There is a chapter in my book entitled “Rhythms”. The just of the chapter is that everything we are and everything that surrounds us, embodies rhythm. Our organs and physiology as mammals abide by it, even more so when viewed through the lens of energy based medicines such as those invented by early Eastern civilizations. Our sleep and wake cycles are called Circadian Rhythms. The earth cycles through seasons, tides shift in relation to the moon and our lives move through cycles and changing rhythms from birth until we die.
Ultimately nothing organic is free from the flow of undulating life force. Rhythm.
The reason I’m writing about this in my book on movement is because part of finding my way into sustainable and nourishing exercise had to do with becoming aware of and honouring my own daily, weekly and monthly rhythms. After my break-up with diet and fitness culture, I began to understand that working in harmony with the natural flow of my desire and energy enabled a relationship to movement that felt easier and much more sacred. This is in direct opposition to cultural norms which for the most part, champion the subjugation of these internal patterns.
At minimum, 9-5 workdays, 5 days a week with the expectation that one be available digitally at all times. Messages promoting health but with far too narrow a definition and often lined with subtext that it in no way jeopardize profits or the ever important bottom line. Monoculture farming, unrelenting resource extraction and flying food all over the world to enable access to everything at all the times. It’s so clear that we have been living in counterflow and that the interests of those in power are at play here.
Aligning yourself with your own rhythms, even in the smallest of ways through exercise and rest feels to me, like an act of insurgence.
Because here’s what I know.
All this makes me wonder, “Is it possible this could work in reverse as well?” Could personal and localized attention and reverence to our natural rhythms compound into greater shifts for the planet and for our humanity?
These are some of the thoughts that allow me to indulge in small moments of hope amidst these difficult times.
How has quarantine affected your rhythms?
In my Acupuncture practice, I insert needles with the intention of shifting the rhythms and flow of Qi. I see it as an interruption of sorts; in the nervous system, in the flow of blood as well as the in the overall rhythm of my patient’s day. Treatment acts as a reset and a chance to relocate ourselves in a more balanced state.
Quarantine, to me, feels like a large scale rhythm reset. I see some referring to it online as The Great Pause and this definitely resonates for me.
Imagine for a moment we are all in a giant game of musical chairs- bodies moving frantically and vigilantly around in a circle, then the music stops and each of us scrambles for a seat. Typically, it’s only a moment or two before we’re once again up and moving, having left someone out of the game completely in the last round but feeling thankful that it wasn’t us. This time however, there has been no timely reinstating of the music. Instead we’ve being asked to remain on hold, most of us clinging desperately to our small lifeline. Suddenly many of us have time to rest our overwrought nervous systems and the mental space to ponder just why we began this hustle around a circle of steadily diminishing chairs to begin with. Not to mention looking around to see just who’s controlling that damn music. Just like my needles, this virus is an interruptor and it’s inviting an opportunity for balance.
It’s not so much that Quarantine has shifted my daily rhythms as I feel that it has allowed more of my natural ebb and flow to emerge.
In the first few weeks of being home, I was putting effort into attempting to keep the schedule I thought I should keep. My mind wanted to get a movement session complete in the morning to allow for book writing the rest of the day. It seemed ludicrous to think I’d need a rest during a time when I was not seeing patients, so productivity was the name of my game! Only it wasn’t working out that way. Instead I just kept wanting to lie down and nap. I tried repeatedly to force my own plans on myself, only to feel shameful and frustrated when they didn’t work out.
Then it dawned on me. Rhythm. I needed to take some time to notice just what my daily rhythms looked and felt like during this strange new time. Of course they wouldn’t be the same as when I was in my “normal life” and of course they wouldn’t look like what my mind thought they should.
Almost all of us are experiencing daily and weekly rhythm changes during this time. Many of you, I know, are in the opposite situation to me where you are juggling a new version of work, possibly at home and some with children at home with you. If this is the case, you are likely having a hearty laugh at my “go with your inner flow” advice. I get it.
