In writing this blog post today I am procrastinating the completion of a massive piece of editing. I’ve created a monster. I’ve been assigned the rewarding task of creating a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada. “Write two pages”, they said. Naturally, that exploded into 10 (concision isn’t a strong suit of mine…).

My brain’s going a little dead, so, to avoid making silly editing decisions, I’m giving the paper some space so I can remember why I’m writing it in the first place.

When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, remember the bigger picture.

Anyway, let’s talk about me: I’m in a weird place with my training right now, and I’m pretty sure some of you will be able to relate.

I haven’t deadlifted since November 2015.

I know… Who am I??

I love lifting. I love feeling strong. I especially love doing what I do best- Sagittal plane extension-based movement. But I’ve lost sight of a greater “why”.

Honestly, taking Anatomy in Motion was the catalyst. AiM forced me to reflect on this idea of movement vs. exercise. This course explores natural human motion, and participants get to bring to life, in their own bodies, what this means at every joint, in every plane of movement (and I’m excited to be re-taking this course in May in New York).

After AiM, I realized that I no longer had the desire to “exercise” for the sake of exercising. It needed to mean something more, and I needed to re-evaluate the relationship I had with it.

So I  dropped anything that felt like “exercise”. My training is now quite minimalistic.

I was trying to explain this to my room-mate.

“What?? You’ve stopped deadlifing? The king of all lifts?” Incredulous.

I told him that the distinction between “what is movement and what is exercise” had become muddy. I needed to step back from it and sit with this idea for a while until I had clarity.

The look he gave me.

“So what are the distinctions?” He asked me.

“I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And until then, I don’t do anything that feels like exercise”.

This also puts me in a very weird position in my field of work.

As a trainer/strength coach/movement coach/massage therapist/detective, people expect me to help them exercise and get strong, often in the presence of chronic pain. I’m happy with that expectation, but I also feel that expectations are limiting. How lovely would it be if every client came in with zero expectations? Imagine how much they would grow, being totally open, completely trusting the process?

Most people come see me, or are referred to me generally because they want to work on their “fitness” and  learn “exercises”, or get a program to “do”. But not everyone cares about their relationship with exercise.

I do my best not to bring my personal biases into my work with clients because they might not serve my clients’ goals. This happens a lot in the fitness industry: Trainers imposing what is important to them on their clients, but not considering what their clients really value or need.

I won’t force my ideas on my clients, but I really want them to take the time to think about this exercise vs. movement thing. I feel that it is important, especially if you’ve been recommended to train with me because you want to move forward from pain.

Even dancers rarely take the time to consider this idea.

I’ve asked dancers: “Why do you dance?”, and many of them say that they enjoy the physical exertion. They like getting exercise in a way that isn’t boring, like working out at the gym or jogging.

If this is you, I encourage you to dig a bit deeper. If you’re dancing because it’s the most enjoyable, least boring form of exercise you can find, consider whether your relationship with dance is one of exercise or movement. What does that mean to you?

I used to be an exerciser. Physical activity was a huge value of mine and my family, and I think this is a great thing. But while I loved the “exercise” component of dance, it wasn’t just about the physical exertion. It was escape, exploration, and self-expression above all- things that are facilitated through movement.

And then that changed. Somehow, the focus became burning calories, strengthening muscles, getting “toned”, and my relationship changed from “movement form” to “exercise form”.

The same thing happened with my training. Work-outs were exercise. There was no goal but to work hard, sweat, and burn calories because I felt it was necessary for no particular reason. That changed a bit when I started focusing on strength, but it was still a need to exercise.

Where I am at now, I don’t want to workout because I feel like I need to exercise. Exercise is important. I recognize this. But our relationship with exercise matters more.

These are a few distinctions and ideas that have come up as I rethink movement vs. exercise:

1. Movement training embodies Wu Wei: Effortlessness. Action through non-action.

A Taoist philosophy. This is the feeling of being mobilized to act, not forcing oneself to train out of a sense of need or guilt. Rather, movement training implies the want to explore motion, with an intrinsic momentum pushing you forward, curiously.

It should feel effortless. Not effortless in the sense that you’re not working hard while  training, but effortless in your summoning of will to do it and desire to work hard at it. Exercise is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. We put it off, skip it, and are relieved when it’s done. Just a tick on our daily check-list.

2. Movement quality vs. exercise quantity: How much do I really need to lift be “strong”?

I used to train in a power-lifting style. I got pretty strong in a relative sense, and I guess I still am. But my body didn’t feel great after a solid stint of Wendler 531.

With dancers, too, I feel there is a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer useful to become strongER in an absolute, or even relative sense. Strength is only one component of fitness that dancers require. Too much “exercise” interferes with movement quality.

Ironically I feel stronger in this non-exercise phase. How do you explain that? I think it is  because moving well as a human is requisite for being strong: Movement quality is potential to tap. Or because I’m always well-recovered?

The more I experience this “strength without strength training”, the less I want to exercise, and the more curious I am to explore how movement quality improves physical resilience.

3. Exercise requires movement, but movement does not always imply exercise.

I love a fallacy. Which should we be prioritizing?

4. Movement helps us enter flow state.

Because there is a goal in mind beyond working hard and sweating, which is generally what comes to mind when we hear the word “exercise”.

5. Movement teaches us about ourselves and the world.

Helping people explore this idea is one of the aims of CAPE, the  movement workshops I co-teach with Wensy Wong.

As in movement, so too in life. When we feel challenges come up in our body’s ability to perform, we can almost always see this same challenge present at a different level in our lives: Why can’t I do this? What’s holding me back? What options am I creating for myself? Why am I stuck in this pattern? Am I being honest?

It is always amazes me how revealing movement is of who we are. Exercise tends only to help us tune out and distract us (which isn’t bad, just different).

Sounds like I’m anti exercise, doesn’t it? I’m not. Just for right now. I’m trying on a different perspective. I felt lost for a while, through November and December when I stopped exercising, but I’m comfortable now with the fact that whenever I feel like it, I can come back to exercise because it will always be there.

Movement, on the other hand, won’t unless we take the time to explore it and own it. Movement quality deteriorates with non-use, but we can always exercise without movement quality (well, maybe not always…).

This distinction will be different for everyone. I still train, but I choose not to do exercises that feel like exercise. 

I encourage everyone to have a think about this exercise vs. movement thing.

As dancers, it also serves us to take a step away from dance momentarily to consider why we’re doing it. Know that the things you’ve attached a particular meaning to will always be there for you, even after you’ve dropped the attachment, you can always come back.

When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, and remember the bigger picture.