Up until recently if you’d asked me what “intuitive exercise” was I’d have said that it was running away from a bear.
In almost every other conceivable moment, I felt that exercise wasn’t intuitive at all. When I ran, my body cried out for me to walk. When I sunk into a press-up, the instinct was to let gravity claim the inevitable victory by staying flat on the gym floor. When my alarm went off at 6:30, intuitively I felt it was best to ignore it, roll over and continue my slumber.
I actually felt then, that exercise was entirely counterintuitive.
There was no pull from deep within me to do it, no rattle from the cabinet in the back of my brain containing desperate endorphins just begging to be set free. No, I felt as if I was naturally sedentary and comfortably so.
Self care didn’t exist at the time, but if I’d been asked to define it I’d have told you that it was a Chinese takeaway and a share bag of chocolate buttons. Never in a million years would I have drawn my own conclusion that the key to unequivocal happiness and self love was by putting the dumplings down and picking the dumbbells up.
Fast forward a few years and I find myself the Instagram wanker of #fitspo dreams; exercising almost daily for no other reason than that it makes me so fucking happy.
I say all the annoying things that I used to hate hearing other people say: “I just sleep SO much better on the days when I’ve worked out”. “Honestly I’m so grateful for these endorphins they make me so much happier than jaegerbombs ever could”. “Exercise just makes me feel like me, y’know?”.
Yeh yeh, fuck off and die.
But perversely, it’s all true. SOMEHOW (I know how, I’ll get to that in a minute), I have learned how to “intuitively exercise”; running not just because it’s preferable to being eaten by a bear or swimming because it’s preferable to drowning. I do it not just because I feel like I should but because I actually want to.
And most shockingly of all: I’m not doing it because I want to lose weight.
I’m really not.
Really, really not.
Actually swear to god.
What the fuck.
Because if you ain’t doin’ it for the bod bbz, then literally, why you bothering?
My relationship with exercise (during the CHOOSE DUMPLING era) had a certain predictability to it, the cycle, beginning in January with the opportunity to overhaul my entire life and become a whole new person by blending a celery stick.
I’d say something bold like THIS YEAR I’M GOING TO DO 1000 SITUPS A NIGHT EVERY NIGHT BEFORE BED AND THEN I WILL PROBS HAVE A SIX PACK BY VALENTINE’S DAY (and obvs a man who’s totes fallen in love with me and my mega body by then as well) which obviously never worked because at some point on the 3rd of January or thereabouts I’d lose count around the 65 mark and sack it all off because 1000 sit-ups really is quite a lot.
May would roll around and I’d realise that in a few short weeks it would be summer and I’d probably have to wear a bikini at some point and OH HOLY FUCK BALLS I GOTTA GO TO THE GYM EVERY DAY BETWEEN NOW AND THEN IF I WANT ANYONE TO EVEN THINK ABOUT LOVING ME and I would go a couple of times but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable and never really knew what I was doing and it all seemed a bit hard so maybe I should go for a run instead.
Maybe I should go for a run.
Or maybe not.
And then that little seedling of an idea would grow and before I know it it’s the day before the holiday and I haven’t done any exercise and I still feel very fat and miserable but it’s too late now.
etc. etc. etc.
I suppose when you look at it like that, my exercise was intuitive.
Thanks to diet culture, I intuitively knew that self improvement would come when I shrunk my body and that the way to do that would be to get in the gym and start punishing myself for letting the situation get so out of hand (read: not looking like every woman in the media, ever). I’d be overwhelmed by the task, distraught at not having identified changes IMMEDIATELY and would give up quickly, feeling depressed and disheartened.
Honestly this shit came about with a predictability I wish my periods had had.
Exercise was all about how I looked. Even as I got older, and found myself better able to commit to the task. I signed up for gyms and went to classes and forced myself out on runs and I think I did quite a good job of pretending to really enjoy what I was doing.
Only giving it away when I got home and checked my heart rate monitor to see how many calories I’d burned, before meticulously weighing out the food that this exercise had allowed me.
If only I’d run another mile, I could have had a banana with this porridge, I’d think.
A happy thought from a happy girl with a happy hobby.
I may well have started enjoying exercise, but my motives were still so rooted in unhappiness. I was still going with the singular goal of self-improvement. I wanted thinner legs and less fat and a better arse and this was how I was going to get it.
Now you may well be reading this and thinking that that sounds entirely normal. And in a sense, you’d be right. That is, after all, what society has been saying to us all these years.