It’s difficult to access any natural cadence when there are overwhelming demands pulling at you, not to mention the underlying stress of being in the middle of a trauma event. In this case, I suggest simply trying to notice what you might crave and when and if there is any recurring pattern that emerges. You may not be able to abide by these patterns right out of the gate but once you have an idea of what your personal rhythms might be, it’s at least possible to start arranging the demands in ways that feel more aligned.
Maybe you can shift your work schedule to allow for a short meditation or gardening session in the morning, maybe you can include your kids in a movement practice so that it lands during a time when you feel most energized or in need of a break. Get curious about your body’s desires rather than trying to talk yourself out of them and most of all: Do not be afraid to rest.
It’s also possible that your existence right now is SURVIVAL based and that feels like anything but rhythm. That is OK. Survival means you’re just doing what you can when you can in order to get through the next minute, hour or day. This probably doesn’t feel much like flow but it is energy. It’s the energy of keeping you here. And it is the job of all us with more privilege at this time to resist against the power imbalances and plug into to our basic human rhythm of connection in order to lend a hand to those without. Ultimately I believe this is what our existence is all about. May we disrupt the counter rhythms that put you in this survival energy in the first place.
Mrs. Brown’s grade four class turned out to be a stellar year of achievement for me. One of the cutest boys in class, Jason Nevil, asked me to go steady with him while we were in the cloakroom getting ready for recess one day to which I replied, “Um, I have to ask my mom”. Smooth, yes? Of course my mom said no (rightly so, given I was all of 10 years old), so Jason then moved on to Kate Williams who was more than happy to skip the lame parental consent line and say yes on the spot. I’ll always hold onto the fact that I was Jason’s first choice that school year….sigh.
This was also the year I received my first detention. As a class we were supposed to be following along with Mrs. Brown as she read aloud to us from our novel, at the ready to take over for her when she called on one of us. Being the studious and extremely well-behaved child I was at that age, I hovered over the correct page and paragraph waiting eagerly to be called upon. Unfortunately for me, the student who sat directly in front of me wasn’t quite as organized- she stealthily turned herself around in her desk and whispered to me, “What page are we on?”. The exact moment I opened my mouth with the intention of helping her out, Mrs. Brown chose to look up from her reading and as luck would have she ended up looking directly at me. For a pre-teen girl who absolutely prided herself on rule following, Mrs. Brown telling me, in her firmest primary school teacher tone, that I would stay after school in detention as punishment for disrupting class was DEVASTATING. Immediately my face flushed with heat. I could feel my breathing become shallow and quick, my racing heart telling me in no uncertain terms that there was something very wrong. As I sat immersed in the details of what had just happened I completely forgot about reading aloud and a thousand thoughts raced through my head. I needed to tell Mrs. Brown that it was all a mistake! Surely she would understand my story and withdraw the sanction. I was not a delinquent! She definitely needed to know that. Would this end up on my permanent school record? Was it the beginning of a string of incidents where I would be wrongfully incriminated? And how was I supposed to let my mother know that I was going to be late? Oh, man mom is going to be so pissed. How is this happening to me????????
The thing I wanted most in that moment was to travel through time and keep myself staring dutifully at the page in my novel (well that or slide under my desk, through a me-sized hole in the floor to the playground below).
Fast forward about 20 years later and my body is experiencing the very same reaction. Instant heat, shallow breathing, heart racing and the added cognitive awareness of what I was feeling; the emotions of shame and fear. The major difference this time around was that I actually had done something wrong. In fact, I had just been caught shoplifting in a grocery store by undercover security.
“What happened to the good girl, rule follower?”, you may be asking. Did grade 4 detention set me off on a path of self destruction? Well no, not exactly. I was able to recover pretty fully from my short after school incarceration and also get through the remainder of my schooling with a squeaky clean record. My "arrest" at the age of 20 had nothing to do with a desire to be a badass or break the law, it was simply an extension of the addictive behaviours I had been exhibiting since my body dysmorphia moved into full swing the previous Summer. Here’s what I attempted to steal;
A bag of chocolate rosebuds from the bulk section. Estimated cost; under 5 dollars.
