When I began specializing in women’s relationship with food and body image, I saw a pattern among my clients around exercise.
- Feeling panicked when illness or vacation interrupts their workout routine
- Feeling like walking “isn’t enough”
- Restricting or allowing food based on exercise that day
- Feeling anxious about gaining weight
- Feeling miserable if any weight gain occurs
One woman told me, “I feel an intense need to control my exercise routine. If I take a break, I start to obsess about it, and I feel guilty and anxious.”
We discussed how that’s a form of body disconnection, because it prioritizes external rules and prevents listening to the body’s desire for rest and movement. She agreed there was a disconnection, and added, “Even though I have a lot of anxiety around exercise, when I’m doing an intense run or spin class, it’s a form of temporary escape. I get in the flow and don’t think about all the things I typically stress about.”
When clients tell describe the above patterns around working out, I know they’re struggling with “exercise anxiety.” Rather than improving our health, this relationship with exercise tends to make us brittle and tense, impeding spontaneity and joy in our lives.
Here’s how I help clients establish a better relationship with movement:
Disconnect Food and Exercise
I once counted every calorie I consumed, down to the five calories per stick of gum I chewed. I noted the number of burned calories on the treadmill monitor after my daily run. I constantly sipped water or diet soda, trying to fill my stomach and satiate my carb cravings.
I didn’t eat food, I ate numbers. I didn’t move, I burned calories. I didn’t feel, I measured.
Eating approaches that call for counting calories, points, or macronutrients tend to turn the body into a machine and food into a math equation. This approach is often the exact opposite of mindful eating.
Mindfulness eating requires a listening relationship with our bodies where we honor its unique, changeable needs and desires. We were born with this intuitive ability to listen to our bodies.
When you were a baby, you knew when you were hungry and you stopped eating when you were full. In an ideal environment, as you grew up, you would have continued to listen to your body’s craving for specific foods and nutrients for optimal nourishment.
We know this is the case due to the research of Dr. Weston Price. He found that indigenous cultures that eat the diet traditional to their ancestors had nearly perfect health. They had no degenerative disease, perfect bone structure, no need for glasses or orthodonture, great fertility, and easy births.
Unfortunately modern culture has eroded our intuition around food, convincing us we can’t trust our hunger, fullness or food cravings. The cultural obsession with female thinness also ties in, because many women feel pressure to maintain a weight lower than their body’s ideal set point.
Start to rekindle your natural intuition around food by disconnecting it from exercise. When you eat, allow your choices to be informed by the present moment, including your present hunger levels. When you calculate food intake around how much you did or didn’t workout, that’s taking your attention into the past or the future, and out of present-moment body connection.
2. Let walking be enough
Exercise anxiety manifests as a need to maintain rigorous exercise routines, even in the face of a global pandemic, periods of heightened stress, and temporary schedule changes. All of those factors take energy, leaving your body with less resources to build muscle or endure cardio.
While movement plays a key role in mental and physical health, so does rest.
Before quarantine, I did hot yoga 6 times per week. I loved the music, the sweat, and the mental benefits. I haven’t done any movement besides walking since quarantine began, however, and I’m chill about it. Here’s why:
- I’ve been bedridden due to health issues many times during my life. I was a dancer (not professional) at the time, unable exercise for months. I would freak out about “getting behind” and out of shape. Well, I did lose some of strength, flexibility, and stamina I had built up.But then I got better, went back to class, and got back in shape. The lesson? C’est la effing vie. It’s okay to loosen up your exercise ethic, especially during times of illness, crisis, and transition. In fact, that kind of mental flexibility is a critical aspect of wellbeing and stress management.
- Many European cultures don’t have the same compulsion about working out that Americans have. They walk around and bike more. (They also tend to be less stressed (less stressed) and have an immensely healthier relationship with food than Americans, which may contribute to less exercise obsession.)
- When we value exercise only for calorie burning and body shaping, we disregard the other benefits of walking. Research shows walking through the forest — “forest bathing” — reduces stress levels and depression (2). If you workout to be healthier and feel better, walks in nature accomplish those goals.
- During quarantine, there have been points where walking hasn’t been enough for me. At those times, I have pent-up energy or feel the need to lift my spirits. So, I turn on a fun playlist and have a solo dance party. I highly recommend having this routine in your emotional wellbeing toolkit. Instead of thinking of it as “burning calories,” just let it be fun… like movement used to be before culture convinced you otherwise.
3. Allow your body to change
Exercise anxiety often comes up when we’re living below our weight set point. This means that it requires constant food preoccupation and exercise obsession to avoid gaining weight.
An unwillingness to loosen control around exercise and body shape often masks an unwillingness to loosen control in other areas of your life. Control is a strategy to feel safe, loved, and enough in life.
When we’re forcing one area of our lives (i.e. “don’t gain weight!” or “stay in shape!”) we can block the very experiences we most desire. Namely, those experiences of being safe, loved, and enough.
As author Elizabeth Gilbert says:
You’re afraid to surrender because you don’t want to give up control. But you never had control, you only had anxiety.
Anne Lamott, in her book Grace (Eventually), described how she helped her Sunday School kids understand the spiritual concept of “letting go.”
She held two colored markers, one in each hand. “What if,” she said, “when we go in for our snacks, someone offers me a juice box, and I won’t let go of these pens, even though I’m thirsty.”
Then she slowly unfurled her fingers and let the markers drop, while the kids watched in awe. They understood: Letting go.
She then asked them, “So why would you want to let go?”
One six-year-old answered, “Because you’re thirsty?”
“Bingo!” She exclaimed.
When it comes to rigorous exercise routines or unbending food rules, you think you’re holding onto the solution. But you might be holding onto the problem.
What if you let go so you could accept the juice box full of love, acceptance, and relaxation?
You might meditate or journal on the following:
If you’re unwilling to let your body soften, where are you unwilling to let your life soften? Where are you rejecting more relaxation, ease, and self-acceptance because you want to control how people perceive your life?
Do you resonate with the concept of exercise anxiety?