I’m able to walk, strength train and stretch with little to no pain. My goals now are so different. I thank God for blessing me with the ability to move my body. I try not to take that for granted. I want to age gracefully and that’s my motivation, not fitting into a pair of pants or swimming suit.
Thank you for all that you do!
Gratitude is so powerful when it comes to body image and how we move through life. So glad you’ve found freedom Julie!
As an eating disorder therapist, I absolutely love this! So many Instagram pics encourage us all to push harder and change our bodies. It’s not always questioned. I always remind my clients that many people do “unhealthy” things in an effort to be “healthy” and that is where healing is needed.
I always remind my clients that many people do “unhealthy” things in an effort to be “healthy” and that is where healing is needed. –> 10000% AGREE. Love how you phrased that!
This is a great post. As a runner and running coach, I wholeheartedly believe that running, setting running goals for yourself, and wellness can all fit together. Unfortunately, many runners are unyielding, rigid, and overly focused on weighing x pounds or looking a certain way. Keeping the right mindset is key. Are you working to perform well, or to punish yourself, or to reflect a certain self worth? A good check on keeping a healthy mindset in the midst of, say, marathon training is: how do I feel about my rest days? Are you anxious or overjoyed 🙂 or somewhere in the middle? To get over the anxiety of not exercising, I encourage athletes to visualize their muscle fibers repairing themselves, and little fighter cells zooming through their body healing up niggles and getting them ready for the next run. They need a chance to do their job. Another good time to check in is after a big race or training cycle when you are (OR SHOULD BE!) taking it down a notch. Can you enjoy that off period or are you stressed out about less exercise and routine? Every runner should regularly ask themselves these questions and check in. Great job addressing the issue and not just simply saying running a lot or hard is an unhealthy behavior.
Those are great questions to ask Stephanie! I so agree that there should be continuous self evaluation. I think that it’s never really the behavior itself but our mindset and motivations that lie behind them
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this post! I think it will be helpful for SO many people who want peace with their bodies but also love working towards athletic achievements. Thank you for outlining how to check in with ourselves and determine if the movement is truly healthy for us.
Kathryn B says
I really liked this article because it allows us to feel more empowered and take better turns in our mental and physical heath, even on the worst days and I really enjoy your articles, Robyn.
I wanna share this with everyone! https://bit.ly/2H7vyCs this is another great way to improve life and health in just a few steps. Go ahead and check it out!
I am really resonating with this. I am new to the health at every size, intuitive eating mindset. It has been eye opening for me and given me hope. I have not been wanting to go to the gym after being consistent for months and beating myself up about. I guess what I need to do is explore why, what is my body really telling me.
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
I love this post and it couldn’t come at a better time for me. I took nearly a year off from formal exercise and enjoyed simple walks around my neighborhood, when I felt like it, instead. This break was SO NEEDED for me. During the break I was able to come to terms with how abusive exercise had become for me. I was definitely doing it for some of the reasons you mentioned here – fear, belonging, identity, etc. I needed a break to figure out who I was without the formal exercise and also to allow my body time to heal from physical damage (i.e. amenorrhea). This break was so good for me in teaching me that all the things I had feared if I stopped exercising, simply weren’t true. That said, this year I have begun incorporating more movement back, but definitely for different reasons. I also realize how much better I feel health wise when I am moving in some ways each week. However, the break allowed me to become more mindful of my body for when it NEEDS rest instead of activity. It allowed me clarity to realize I can be flexible with my movement and less structured, utilizing many different forms of movement, rather than just adhering to one. Sorry for the long narrative, but definitely something I’m passionate about and have personal experience with! And I second what you have said here. Some of Kylie’s post on the topic were the first I read in convincing me to heal my relationships with movement!
Emily Swanson says
This was incredibly helpful Robyn; I think the biggest thing is NOT pushing through especially if you’re tired or your body is just saying, ‘No.’ It’s taken me a long time to discern what that feels like; it can be really hard especially wen for so long I listened to what others were saying about pushing yourself to the limits, challenging yourself, and I thought my version of growth had to look like theirs. More and more through you and other dietitians I’m learning that I need to ask myself ‘why’ I’m doing something and park there before I make any other decisions about movement/working out.
I hope you don’t mind but I featured quotes from this article in my most recent blog post! It’s been hugely helpful in changing my mindset toward exercise – thank you!!
Thank you for this article. I read it a while back, and just came back to look for it, because the question “Are you doing this out of freedom or are you doing it out of fear?” has resonated and stuck with me SO MUCH. When making decisions I keep coming back to it and it is such a great tool for self-reflection, not just for exercise but all parts of life. So again, thank you, for reminding me to keep questioning my motives and giving myself permission to NOT do things out of fear. Lots of love from Switzerland – Henrike