kids and exercise · meditation · mindfulness

A Mental Playbook for When Exercise Sucks

In a Washington Post article (1991), “The Pleasure Principle in Exercise,” the author provides a “research review” on the importance of enjoying exercise in order to persist with it:

“study after study shows that the people who stick with exercise are the ones who truly enjoy their activity. They don’t view their workout as one more chore to cram in but as a play break that’s one of the highlights of their day” (p.4).

Teenagers running down a streer
Smiling teens running (i.e., not me) in gym class.

This article, published around the time I was in high school, reflects what I have been told for years: ideally, exercise evokes the fun of childhood play and creates a rush of endorphins. Exercise should feel good.

But I recently realized this narrative doesn’t fit with my experience. Starting in middle school (think fitness testing, track and field, etc.), I often felt like exercise sucked. Tired, out of breath, achy. I knew I should exercise, that I should like it, but in fact the effort didn’t feel pleasant. Teenage me thought: why pursue bodily discomfort on purpose? So when high school gym class finally became optional, I stopped exercising altogether.

Mental Aspects of Physical Fitness

Car wash
Meditation: a car wash for your brain?

The disconnect I have felt—between how I should and did feel about exercise as a young person—was made clear to me during my first meditation weekend. It turns out I have had different ideas about meditation as well. I thought meditation was like a car wash: you went into it feeling dirty and unhappy, and somehow came out feeling shiny, happy, and clean.

Meditation, it turns out, is more about noticing what I am feeling and experiencing (good, bad, different), then leaning into that experience. Meditation involves concentrating on letting go of judgements, expectations, and the need to change what can sometimes be difficult feelings and bodily sensations. Meditation is a kind of mental playbook for managing how to show up for sometimes uncomfortable situations or emotions.

Purple mandala on a wall
Mandala for meditation practice.

Mindfulness, the “noticing” part of meditation practice, can be taken to other activities (I further learned). It’s why, I put together, there are so many mental “check-ins” during yoga practice. Noticing tension and discomfort at its first sign can help me to be present in–but without automatically seeking to judge, avoid, or change–what I am experiencing (unless there is pain that will imminently lead to injury, of course). And, indeed, I did find through our yoga practice that it was much easier to handle discomfort in my body when I noticed and accepted that it was there.

There are critiques of mindfulness, namely as a self-help discourse that convinces stressed out folks collective suffering is in their heads rather than a societal issue. I don’t disagree with concerns about how meditation and mindfulness are (mis)understood and (mis)used in Western culture, but I am still learning about them as they relate specifically to my own fitness practices, so for now I am keeping an open mind.

Mindfulness During Exercise

When I was a kid I didn’t have a mental playbook when I wasn’t loving the exercise I was told I should be loving. Without a mindful approach, I immediately leaned away from the tension and discomfort caused by physical exertion and effort.

Now, in my mid-life, I think the so-called “pleasure principle of exercise” is wrong for me. As I continue to explore physical activities (many for the first time in a long time), I am not going to try to convince myself that exercise will always be a “play break” or a “highlight of my day.” (Sam looks at some actual research in her post Rationality and the Hatred of Exercise.)

Instead, I am going to try to be mindful: to notice and accept the tension, discomfort, and other sensations I feel whilst being physically active. I am going be try to be really present when my exercise sucks.

Ironically, it may be precisely the goal of seeking to notice my discomfort (rather than striving for its enjoyment) that may get me to exercise more often. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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