Using Mindfulness to Mend Your Relationship with Exercise
I’ve never experienced pain like the final stretch of a swim race.
I was a sophomore in high school, floundering through the last ten meters of the 100-meter butterfly at an important swim meet. The crippling anxiety I’d felt prior to the race was now drowned out (excuse my pun) by suffocation and pain.
Unsuccessfully, I gulped for air between mouthfuls of chlorine. Just ten more meters, I thought, but it felt like a thousand. My body had reached its limit twenty seconds ago. I knew my stroke was sloppy, but in the most literal sense, I could not do anything about it. If I paid attention what to my muscles were doing, I was certain I'd implode. So for the sake of survival, I dissociated from my body. It was like adrenaline had given me an epidural, and I had to blindly trust that I could push out this baby without having a heart attack.
Between the spouts of blurry existential screaming in my head, I had a single coherent thought:
“Why am I doing this?”
That question eventually led me to quit swimming and other organized sports. Staring at the bottom of a pool for three hours each day just wasn’t worth shaving a few seconds off my stroke anymore.
Cut off from my strict training schedule, I took it upon myself to compensate for the absence of a coach's supervision. But this time, there was no finish line. It was as if I was perpetually training for a big race that never happened.
For weeks after I quit, I spent three hours a day at the gym and didn’t enjoy the experience in the slightest. I felt sick to my stomach before and during each workout. I dreaded the pain for hours beforehand and couldn’t enjoy my day leading up to the event. After all, I felt I didn’t deserve to enjoy anything until after I’d completed my workout. Even then, any sense of accomplishment or pride I felt upon leaving the gym was instantly replaced with a new wave of anxiety. I’d fall asleep researching nutrition and workout plans on my phone.
At that point, all my motivation stemmed from fear. Fear of losing progress, losing muscle, and gaining fat. If I slipped backward, what were the months of pain for?
Still, I had faint childhood memories of running across grass barefoot and climbing trees (much to my mother’s dismay). I loved to move my body back then. Exhaustion was synonymous with elation.
As I grew up, like many people, I lost my love for moving as a result of operant conditioning.
Our behaviors are encouraged and discouraged by the rewards and punishments that follow them. We become discouraged when a behavior is followed by the addition of punishment or the removal of a reward.
As an athlete, I learned to associate physical exertion with inescapable discomfort and pain. The pain I felt during and after workouts had become a positive punishment (see the chart).
Anticipating pain, psychologically speaking, is one of the strongest deterrents. Once you've learned that exercise equals pain, you’ll dread it, count down the minutes until it’s over, and go numb just to survive the experience - that is, if you show up for the workout at all. It’s more likely you’ll just avoid it altogether.
So, why did I continue to punish myself?
The consistency principle in social psychology states that people are motivated by a desire to maintain cognitive consistency. This means we will say or do anything to allign with what we said or did in the past.
We will go to great lengths to convince ourselves and others of our own consistency, even if that means altering our beliefs, attitudes, actions, and perceptions. This is a major factor that drives many people to remain in toxic relationships. Rather than leave someone that you once loved and trusted, you'll maintain consistency by lying to yourself about the state of the relationship.
I was in a toxic relationship with exercise. We all have a relationship with exercise, whether we like it or not.
Just like another person, exercise is something you spend time with. Therefore, it’s important to build a healthy relationship with it. After all, I certainly wouldn’t choose to spend one hour each day with someone I despise, or someone I feel alienated from.
It has become something of a meme that nobody likes to exercise. We bond over it by collectively laughing about our own laziness.
We’re pathetic, sure, but it’s fun to be on the same page. The crazy ones are the health nuts who wake up at 5:00 am to run uphill in the rain.
Why has it come to this?
Our culture perpetuates a harmful narrative surrounding exercise, where the end of the story is an ideal body - emphasized by lean, toned models and influencers promoting workout plans and gym gear.
Working to achieve or maintain an aesthetic result lays an unstable framework for one’s relationship to exercise.
