Exercise is important for everyone.
Exercise is still exercise, even if we aren’t professional athletes, training for a competition, following a formal regimen, or participating in a group activity such as a cycling class, pick-up basketball game, or yoga conference.
Exercise can — and should — include walking, stretching, and focused breathing.
Especially in today’s western cultures, it’s easy to get caught up in “measuring” our exercise, so much that we actually may become disconnected from our bodies. Below are a few thoughts about exercise, and how the pressures of society can create a barrier for us in establishing a healthy relationship with movement and our bodies.
1) Exercise is for strength and endurance.
Many of us have heard about the physiologic benefits of exercise since childhood — at least, I have! These are certainly positive ways to motivate us to regularly include movement in our days. However, we can easily get caught up in the goal-setting and progress aspects of training plans, to the point that we feel that if we don’t hit those goals or follow those progress charts, our efforts are worthless. This absolutely isn’t true! Really, the goal of exercise in health is to prevent decline — so, using our muscles in a variety of ways is important and beneficial, even if we aren’t constantly putting on muscle or max out ever rep in the weight room. In reality, it isn’t actually healthy to do those things all the time! Leisurely strolls are healthy, too, and they are a great way to maintain strength and endurance without adding physical stress to our lives. (They also don’t require expensive equipment or specialized clothing!)
2) Exercise is for maintaining mobility.
Part of the importance of exercise is allowing ourselves to continue to move comfortably. Lack of flexibility can set us up for debilitating injuries that can become chronic. Tight muscles also can interfere with our daily lives, or cause us to compensate with the “wrong” muscles, leading to dysfunction and discomfort. Interestingly, lack of mobility in our skeletal muscles can actually create a feedback loop that creates problems in our internal organs, too. (The mechanism for this is complex, but it’s called the somatovisceral reflex if you’d like to look it up and learn more!) This is where stretching comes in — even though a “warm up” or “cool down” isn’t burning calories or boosting cardiovascular endurance, it’s an equally important aspect of exercise that often is neglected. (Do you skip out on stretching because you’d rather use that time for more intense exercise? I’ve certainly been guilty of this before, and it’s never turned out well.)
3) Exercise is for stress relief.
If exercise is causing you stress, it’s not doing its job. If exercise is keeping you from social gatherings due to gym commitments, it’s not doing its job. If exercise is a means for you to numb out another problem in your life, its not doing its job. Stress, social isolation, and substituting behaviors in place of solving the root of mental/emotional/social problems are all unhealthy, and can be enabled by the improper use of exercise. Sometimes, the healthiest exercise we can do is to sit down, take some deep breaths, and clear our minds. Breathing is a simple movement that profoundly affects our physiological, mental and emotional health. Just like stretching is often an ignored piece of exercise habits, breathing isn’t usually paid much attention by fitness gurus — but it should be! [I’m here to tell you that the “gurus” are often wrong. Where do you usually turn for health advice?]
My hope is that these concepts have inspired you to consider your own exercise habits: what motivates you, what you believe is important in an exercise practice, and areas you may benefit in making some changes.