I was in a bad mood. All morning I felt like I couldn’t snap myself out of it. Every little thing was bothering me. There was really no reason for it. My mind just felt consumed by negativity, and I was finding fault in everything.
Unfortunately, Deanna inserted herself into my mental stream of negativity by doing something she never should have – she talked to me.
My internal negative state then got projected outwards, and an argument commenced. I have no idea what it was about. But I’m 100% sure it was dumb. It was just my mind attaching onto something in order to quench its need to feel validated.
This bickering went on for hours – until I put an end to the text argument going on from separate rooms of the house and decided to work out.
After just a 30 minute workout I was a new person. Getting my heart rate up and moving my body snapped me out of the negative mental state I was in. The change in behavior had created new thoughts and emotions.
I apologized to her before my workout was even done. I had been caught up in this negative state for half the day, and a 30 minute workout made me do a full 180.
It’s these kinds of experiences you have to start recognizing if you want to start attaching new meaning to physical activity and heal your relationship with exercise.
These experience are what help you find the intrinsic value in moving your body. They change you – not by making you stronger, faster, or more muscular, but by changing how you mentally and physically feel. You get the benefits now. There’s no need to delay gratification. The reward is instant.
Right now you likely see working out as a means to an end. Exercise equals calories burned equals weight loss.
And while there is of course some truth to that equation on paper, the math still has to be played out in real life, which requires you to consider many of the psychological influences on exercise.
If much of the association you have with exercise is all about body manipulation, weight loss frustrations, and lack of enjoyment, then you are going to find it very difficult to consistently engage in physical activity long enough for future outcomes to manifest.
A miserable means rarely takes you to an enjoyable end. So you need to find ways to create new empowering experiences with exercise – moments you can draw on for motivation when your desired outcomes aren’t coming fast enough or fulfilling your expectations.
One of the ways you can create these new experiences is by recognizing the ways that exercise changes your mental state. On any given day, a good workout can neutralize stress and anxiety, boost your mood, improve your confidence, create a “high”, and even take you from a negative body image day to a positive one.
Most of the time our thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to behaviors. And then these behaviors feed back into our thoughts and emotions – creating either an upward spiral of positive thoughts and behaviors, or a downward spiral of the opposite. But you can also insert yourself into that thought/emotion/behavior cycle at the behavior point by working out and creating a state change.
Each time you recognize positive changes in your attitude, energy, or enjoyment as a result of working out, your experience is automatically added to your mental motivation bank, which helps you reinforce the intrinsic value of physical activity. You’re continually reminded that you don’t have to wait for the payoff – the workout is the payoff.
And you still get all those secondary benefits like improved health, strength, etc, because you’re more likely to enjoy the process and stay engaged with it long enough to experience them.
Cultivate the Mind / Body Connection
In order to be able to recognize the changes in your mental and physical states and enjoy the instant and intrinsic gratification of physical activity, you have to be connected to your body. This can be really difficult for some people since exercise has never really been about the now – it’s always been a means to a better future.
But as I’ve mentioned countless times, your desired future is simply the result of you consistently meeting your needs of the now. And one of those needs is having a pleasant exercise experience.
Most of us recognize the negative states our body is in. States of anxiety, stress, and low energy are easy to identify with. It’s easy to become your body in those instances. What isn’t as easy for many people is to be self-aware and present enough to notice the positive state your body is in during and after exercise. This takes some practice, but the more in tune you are with your body, the more you can reap the benefits of movement.
What you want to do is try to recognize the different sensations in your body around the periods of heightened physical activity. What happens to your body? What changes? What do you notice about your breathing? What about your heart rate? Do you feel any tingling in your arms or legs? Does your brain feel like it’s been stimulated?
Have you ever felt a runner’s high? What about a pump in your muscles when you’re lifting weights? Did the exercise you just did calm you? Or did it give you more energy? Did it build confidence? Did it change your mood?
Close your eyes right now. See if you can notice and feel your heart beat. Try to feel it not just in your chest but all throughout your body. Pretend like there’s a little you sitting in your head monitoring your body and your thoughts. This is your self. Now pay attention to your breathing. Watch the air fill your lungs and leave through your nose on each breath. Listen to the sounds of your body.
Some people practice this through meditation. That’s a great practice and something I do and recommend for everyone. But whether you choose to do it or not, the goal is still the same – cultivate the mind/body connection.
When that connection is strong because it was built through conscious intention, it then works subconsciously on autopilot. You become aware of the mental and physical state changes that occur when you move your body either during a workout or simply through functional movement. And each time you move your body, you get a dose of satisfaction.