My student loan had dried up that semester , I wasn’t due to be paid from my part time job for several days and I had no credit whatsoever at that age. I was completely broke and I was needing to binge. It was a craving so powerful that it took me out of my room at the University residence in the late evening and saw me walk 30 minutes to the store in the dark and attempt to leave with a bag of shitty chocolate that I couldn’t pay for.
Sitting in one of the back rooms of the family owned store immediately after security apprehended me, my body was awash in the physiologic memories of Mrs. Brown’s detention. I felt 10 years old again and desperate to make this right somehow. The young security guy sat across from me as we waited for the police to show up. The police! He seemed to expect some level of defence for my behaviour or possibly a tearful plea, I’m sure having had many a thief sit across from him in the same manner before. I do remember being a bit tearful as we sat there and whether these words came out as a defence of my behaviour or not, in that moment something deep within me came through and uttered the truth.
“I have an eating disorder”.
I’m quite certain that was the first time I had said anything at all like that out loud. And as I described a bit of what had driven me here to steal this bag of chocolate, the security guy seemed sympathetic. “ We still have to wait for the police to arrive, Miss, but I suspect given the low cost of what you stole, no charges will be pressed. You’ll likely get off with a warning”
In the days before cell phones and texting, the days during which I was coming of age, my friends and I would regularly write notes to each other. They were handwritten in cursive on loose leaf paper, occasionally offering up hearts in place of the dots on i’s, and were impeccably folded so as to avoid accidentally tumbling open and being exposed to the wrong set of eyes. From what I remember, these notes read more like diary entries. Often describing in painstaking detail the heartache over our latest crushes not crushing back or the angst of a perceived betrayal by another friend who went to the mall without us. Occasionally they were simply making fun of a sworn enemy’s lack of bang volume.
(This was the eighties, my loves and the bigger the claw bangs, the closer to god. Or the top of the middle school social hierarchy, you decide)
It was one of these vulnerable, bare-all missives to a bestie that landed me in one of the most embarrassing situations of my high school tenure.
For years, I had a crush on one boy. We’d been in school together since grade 3 and he lived down the street from me. He was an athlete (an especially good volleyball player, which was my sport as well), clean cut, sported a flat top hair cut and loved to laugh uproariously at his own jokes. He was boy band level cute and my teenage heart loved him so. At age 14 it made perfect sense to me that we were meant to get married and have adorable superstar volleyball playing babies together.
So why exactly was he dating other people?
Well, this was the source not only of my repeated heart break but also a soul bearing page of loose leaf intended for my friend, Lisa Goodman. "How could he? What does he see in her? He must know that we are meant to be together, right?". Lionel Richie’s “Hello” played on repeat on my portable cassette player and the tears flowed abundantly. I’m sure you’re getting the picture- I was distraught, to say the least.
Well, that is, I thought I was distraught until things suddenly got much, much worse. As if transported into a less polished version of a Disney channel teen comedy, my note found it’s way out of my friend’s binder and onto the Wellington Middle School hallway floor (cue in studio audience gasp). It was then picked up and read by a nameless student and after who knows how many other hungry teenage eyes devoured it, eventually made it’s way into the hands of my crush. Shortly after, through the gossip grapevine of the student body, this information made it back to me.
Upon hearing this news, my stomach lurched as if attempting to come out of my body. I wanted to die. My first instinct was to run away and quit school but I realized fairly quickly that this might not be a plausible solution. So on to plan B;. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. No need to interact with flat top whatsoever really. If I stopped going to gym to play volleyball at lunch, avoided eye contact in math class, and spent my time in the hallways surrounded by my group of friends, secret service style, maybe just maybe, I could get through this.
Except that we typically walked to school together most mornings. Remember when I said he lived down the street from me? Right, so Flat top would ride his bike past my house to another classmate’s, where he would store his bike for the day and then wait for me to meet him so we could walk the remaining 15 minutes to school side by side.
