I've had exercise all wrong until recently. I grew up playing a bunch of different competitive sports and was literally told by one of my coaches that if you don't feel like you're dying at least a couple of times throughout a race, then you're not pulling (trying) hard enough. I took his race-day logic and applied it to my training and workouts. So whenever I worked out, whether or not I was in training, I always felt like I had to be dying while exercising or I wouldn't be getting a good workout.
Around that same time, I saw a woman I knew casually peddling on a stationary bike, reading a gossip magazine, and looking happy and relaxed. Incredulous with her light peddling, svelte body, and smile on her face, I asked her about her workout routine. Without missing a beat she said, you exercise for a different reason. I come here to clear my head. You come here to lose weight.
I knew she was right, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my consistently intense, grinding workouts. Moreover, my mind was very entrenched in the belief that there was no benefit in “light” exercise. I was raised to always my try my hardest — even if it felt like I was dying — so there was no point in exercising if I wasn’t going to have a grueling work out.
When I had to stop rowing due to a knee injury, I turned to running (no better for the knee) to stay in shape and help unwind. I ran incessantly until I broke my foot while training for the New York City Marathon in 2011. That fracture finally made me reassess my fitness goals and notion of exercise. I stopped running for a while, and turned to my yoga practice to let my body heal and recover from years of torture. When I took that leap of faith of cutting back on such pounding exercise, I discovered how much I had been beating up my body rather than taking care of it, which is the whole point of exercise.
But that is still an inverted way of looking at exercise. It wasn't until my once in a blue moon run the other night that what this woman told me 15 years ago finally clicked. Exercise isn’t about your body. It is about your mind. It allows you to clear your thoughts and whatever mental spiral might be taking place in your head so that you can think clearly and feel good again. Having a healthy body is the byproduct.
As I was trying to navigate the icy running path and attempting to let go of the thoughts tornado-ing inside my head, I finally understood what the woman meant. The snow covering the dirt path had turned into an uneven jagged ice trail so I had to run quite slowly and deliberately. Instead of getting upset about not being able to run at the speed I thought I should be running, I realized this is what exercise is all about. Getting outside.
Literally and figuratively.
We need to take the time to leave work that unfortunately keeps us inside most of the time and get outside. We need to take a break from our internal conversation and get outside of our head. If you can do this, then you don't have to worry about your body as much (so long as you eat relatively healthy). Because if your mind feels good, and you can find a way to stop the internal obsessing and chatter, then the external — your body — will follow and you will stop obsessing about it as well. It’s not just beauty that starts on the inside. Health begins there as well.