Why I Quit “Working Out”

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When I was a kid there was nothing I dreaded more than Physical Education class. I had an intense need for personal space and lack a single athletic bone in my body, so team sports like soccer and kickball felt like my own personal hell. And I was about as likely to climb to the top of the rope as I was to date any of the New Kids on the Block. Nope. Not happening.

I particularly hated the “mile run” in Physical Education class with a burning passion. I was always one of the last kids to finish it, and when I finally dragged myself off the track I always felt equal parts humiliated and worn out.

While many of my classmates loved being active, it made me feel like a failure.

Near the end of high school, when I was no longer graded on my sorry ability to “dress out” and run a painstakingly slow mile, I resolved to turn myself into a runner, but on my own terms.

There are people out there who love running and crave the “high” that follows. I am not one of those people. I hated every damn step of it, so I did everything I could to keep myself distracted.

I jogged with friends in the park so I could keep my attention on being with them and away from how uncomfortable my lungs felt. When I was alone I played loud music on my walkman to try to tune out the weird noises and gripping sensations in my knees.

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After several years of trying to run through the pain, I injured my knee enough to require surgery. Despite the expense, discomfort, and inconvenience of surgery, I was relieved to get an excuse to not run.

As I started to accept that I simply wasn’t going to be able to discipline myself into being a joyful runner, I sat with a pretty important question:

How was I going to have a healthy relationship with movement if I’d only ever associated it with pain or shame?

On a cellular level I knew that my body loved to move, I just wasn’t sure how it loved moving. So I began to audition different ways of being active to see what felt good, this time relying on my own intuition.

I already knew what felt awful, so I knew I could rule out running (because I love my knees and want to keep them for life) and most of the machines at the gym (where I feel bored and suffocated).

Instead I tried group fitness classes, hiking, dancing at clubs, lifting free weights, and water aerobics at the YMCA.

I practiced with yoga videos in my living room, took long walks in the park, and jogged in the pool.

I revisited activities that I’d passed over and allowed myself to try new locations, music, and company.

In the process, I learned that all kinds of dance completely light me up, even if I can’t keep up with the choreography in class or I miss some of my dance partner’s cues.

I found that I was totally at peace with the world while walking outside with music, feeling the wind on my face and my favorite songs in my ears.

I also discovered that a quiet, self-reflective yoga practice felt like coming home to myself in a way I’d never experienced before.

These activities are mindful recreation, not “work,” so I never call them workouts. “Working out” brings to mind the excessive discipline and self criticism that exercise used to be for me.

Life is short, and I don’t want to waste unnecessary time and energy on things that hurt. Instead, every time I move in a way that feels good, I feel more alive and present in this body.

If I could go back in time and catch up with my elementary school self in her Physical Education misery, I would tell her this:

You don’t have to be an athlete or a runner to love movement. You have full permission to be the kid who dances during the “mile run.”

What’s your joyful movement?

Last Updated on March 27, 2019

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