In other words, the potential for positive reinforcement, or a "perfect body," is hardly motivating enough to stick to a workout plan. Especially when pain is part of the equation acting as positive punishment.
We've learned that exercise hurts. I can’t count the times the phrase “no pain no gain” echoed in my mind during my worst moments at the track, gym, or pool. We are conditioned to view it as something we have to push through. It requires mental toughness. It’s reserved for the mentally elite, the chronic overachievers.
Ideally, we could enjoy the experience of exercising and reap the health benefits as an accessory to that. When we spend time with good friends, we enjoy ourselves and still derive psychological benefits afterward. Quality time with those we love is not a chore, it’s a pleasure.
How can we find similar enjoyment in a practice where pain is a benchmark for success and progress? For me, the key was mindful exercise.
Think of it like this: you’re on your way to an important interview, stuck in traffic.
You will undeniably be late. The degree of your lateness is impossible to predict and completely out of your control at this point.
So, you have a choice. You can be one of two people while you sit in your car.
Spiraling Stan. Glue your eyes to the clock and dread each passing minute. Curse the long line of cars ahead of you. Ruminate over how unfair this all is until your jaw aches and your knuckles are white on the wheel. Go dizzy imagining the horrific scenario that will unfold when you show up late.
Mindful Matt. Accept your fate. Now you have attention for other things. Put on a nice song. Listen to it. Notice how your body responds to any residual anxiety you may be feeling. Observe the world outside your window. Feel your heartbeat. Breathe.
Spiraling Stan and Mindful Matt will reach their destination at the same time, but Mindful Matt will probably be in a much better mood when he gets there. After all, he just had a pleasant car ride, regardless of what may come after.
Mindfulness can change your experience and perception of time on a difficult day. It can also change your experience and perception of a difficult workout.
Imagine you're lost in the midst of a brutal HIIT workout, about to embark on yet another round of burpees. Or perhaps you're in the middle of an excruciating run, staring up the length of a steep hill.
Doubt kicks in. You're bombarded with negative thoughts. How can I possibly do this? Sixty seconds is so long. That hill is too steep. I'll probably pass out. No. I'll certainly pass out.
Rather than carry this anxiety and misery through your next sequence of work, I encourage you to ask yourself:
"What would Mindful Matt do?"
Accept your fate. You are going to do those burpees. You are going to climb the hill. And you are more than capable of doing so. Now, you get to decide how you want to spend that time. Maybe put on a nice song to get in the mood.
Just start. Tell your body to go. Don't think about the pain you might feel as a result. Whether you stop or go is completely within your control. So, make the decision to go, and don't anticipate what will happen next.
Move with intention. Rather than overcompensating for negative emotions by flailing your limbs around and praying this hell will end soon, approach this task like meditation. Tackle the burpees one by one, step by step. As you climb the hill, simply put one foot after the other. Focus on your technique. How can you adjust to make the movement easier? Are your shoulders scrunched up by your ears? Are your arms floundering about and wasting energy? Are you placing emphasis on the proper muscles? The subtleties of your body's movement require so much focus that you'll have no focus left for anything else, including (that's right) how awful it may feel.
Pay attention to the physical sensations in his body, not the thoughts they're tied to. Maybe your chest is tight. Feel the air enter and exit your lungs. If your legs are burning, notice how the sensation comes and goes as you move. These feelings should be acknowledged and experienced fully. However, don't assign meaning to them. Don't judge them.
Mindful exercise increases your mind-body connection, and therefore optimizes the effectiveness of your workout. but more importantly, it opens the door for a positive experience.
I took several major steps before I felt the benefits of mindful exercise.
First, I redefined my goal.
Instead of focusing on a numerical goal (body weight, time, miles, reps, etc), I set an experiential goal:
I wanted to look forward to working out, and I wanted to derive genuine enjoyment from the experience.
But how? I couldn't completely eliminate the pain from working out.
Instead, I changed my relationship to pain.