The night of the exposure, I found myself playing out the scenarios of the next morning in my mind over and over, driving myself crazy. I was certain he would not be at our usual meeting spot. How could we possibly interact normally after my rawest emotions had been laid bare for him in extremely legible and bubbly teenage girl long hand. Sure, we were friends but how would he take the news of my Lionel Richie level love?
When I simply couldn’t stand to be with my own thoughts any longer, something in me instinctually knew I needed to move. I did what I often had done as a teen when my emotions felt like too much for me, I grabbed my volleyball and headed up to the elementary school near my house where I proceeded to spike the ball against the wall as hard as I could until I was sweating and exhausted.
The movement did what it always had for me; it dropped me into my body allowing my mind to slow it’s out of control spin. It helped me begin processing some of the overwhelming feelings surging through me. And it helped regulate my nervous system, allowing for space to welcome in a flow of rational wisdom to help balance out the panic. When I was all spiked out, I went home and slept, feeling calmer and more resourced to deal with whatever the following day had in store.
He was waiting for me at the usual spot. The pit in my stomach appeared instantly as I rounded the corner and his familiar skinny frame came into view. Breathe. Just breathe, in and out. I greeted him but remember not being able to look him in the eye. He acted as though nothing had happened, god bless him, and we made it to school without me collapsing into a puddle of shame.
We did this each day until the week was over, and the next week as well, until gradually I started to feel normal again. Like, I could start to leave the humiliation behind.
It was the movement that got me through (that and Lionel, of course) and this is one of the reasons why I sing the many praises of movement beyond the physical and the aesthetic. To me, this story speaks to the deep ability of movement to shore up our minds, bodies, and souls and even more specifically to the medicine that movement can be. My childhood and teenage self knew this instinctively. It’s possible (and maybe even imperative, given the times?) that we begin integrating movement into our lives in the same way we eat and we sleep and we have sex; as nourishment. Making it far more basic, accessible, natural and effortless as opposed to continuing to outsource it in disconnected, complicated and capitalistic ways through meaningless metrics (weight/size), shame based program purchases, and unsustainable methodologies.
Knowing that we all had that deep and intact desire for movement as a part of our being before diet and fitness culture got to us and twisted it all up, gives me comfort. We understood this once, be it subconscious or not, and that means that we are able to come home to it once again. With everything going on globally, this feels like as good a time as any.
I haven’t had anything quite that embarrassing happen in a long time, but I still use movement to help me through big emotions and experiences the exact same way my 14 year old self did. Walking has been a very large part of my self care this last 10 days as I attempt to process the changes in our world and our day to day lives. The only difference is that I now have a better understanding of just why I am called to it and how it can help me get to the other side.
It’s January and I have not been moving much at all. A jog once a week maybe but other than that it’s been a pretty sedentary last month. Or maybe month and a half.
It’s tempting during these times for me to think of myself as lazy. Or to consider if there might be something wrong with the way I approach exercise-especially during this nauseatingly “New year, New you” piece of calendar real estate.
It can also be easy to slip into the dominant consciousness by believing I ought to be atoning for the pleasure of the food and beverages of the holiday season. But just like I am no longer able to force myself into any kind of food restriction, the healing of my exercise disorder has made it near impossible for me to push my body to move when it simply does not want to.
My psyche will no longer allow movement feel like punishment.
It just won’t.
So I wait.
For my body to call for movement again. For the thought of a walk/jog or my boxing dvd to feel light rather than heavy. For my body and it’s infinite wisdom to signal to me when my energy and my physiological systems might find joy and nourishment in a workout as opposed to it feeling taxing or like a chore. I wait to feel true and honest desire once again.
Even though it’s been years now since my body and I came back together in a way that feels more whole and collaborative, the resistance borne out of a lifetime of disconnection and hostility still finds a way to rise when these sedentary periods occur. I guess that’s what a lifetime of never feeling like enough will do...
Bottom line is that rest still feels indulgent. Wrong even. I didn’t grow up religious at all but it's possible that whole sloth as a deadly sin thing may subconsciously be coming into play. Any way, despite my very intentional work around what feels like true health and wellness for me and how movement fits into my personal health paradigm, my mind’s initial reaction to not wanting to work out is still to push back against it. It goes something like this;
Body: “I don’t feel like exercising today”
Mind: “Is this really how I’m feeling? Let's dig a little deeper.”