This happens once the negative associations and meaning that are currently attached to exercise are stripped away. Only then can you get in touch with movement’s true nature. That might sound kind of out there to you, a little woo-woo maybe. But ask yourself whether you’re currently getting as much joy from movement as you’d like. And if you’re not, be open-minded to ditching the surface level “exercise is a body manipulation tool” mentality, and instead start turning inwards and connecting to yourself on a deeper level.
This connection with your body is what drives you to want to move your body for the sheer joy of it. It gives you the instant payoff. And it’s what keeps you coming back for more.
How hard you exert yourself during your workouts matters. But that doesn’t mean pushing yourself to your limits is always the right thing to do. Sometimes pushing too hard can cause unwanted side effects in enjoyment, experience, and how you feel mentally and physically. This is why the “no pain, no gain” mentally is actually hurtful. Because there are plenty of times where the pain leads to no gain – especially when it creates resistance to you wanting to work out because it makes you miserable.
The same goes for not pushing yourself enough. It’s entirely possible to under-exert yourself and not feel any of the benefits of mindful movement. So you work out, but it doesn’t really feel like you did anything. Neither your body nor your mind were stimulated, so no state changes were experienced. Without them, it becomes difficult to find the intrinsic value in the physical activity you’re doing, and motivation suffers.
Mental and physical state changes happen at both the low intensity and high intensity areas of the spectrum, and everything in between. And each type of physical activity you do has its own unique profile and what I like to call an “exertion tipping point”.
Each type of movement you do has its own bell curve. There’s both a minimum and a maximum level of exertion that leads to a desired state change, and somewhere in the middle is the optimum spot.
And this bell curve isn’t static – it’s dynamic based on certain variables you bring into the movement experience. The time that you work out will influence this bell curve and its exertion tipping point. So will the mental and physical state you’re in when you enter into that particular physical activity.
This is why it’s so important to cultivate the mind/body connection and to work with your body instead of trying to fit it into a cookie cutter workout program. Some days you’re going to have more energy. And others you’re going to have less than ideal conditions. Regardless, if you are in touch with your body, you can move your body in a way that makes you feel good, and leaves you in a better mental and physical state than when you started.
So what is exertion anyways? The way I define it is very simple. It’s a function of both your workout duration and its intensity. In other words, how long you work out, and how hard you work out. And both these variables can be experimented with in order to give you the optimum workout experience.
For example, I greatly enjoy my morning walks. And one of the reasons why I enjoy them is because of the mental and physical state changes they create.
My walks are leisurely and one of the first things I do after waking up. I’m not powerwalking. I’m walking at a normal pace. I’m not checking my heart rate or doing any kind of performance based measuring.
Before starting my walk I’m still not completely awake. My mind is not firing at 100%, and my body definitely isn’t ready to tackle intense physical activity. But after my walk, my mind and body are feeling fresh and ready to tackle the day. I’m ready to sit down and start writing, or even do a more intense strength training workout.
My walk changed my mental and physical states. It primed me for having a great day. But notice how it wasn’t intense exercise. It wasn’t more is better. In fact, it is difficult for me to do intense physical activity so early in the morning. And when I try to do it, it actually has a detrimental effect on my mental and physical states.
For me, at that time of the day, a longer walk at a leisurely intensity hits the sweet spot of that bell curve. When I go for a walk after dinner with Deanna, my walk is shorter. In that instance, a longer walk would also be detrimental to my states. This can always change as time goes on – especially if you end up having an empowering exercise experience that makes you look at the situation differently. So understand that what is optimal is about the now.
Your exertion tipping points and bell curves will look different than mine. Some people like short but intense workouts. Others like their strength training to take a little longer with more rest between sets (less intense).
Your job is to cultivate the mind/body connection so you can find that sweet spot – the spot where you really internalize the intrinsic value of physical activity. Because this is the kind of empowering association you need to cultivate in order to replace the old disempowering one of – exercise equals weight loss.
Physical activity is not a means to an end. It is the end. It just so happens that when you find the intrinsic value in movement, you end up engaging with it more consistently. And when that happens, there are beneficial side effects. But these side effects will always be secondary to the experience itself.
Physical activity should be a net positive when it comes to your energy levels. If it’s not, then something is wrong.
Many people who are stuck in Diet Culture end up experiencing a net negative effect on their energy. This happens for many reasons. For starters, they usually go from doing no exercise to suddenly doing daily intense workouts with the flip of the switch. This doesn’t give your body or mind enough time to adapt to the sudden stress you’re putting your body through. In time, the physical stress accumulated via your workouts outpaces your recovery, and it’s easy to end up taking long extended times off from working out all together due to burnout.