A friend of mine made an off-handed comment that inspired me to do this. He expressed how much he looked forward to running every day. Naturally, I didn't believe him. But he countered with:
“It’s the only part of the day I get to move really fast.”
His words hit me like a brick. I had gotten so comfortable in my daily life. Why did I spend so much time and energy trying to avoid physical discomfort? I was hardly ever in a situation where I had to be physically uncomfortable. And even when I worked out, I would tense up and count down the minutes until it was over.
It's natural to avoid pain at all costs. So how could I learn to enjoy it, or even crave it?
I was in a yoga class when I first stumbled upon the joy of hurting. We entered chair pose at the end of a difficult sequence. My legs were already burning. I was shaking and sweaty. Naturally, I'd decided the next twenty seconds would be hell. I scrunched up my face, gritted my teeth, and started internally screaming as I wished the moments away.
Then the instructor said:
"Try smiling while you're here."
My first impulse was to slap her across the face. Then I tried it, and everything changed.
Once I smiled, I felt an odd separation from my pain. I was able to observe it with perspective, and better yet, elation. Before I knew it, I was laughing as the feeling coursed through me. I was alive.
I was amazed that the same stimulus, pain, could elicit two completely opposite responses: anger and tension, or relaxation and laughter.
And the only difference was a simple choice.
After that experience, I re-defined pain as an intense feeling. Soon, I was addicted to it. Pain is evidence that something is changing. When I feel it take over my body, I welcome the discomfort. It allows me to be completely present and makes everything else feel new.
Once I got to that point, pain no longer held power over me. I could choose to induce it, and I could choose when to lay down and stop. Once I took ownership of that decision, I felt empowered and inspired to push myself harder.
Remember, you are not your pain. You are the observer of your pain. Furthermore, you can treat it like a friend. Welcome it in and spend time with it. Don't dread it, don't wish it would go away. Hang out with it.
You might find your aversion to pain wasn't the best use of your energy after all.
Finally, to make this new practice sustainable, I had to accept that perfect consistency is an illusion.
Just like we have to continuously get to know our long-term partners, we have to continually discover exercise. You are a new you every day, every moment. Adjust accordingly.
As you embark on your workout, keep an open mind. Instead of predicting how it will go, stay in touch with your body. Ask yourself, what do I have to give today? You might notice you have more energy than usual - one of those days where your feet seem to spring from the ground, and standing up tall is easy. If so, capitalize on it. You might be able to push further, run farther, or lift more than you'd planned to.
However, if the ground feels like mud and your blood feels like molasses, you might have less to give today. Push yourself, but don't feel pressured to go as far as you'd planned. This could result in an experience that will discourage you from wanting to exercise in the future.
Remember, any movement is better than none. We've been conditioned to have an all-or-nothing mindset, which leads to unrealistic expectations and self-judgment.
But it's okay to take it easy. Don't let your workout become a positive punishment. If you want to stay motivated, you have to enjoy it a little.
Staying present and eliminating unnecessary tension is much easier said than done. It’s easy to gloss over the fact that you’ve been living all day as Spiraling Stan until 5:00 pm when you’ve already yelled at your assistant and sent your spouse a nasty text about dinner.
Applying mindfulness to our lives and our workouts is a decision we must continually make, moment-to-moment.
Last week, I was in a psychological rut while running through the park. I was so unmotivated it hurt, trudging across the cement like a corpse. I almost stopped to buy some ice cream.
Instead, I decided to switch things up. Today, I clearly wasn't in the mood. But I was determined to keep moving, so I might as well make it fun.
I decided to run through the park like a kid, flailing my limbs about however I pleased. I was self-conscious for a moment, but it was 100% worth it.
I highly encourage everyone to try this. If you become disenchanted with your workout or just don't have the energy, remind yourself that there are no rules. You can move about the world for the sake of joy. You might get tired sooner, but that's okay. It doesn't matter if this is sustainable. Right now, in this moment, you're moving and having fun.
Enjoy the wind on your face. You are alive. You can move fast. There is nothing more incredible than that.