For most people the incentive to exercise is purely aesthetic, an entirely unsurprising fact when you consider the fact that the diet industry is thought to be valued somewhere at around $200 billion right now.
It’s literally all we’ve been told: it’s how gym’s get us through the door and the means by which companies can sell us shit we don’t need: skinny teas and waist trainers and whatever other crap the Kardashians have slapped their names to recently.
So connected to us are exercise and diet that when people said all that annoying bullshit that I said I say now too; about how truly HAPPY exercise makes us, we rolled our eyes to the heavens, not believing a word they said.
Cos how can something that we’re driven to out of such sadness make us so happy?
The thing that got me exercising, that gets so many people exercising, is self loathing. Or at the very least, a desperation to look better and to be better.
How could something as good as happiness come from that?
Well, that’s the thing, I don’t think it can, not really.
Which is why I was so unhappy for all of those years.
Exercise makes you feel better. It is good for you. For your body and the way it looks, yes, but for so much more than that: your physical health and your mental health improve ten fold when you are able to incorporate regular exercise into your life. We know that. They tell us that shit all the time.
But getting into exercise for positive reasons, joining the smug “we do it cos we love it” lot, feels a bit like jumping onto a hamster wheel when it’s already moving at full speed; it’s joining a modern languages course half way through the term or arriving to the birthday party of a friend to whom you are the only pal she has that she didn’t go to school with.
It’s also annoying because as much as these fuckers claim they’re only in it for the mental side of things, their bodies tell a different story, since, y’know, exercise does famously give us all the things that diet culture told us it would (although significantly fewer of them and over a significantly longer period of time, for what it’s worth).
As much as they tell us they’re just there for their heads, we take one look at their bodies, sculpted by years of “being happy”, apparently, and assume that they have to be lying. As if THAT is just the byproduct of these peoples’ exercise? How annoying are they? Accidentally looking fantastic when we’re the ones with all these good intentions and such a fiercely determined desperation.
As annoying a realisation as it was though, I realised that these people weren’t lying. And that even if they were, what they were doing really wasn’t my problem anyway. We have a LOT of unlearning to do.
For me, it was running a marathon that changed exercise for me.
SORRY, DID I MENTION THAT I RAN A MARATHON?? (I’ve actually run two, sorry, not sorry, #smugwanker #whoisshe #someoneshutherup).
Giving myself such a gargantuan task allowed me, for the first time, to approach exercise from an entirely new angle. Soon the amount of calories I’d burned paled into insignificance as I pushed out distances that I’d previously been too lazy to drive, let alone run. I had a new focus, new numbers to concentrate on and before I knew what had happened, exercise wasn’t about how I looked: it was about this really cool thing my body was doing that hurt quite a lot but that I wasn’t going to give up on.
And now I’m not training anymore, but I’ve become so happy in amongst the endorphins that I’m loathed to let them go and most mornings now I pull on my lycra and go to the gym and have a laugh with my friends (because as it turns out most people in gyms are actually really nice and friendly and not all scary and wanky) and sometimes I notice something cool happening to my body like a new bulge in my shoulders (it’s called a trap, apparently), but mostly I don’t really think about the physical side of things, it’s just a part of my day-to-day existence now, a sweaty but smiley start to my days that I love.
And although getting out of bed at 6am to carry on not looking like Kate Moss still feels entirely counterintuitive, I’m actually happier than I’ve ever been before.
And as wanky as that all sounds, it’s something I’m really keen to share because I feel like I’ve just stuck it to diet culture big time and unlocked the door to this great place and I kinda want to spread the word about it.
Last night I went to the launch of a new book by Tally Rye called “Train Happy”* which is all about this. It’s an intuitive exercise plan for every body and it asks, in the blurb, “if exercise had zero impact on your weight or appearance, would you still do it?” and as counter-intuitive as it feels, I’m so pleased to finally be able to answer YES to that question.
If this is something that you’d like to learn more about I would SO recommend Tally’s book (available here*).
In the meantime, here’s to trying something new: maybe setting yourself a challenge (NO IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A MARATHON) which will change the way you view exercise? Maybe it’s working out without wearing your heart rate monitor for the first time? Maybe it’s trying something that doesn’t even feel like exercise: like climbing a tree or mounting a pole or going dancing or horseback riding or maybe even taking part in a big orgie (haha just checking that you’re concentrating).
Maybe it’s just about trying, in spite of everything diet culture told us, to make exercise a bit more fun….