Another reason this net negative energy situation happens is because exercise is normally paired with a calorie restricted diet when someone is trying to lose weight. Physical activity requires energy, aka calories. And when you’re dieting and are in a sudden 500-1000 calorie deficit each day because you want to lose 1-2 pounds per week, it makes it hard to perform at your best. Exercise starts feeling like a chore. Your motivation to get out of bed to do it diminishes, and then you stop doing it. Exercise becomes a drain on your already low energy, and that association becomes ingrained – making it harder and harder to be motivated to work out, especially if your weight isn’t dropping.
So long as you see exercise as a way to burn calories, instead of a tool for enjoyment, experience, and to feel good, you will continue to have a net negative energy liability. If you don’t feel more energized as a result of your workouts, then you either have a disempowering association with physical activity, you’re not eating enough to support that much activity, or you haven’t optimized the amount and type of exercise you do, which usually ties back into the association you have with it.
You should feel good after a workout. Feeling nauseous, exhausted, or any other negative sensation is a sign something is off. Yes… there will be one-off workouts where you push yourself to that point. That’s going to happen. But it shouldn’t be the norm. It can’t be the norm. Your body won’t let it be the norm. You’ll naturally lose the drive to do it unless your fear of gaining weight holds you hostage to doing it. In that case, you’re acting from a place of constant fear AND you feel physically horrible doing it – lose/lose.
So start to feel the difference physical activity makes. Just as you eat to feel your best, you move your body to feel your best. If you eat something that doesn’t make you feel good, would you keep eating it even if it resulted in weight loss? Hopefully not. But if you’re deep in Diet Culture you very well might. It’s the same for exercise. If you’re doing something that doesn’t feel good, stop doing it. Don’t allow the societal pressures of weight loss push you into doing something that doesn’t make you happy. Besides… feeling good from exercise is what makes you want to do it. It’s what gets you out of bed. The payoff is now. But it’s also in the future, because you’re actually doing it. And why do you do it? Because it feels good. See how that works?
Similar to how intuitive eating allows you to eat in a way that works with your body and its feedback, intuitive exercise also allows you to adjust your workouts in real time based on how you’re feeling and what your body is telling you.
Not every workout you have is going to be amazing. You’re not always going to feel up for working out and/or pushing yourself to your limits. In some workouts you’re going to feel strong and invincible, and in others you’re going to contemplate cutting it short and calling it a day.
These are normal ups and downs of exercise. Even if your relationship with exercise is amazing and you thoroughly enjoy the physical activity you do, there’s still going to be those days where you feel a little off. And that’s when you have to be a little intuitive about your exercise.
Pushing yourself when your body is saying to pull back some is like continuing to eat well past comfortable fullness. Your body is saying to do one thing yet your mind isn’t honoring that signal.
It’s hard for some people to pull back with their workouts. There’s a little bit of all-or-nothing thinking involved that makes them feel like anything less than an all-out workout is just not worth it.
And let’s not get started with suggesting you just not work out today and take the day off. That can really stir up some emotion. Sometimes I don’t know what’s harder – working out when you don’t want to, or not working out when you really do.
But look, if you’re feeling sick or maybe injured, sometimes just taking a recovery day is what’s best in the long run. Maybe you do go ahead and work out, but you just pull back a little bit on how hard you push.
Intuitive exercise isn’t just about knowing when to pull back though. It’s also about knowing when to push beyond what was originally planned.
Sometimes you plan to only lift a certain amount of weight for your workout, but as you warm up you realize you feel really good. So you end up working out with more weight than was planned. Or maybe you do an extra rep or set.
If you like to run, you’ve probably had those moments mid run when you feel amazing and just want to throw in a speedier interval or three. Maybe your easy run pace feels extra easy today. That’s the feeling we’re looking out for that we want to be intuitive with. We want to start understanding effort, instead of relying solely on the numbers.
And finally, sometimes intuitive exercise means pushing yourself to just do something, anything for some physical activity. You’re not always going to feel like working out. There’s a fine line between taking the day off because you don’t feel good, and pushing yourself to do something so you will feel good.
If skipping workouts isn’t the norm but you’re feeling really off today, then that’s when being intuitive might mean taking the day off. But if you’ve been missing workouts lately and the lack of physical activity is making you feel bad, then being intuitive and pushing yourself to just do something would be an act of self-care.
If pushing yourself to work out so you can have a good experience doesn’t get you out of that cycle, then it’s time to explore why that’s happening. Maybe it’s time to change things up. Maybe you need to get back to what makes you happy. Maybe some disempowering associations, such as calorie burn or body manipulation, have crept back in to your workouts. Staying mindful, intuitive, and investigative will help you uncover your truth.
The more you can work with your body, pulling back when you’re feeling off, and pushing when you feel something extra is there, the more enjoyable your workouts will be and the better chance you’ll have at achieving your goals.