One walk at a time: exercising through, with, because of and despite stress

This semester is the roughest, busiest and most stressful I’ve had in more than 15 years. I’ve been teaching extra courses (for money and teaching credit), running my university’s academic integrity panel hearings (for repeat plagiarism and cheating cases), doing a little research and blog posting on the side. All this is happening during a term in which a whopping amount of snow disrupted life and destroyed class syllabi, leaving all of us in the Boston academic community scrambling to regroup.

And it’s not over yet. This week’s docket includes two high-pressure academic integrity hearings, a big pile of end of term grading, a conference talk (for which I have a draft already, thank goodness), and prep for another conference talk for the following week (for which I don’t have a draft already). And that’s just my professional life.

It’s also a tough time personally, for me and for some people in my life. One friend’s son died this week, and another friend’s father died. All this weighs heavily.

Of course it’s true that everyone’s busy, everyone deals with stress and loss and anxiety and relationship crises and time and money constraints, and everyone grapples with physical and emotional and spiritual burdens. And there are lots of ways to handle them. We talk with friends, take naps, focus on small tasks, meditate, make lists, delegate, count our blessings, and try to look on the bright side of life. We’re also encouraged to take breaks and pamper ourselves:


And then there’s exercise.


I love the image above, as it conveys how I feel about the many things exercise does for me and what it means to me: motion, joy, work, beauty, focus, control, and deep satisfaction, to name a few.

The problem, however—as we all know—is this: at precisely the times that exercise is most important and would be most helpful, it is most difficult to do. Medical and psychological literature on perceived barriers to exercise is abundant, with studies focusing on every subgroup of the population. Many of them contain suggestions for dealing with those barriers; motivational interviewing is a currently popular clinical approach (a good topic for a future blog post).

When I looked up “barriers to exercise” and googled images, I got a bunch of slogans that someone must have thought would be helpful. Here are a few of them below.


But right now, I don’t have the energy, time, or interest in pursuing motivational strategies; I’m too stressed, pressed, and downtrodden. And I have NO patience for cheery slogans… So what can I do? What am I doing?

1) I’m giving myself a pass on any activity requiring organization, planning, gear, or lots of time or energy.

Some women on my squash ladder sent out emails last week asking if people were free to play. I normally love playing squash—I returned to women’s league play last fall and it was big fun. But right now I can’t deal with the time, logistics, commitment and energy it takes to get to the gym at a certain time to play a match with another person (even one of my team mates). Well, okay then. Ditto for group rides: my friend Rachel (and guest blogger) ran a LUNA Chix road ride today, but I didn’t have the time, oomph or heart to do it. Yes, perhaps it would’ve made me feel better. But it didn’t happen. Time to be forgiving, forbearing, patient and kind to self now. This isn’t easy, but I’m trying.

 2) I’m using errands and tasks and meetups with friends as ways to sneak in a little outdoor activity, on foot and in street clothing.

One day this week I walked 1.5 miles to and from the grocery store to buy one item. Another day, I parked far enough away so to walk a mile to and from a doctor’s appointment. I took an hour walk with a friend yesterday. This afternoon I’m walking with another friend for about an hour. Tomorrow will likely be the same. Taking things one walk at a time is what I can do. And it feels pretty okay.

3) I’m reminding myself that life is change, so this period of life will give way to some other period. And experience shows that this happens more quickly than we expect. It’s the cool thing about life.

Because I really want to remain an optimist no matter what, I remember this. And keep moving, and keep writing, because both are life-sustaining.

Thanks for reading—see you all next week.

18 thoughts on “One walk at a time: exercising through, with, because of and despite stress

  1. So sorry about the tragedies you’ve experienced in the past week.
    I love this post because it gets at the reality of day to day life. It’s not always possible, when “life happens,” for us to do it all. Incorporating activity into the day-to-day makes so much sense and yet so many of us (my tendency) don’t “count” that stuff. Sam’s been working on her chapter on “everyday exercise” and I think both in your post and her writing about it there are lots of good lessons for me. Thank you and I hope the load eases soon.

  2. Agreed! Sometimes the hardest thing to do is workout when you’re sad. Most times, its just a matter of getting moving and seeing that life goes on. Life IS change and sometimes our circumstances give way to something beautiful. We just have to make it through. I love this post and needed it this morning. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Glad the post spoke to you. It felt good to share, and thanks for the encouraging words.

  3. Thanks, Tracy– the idea of “everyday exercise” is great and important for all of us to remember. It also feels effective for mood and increased wellness, both in my experience and in the medical literature. And yes, the load will ease, and I can rev up both mood and activity. It will be good to write about that, too.

  4. You should know that this blog continues to inspire me to keep trying to exercise in any way I can through some phenomenally difficult times. You are awesome and I hope everything gets better (or at least doesn’t get any worse) in the near future. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much! I wish the same for you– movement, change, relief, and some happiness. We can all use this…

  5. I really need the reminder that this period of my life will pass and change- every other tough time has done that… So, why would this one be any different. Great post!

    1. Thanks, and you are right– tough times shift to easier ones; experience shows this! Take care.

  6. Hang in there Catherine! I wasn’t actually at the ride yesterday – I was at a writing retreat in Gloucester instead, which was much needed. I love the everyday exercise theme, and am relying on my commute a great deal these days. Fortunately it’s a good length for it, and the train really helps too (for the one-way days, which greatly outnumber the two-way days). Maybe soon you can ride over to Davis Sq for a drink 🙂

    1. Thanks Rachel! I saw on FB you were at the writing retreat. Yes to riding to Davis, and also riding up to Lowell for lunch sometime soon!

  7. Nice post. I am a yoga teacher in the prime of my life (in other words – menopausal!) I’ve always resented those little slogans. Despite the fact that I eat well and ride my bike to work and to my private clients’ homes most days of the week, those slogans do little to inspire me. If anything they trick me into thinking I’m not good enough. I really appreciate your acknowledging the extra stress in your life and your willingness to sit with it, to walk through it (literally and figuratively), rather than fighting it in order to hold on to your regular exercise routine.

    1. Thanks (for comment and idea about substituting in “prime of life” where we would otherwise say “menopausal– love this!). have added on riding for errands, too– the weather is fine, and some energy is returning, which is the way of things… 🙂

  8. Great points Catherine. I think we need to get rid of the “winner” mentality in order to self-motivate daily.

    It may help instead, to think of what makes me alive today.

    It’s about just feeling abit better with some form of safe exercise. And time to rest afterwards without meeting “expectations” that we create ourselves, then self-flagellate if we don’t meet our own standard.

  9. Yes, Jean, that sounds exactly right! And I hope your recovery is continuing and that you are administering copious doses of self-care…

      1. I’m so so sorry. I’ll be thinking of you; keep posting and letting us know how you are.

  10. I think it’s important to redefine exercise. Some of the most effective stress relieving exercies for me have been walking or biking between life’s daily demands. Being outside in the sun, away from all technology gives your body that moment it needs to slow down. Here’s to keeping sanity through the chaos.

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