There’s no doubt that exercise and movement has endless benefits to the body from strength and resilience, to stress management and mental health support. However, just like the relationship with food, it can either act as a way to nourish or punish the body, especially if taken to extremes.
Many women, who come to my practice have the “no pain no gain” attitude to exercise and it is often a way to “deserve” food (calories). This relationship with exercise is very challenging, as it creates internal pressure, lowers self-esteem when goals aren’t met and drives panic and sabotage of health goals and food habits. And let’s be honest, who has time and energy to exercise intensely a few hours per day?
We can be really tempted to go ‘all in’ on exercise. To try and make up for lost time or to get to a big goal (run a 5k/10k, play a netball match, lift a certain amount of weight). But this can lead to injury, or boredom, or frustration and cause you to fall off the wagon all over again.
I think taking small steps and working out what you can do that feels really joyful and fun for your body is a good way to start. The absolutely best place to start is with a regular walk, one where you aren’t carrying anything and can vary the terrain, the gradient and the scenery. It helps you build fitness and strengthens the joints in the lower body.
If you want to start running, go slowly but find interesting places to run. Explore routes or parks that have interesting things to look at.
Make exercise social, so you fill your need to connect with friends too. Whether it’s a dance class, sharing lifts to a yoga studio, or joining a team sport?
If classes and group activities aren’t your thing, then look for ways to habit stack, to build an exercise habit on top of things you already do. So, if the first thing you do in the morning is let the dog out into the garden...could you do 10 squats then, or while you wait for the kettle to boil? Or could you park further away from work/school/the park so that you walk a little bit more?
This is so individual. Because to make it a habit you need to find what works for you.
We need to incorporate exercise and movement that gets our heart rate up to build our cardiovascular fitness, we need a bit of impact to support strong bones, we need strength training to boost our muscle mass and our metabolism, core strength to support a healthy back and flexibility to keep us moving for the long term.
You can do this in so many ways - team sport, pilates, dance classes, bootcamp, personal training, yoga, running, cycling, climbing, swimming.
Ask yourself what you have loved doing in the past and see if that inspires you. How can you mix up what you do in a fun way that ticks some of those boxes?
Our bodies are designed to move, and to move all day long. But, it doesn’t have to feel hard and we need to feel joy during or after we’re doing it because this will keep our motivation going in the tough times too.
One of my favourite things to do is to get outside first thing in the morning. Whatever the weather, I just step outside and notice what’s going on outside. I’ll look at the sky, the clouds and the movement of the trees in the wind. I’ll notice the smells around me, the noise of the birds, and how it feels to walk barefoot on the grass (entirely optional but I love it, even in the winter).
Just noticing where we are with the seasons on a daily basis helps connect us with nature, and we know that this is great for our health - both mental and physical.
Oh gosh, I SO wish I could re-programme this for everyone.
When we feel exercise has to be hard to be worth doing, we can put up lots of barriers to actually doing it and fall off the wagon easily.
I always start very slowly with clients, which they find frustrating at the beginning because they feel they have to ‘go hard’. But what actually happens is that we build strong foundations in the core, posture and in the habit of exercise which means that they are still exercising regularly months and years after I have finished working with them.
We do need to sweat and get the heart pumping to give ourselves the metabolic, muscle and joint gains, but it doesn’t need to be punishing.
Often if you’re super stressed, then your body’s systems aren't going to respond well to a 2 hour run or back to back workouts. But going for a walk (in nature if possible) can be a great way to lower cortisol levels and has huge health benefits too.
What our bodies need varies from person to person, but what most of us need more of is more movement all day long. If you spend an hour going hard in the gym twice a week but spend the rest of your time sitting down...your body isn’t getting enough movement to support its waste disposal (lymph and digestion among others). In lockdown many people will have noticed that they’re feeling stiffer and more achey because they aren’t moving as much...just because they aren’t commuting or walking to meetings.
I think I’d say a generous one. Because life happens. Injury happens. Illness happens. Global pandemics happen.
And when faced with external change our routines and habits change. Our mood changes.
I think we need to be generous and kind to ourselves when we fall out of the habit. Connect exercise with fun, joy, and the feel-good factor.
Cultivate a mindset and supporting habits that encourage you to want to exercise, so that you seek out alternatives when life changes. And to keep trying new things, working out what works well for your life and your body at that moment in time, because it will change.
I’d start by expressing gratitude to your body on a daily basis. It could be as you wash or moisturise after a shower - thank your feet and legs for carrying you around, your heart for pumping blood, your lungs for bringing oxygen into your blood cells.
Or you could do this as you walk or a run or even as you garden or clean or cook. Thank your feet, your legs, your arms, your head. You can express gratitude even for the bits of your body you struggle to love. Thank your belly for reminding that you need to be soft on yourself as well as hard and strong, thank you thighs for being so strong, thank your bum for being so comfy to sit on.
This may sound silly or really hard, depending on where you are in your relationship with your own body but it can really help you appreciate where you are today and that’s such a great place to start.
Another idea is to move your body in a fun and nourishing way - in a way that feels good. Dancing to your favourite music for 60 seconds and see how your body and mind feels afterwards. Find a super supportive class/trainer who will work with you without intimidation or over
Thanks so much, Lesley!
Lesley Waldron runs a Women’s Health and Fitness coaching business called Wild Country Woman. She has a particular interest in the outdoors and supporting the women she works with to fall in love with looking after themselves well through exercise and happy lifestyle habits so that they can live a wildly well life.
You can find out more about Wild Country Woman here www.wildcountrywoman.com or follow the fun on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pg/wildcountrywomanuk/ or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lesleywaldron/