If you recall THIS blog post from a few months ago, then you are aware that I’ve been taking a break from “exercise”.
This break from exercise was to re-evaluate my relationship with it by choosing only to do what felt like “movement”, or “skilled practice”, rather than “working out”.
Well, guess what. I’ve officially broken my vow of abstinence. I confess, I deadlifted last week for the first time in six months.
I’m back in bilateral-extension-land and loving it. My softening calluses have experienced a reawakening, or if you’d rather, a bloody mess all over the kettlebells.
This blog post will serve as a follow up to the “movement vs. exercise” dilemma I was having and, for all 7 of you reading this, I hope it it will provide a new lens through which to view exercise and to explore how movement and exercise are not the same thing. Maybe it will even ignite in you the curiosity to try your own exercise-abstinence experiment. Why?
Movement may be a more useful thing to focus on than exercise. Exercise is something we often use to make up for being sedentary. Movement, on the other hand, when done in sufficient amounts, makes structured exercising kind of superfluous (depending on your goals).
I was very happy to come across something Katy Bowman wrote that echoes my feelings and sees the bigger picture:
Movement, in a natural setting, is incidental to meeting other biological needs. This arrangement between nature and your physiology creates a dynamic and sustainable relationship that is self-regulating.
Now, to answer your first question…
Was I just being lazy?
“I’m at a similar place and was questioning if it is just laziness…”
I struggled with this belief, too; with feeling lazy and like I should be doing more. Where did we learn this belief that choosing not to exercise immediately makes someone lazy and insufficient?
Anything done deliberately is not laziness.
A deliberate practice, even one of non-doing, is the opposite of being lazy. Laziness as a concept, in my mind, doesn’t exist. Laziness is an excuse we use in avoidance of something. So no, if you’re worried that taking a deliberate break from training or exercise makes you lazy, it does not.
Taking a break from exercise doesn’t mean I spent six months sitting on the couch eating Tim Bits all day. One, because I don’t own a couch. And two, as a proper Canadian, I used to have an addiction to Tim Bits. In third year university I lived across the street from a Tim Horton’s and regularly enjoyed a 20-pack-for-dinner kinda life style.
Never. Going. Back.
Taking a break from exercise didn’t mean becoming sedentary, but temporarily stepping away from ways of training that no longer felt spontaneous, useful, and, for lack of better word “good” in my body. A sort of “elimination diet” for movement.
Primarily, I removed deadlifts, squats,
my sorry attempt at chin-ups, and any other exercises that didn’t feel like “movement”, as well as other exercises that I found myself doing for the sole reason that I felt guilty if I didn’t do them, because they had become too habitual, our out of a compulsion just to sweat.
So, from November 2015 (after that dang Anatomy in Motion course) up until a few weeks ago, the main forms of movement I performed were:
- Pistol squats
- Turkish-get ups
- Walking a crap load
- Anatomy in Motion stuff
- Rolling around on the floor
As you can see, this still left me with a plenty of options. And yes, I know, push-ups, TGUs, and pistol squats are”exercises”, but that doesn’t mean I was exercisING.
My criteria: If it felt like a movement skill I could do with a mindset of “practice”, then it stayed in my life. Intention was key, but I’ll talk a bit more about that further along in this post.
And then, an existential crisis…
Whenever we examine movement we are also examining behaviour.
I’ll admit, I had a small identity crisis a few months ago while I was in a dressing room. I caught glimpse of my back and, if you know me, you know I have extensor tone for days. But what I saw in the mirror was something different. I had changed: My muscle tone was way down.
My mild existential crisis: “Who am I without my extensor tone??” was followed by the immediate urge to do kettle-bell swings and deadlifts. If I’m being completely honest, I did some swings later that day. It was like a junk food binge, seeking comfort and instant gratification.
Interesting isn’t it? How attached we can become to our physical identity even if it is no longer serving us.
We do this as dancers all the time. We’re proud of how our physiology reveals our identity as a dancer.
We walk turned out. We pop our hips and backs constantly. Stand on one foot whenever possible. Sit around in the splits. Talk about how we are sore all the time. We even brag about how gross our feet are. It’s weird, but we want everyone to know these things about us because they have become a part of who we are, and they reveal that we are dancers.
This is not unique to dancers. It happens in fitness, in other sports, and many other industries.
My kettle bell swing compulsion was an important reminder that change is scary because letting go of habits that have become part of our identity feels a bit like losing a piece of ourselves, stepping into the unknown, and losing control of our lives.
Don’t know about you, but I like being in control.
A relationship based on trust
My experiment has come to a natural close which feels like a firm desire to never “just exercise” again regardless of what exercises I choose to do. It feels like confidence in the relationship that I have with my body- A relationship rooted in honesty and trust. When my body speaks to me, I listen, like in any good relationship.
For example, today I got hit by a taxi on my bike as I was riding to work (Beck Taxi, license plate number BPED450, fyi).
I’m totally fine, don’t worry, Mom.
I think I slid across the hood a little, got thrown off my bike, and somehow landed on my hands, completely calm and unharmed. In my mind I knew what I needed to do to land safely, and I did, trusting that my body had the survival strategies. I left the scene with only a small scratch on my knee despite landing hard on my hands (and head… I was wearing a helmet fortunately, or it would have been a different story).
I think the taxi got the worst of the damage as I was able to use it to break my fall somewhat.
The driver, by the way, was pretty inconsiderate and angry at me. Without even asking if I was ok says, “You should have slowed down!”, and then proceeded to check his car’s damage. What is our world coming to if we value being “right” and our material possessions over the well-being of fellow human beings!
This could have been much more serious, and in part I think I got out of this situation totally unscathed because of the honest, trust-based relationship I was training myself to have with my body. Because I spend time every day being present with my body and its natural ways of moving, not just punishing it three times a week with intense exercise and forceful controlled motions. Oh, and wearing a helmet saved my life. Always wear a helmet, guys!
Never has the motto “train for life” meant more to me.
What 6 months exercise-free has taught me
The metta lesson: Before movement, there was intention for movement, and this is what I have come to appreciate most.
My wonderful friend, massage therapy and yoga genius, Wensy Wong and I had this exact conversation last week in the context of causes of injury in yoga, both of us having sustained yoga injuries for the same underlying reason: Our misguided intention.
Injuries don’t happen because of poor movement mechanics, although that does play a large role. And it’s not about the teacher’s skills and (poor) class design, although that plays a role too. Underlying these external risk factors what really matters is the individual’s intention.
Intention for movement happens in the brain, in the motor cortex, our center for movement intention, will, and skill.
There are physical circuits that exist in our brains that allow us to move and to override stretch and golgi tendon organ reflexes. And when our intention is “I must do this exercise as hard as I can, and it must look good, and I have to do it better than X”, we override circuits that keep our experience honest.
Dishonesty leads to injury, and it happens in our brains before it happens in our bodies.
Physical injuries start in the brain.
It’s your intention. Your ability to listen honestly to what your body is saying and being willing to do things in a less show-offy kind of way. To focus on the movement in a deeper sense, perhaps as if it were a skill to practice, not an merely exercise to make you sweat, punish yourself for eating “bad” food, or to show off.
Moving honestly: What I wish for all humanity to experience.
Here are some of the other lessons I have learned from taking 6 months off of exercise:
- You can stop exercising for 6 months and not worry about gaining weight.
- Guilt is not a useful motivator for training, but knowing your body and mind will feel great afterwards IS.
- Our physical identity drives us to train in particular ways that feel familiar, and becoming unattached to this comforting familiarity is a practice of “movement honesty”: Moving without ego. Moving for a greater purpose than to fulfill an aesthetic.
- You can get “exercise” as a secondary result of performing a movement practice, but not all exercise qualifies as movement practice (and I prefer the former).
- I miss deadlifting.
- Shifting your intention for moving allows movement forms that once caused pain to become healing (ballet, yoga, etc)
- When something is difficult for us to do or change about our movement practice, it almost always shows up somewhere else in our lives, at some level (honesty, patience, listening…).
And with these important lessons in mind, I’ve made a triumphant return to the gym floor.
And guess what, I’m doing it Hardstyle.
Yes, I feel honest enough to start learning the StrongFirst system with the help of my amazing friend and coach, Paul Hynes. Each session is a lesson in honesty, patience, and listening. This training system should really be called “ZenFirst”, because I’m learning it’s impossible to produce force without the ability to first wait with a quiet mind.
I’m not training for the SFG certification, although if it takes me there, I’m open to it. Mostly, I’m excited to be training a new skill, and happy to be working with a coach who appreciates my need for this to be about practice not exercise.
Getting back to training things like swings, deadlifts, and chin-ups feels great, and I am reminded that being strong is something that is important to me, and why I began doing it in the first place, years ago, and how it helped my dancing.
So I will close by saying three things:
- Be mindful of whether your movement/exercise routine is becoming a part of your identity, and if you are ok with that.
- Re-evaluate frequently what your intention for movement truly is and whether it serves you.
- Move honestly. Always. As in movement, so too in life.