Body: “Yep, this is how I'm feeling”
Mind: “Hmmm, I'm not liking this response, maybe if I go in and check again. Anything?”
Body: “Nope still not feeling it”
Mind: "We haven’t really been doing much moving lately. Maybe I’ll just put my workout clothes on.”
Body: “Sure, you can do that”
Mind: “How’s that? Are we feeling it now?”
Body: “Sorry, still no”
Mind:“Ok well surely tomorrow the desire will return, right?”
Body: “Yes, let’s check in again tomorrow”
Body: “I don’t feel like exercising today”
Mind: “Is this really how I’m feeling?”
Well, you get the idea.
All this brings me to one of the core messages of my work, one that continues to prove itself to me over and over again, despite the ample conditioning for me to believe otherwise.
My body loves and wants to move!
(Sometimes it just doesn’t like to do it as much or as often as our decidedly thin and "health" obsessed culture would like me to think .)
So, I listen and I rest and I rest and I rest and just when I begin to think my body has lost any appetite whatsoever for movement , there it is again. The craving, the pull, the impulse to contract my muscles and move my joints and challenge my heart and lungs with increased beats and deeper breath. It is here, in this place, where the complete trust I have put in my body is validated once again and I am brought home to the truth of the beautiful rhythms of human nature.
Why wait for that desire?
Fitness leaders and health advisors would have you believe that pushing your body to get up and exercise even when you’re not feeling like it, is, well honestly, just what you should be doing. They, just like you and I, have been brainwashed into believing that we as a species possess an innately sedentary nature that must be constantly overridden through tactics such as berating and shaming our bodies and bulldozing over the wisdom within.
This is a good time to remind you that there is no human imperative to perform fitness. The idea that we all must always be striving to be fit is a construct. And a ridiculous one at that.
Here’s the thing. There is something that happens when we listen and move from a genuine thirst for movement and that something just happens to be Magic.
Meeting a deep soul need vs checking “workout” off of your to do list is magical.
Experiencing the movement of your body in space without any thoughts about the size of your thighs is magical.
Engaging with nature while out for a walk when you have no where to be and no step metric targets to hit is magical (and holy).
When we allow the constraints of fitness culture to fall away, WE become magical beings in our movements.
It feels different to exercise or move from authentic desire because it is. Because energy matters. It feels easier, I’d even go as far as to say, effortless, to exercise or move from authentic desire because that negative voice in our head that seems to always be focused on the physical also matters. Trying to force what isn’t truly there is wildly unsustainable ( I know because I spent two decades on that ride).
So I encourage myself and all of you as well to connect with the vibration of your body and to ease into honouring it honestly as often as you can. Even if that means being sedentary longer than you "think" is reasonable. I encourage myself and you to wait. And to allow that patience and stillness to be rewarded with a desire for some honest to goodness nourishment and the experience of mind, body, soul and nature alchemy. This magic is available to us all.
It takes me an average of 5-7 minutes to drive to work. (Sorry honey if you’re reading this! my partner’s commute is not so blissfully short as mine….) Walking takes me 17 minutes.
So, after almost three years at my new, literally right around the corner, work location, I decided it was high time I began walking to work more often.
With my son passing his drivers test last month, the mom taxi is now on the verge of retirement which means the need for me to drive places immediately before and after my work shifts is now marginal. It was the perfect time to start a walk to work behaviour.
It would require more planning on my part. I would have to be ready to leave for my shift about 30 minutes earlier than normal (20 minutes to walk and 10 minutes to towel off and change clothes), I would have to remember to bring my keys to lock up the clinic (learned that one the hard way on day 2!) and I would need to organize my back pack with work attire, food, etc. rather than tossing it all in my car at the last minute.
The first week was easy. The sun was shining, and I was full of that juicy on the cusp of Fall, structured, school’s back in energy that made for a glorious wind in my sails.
That is until week two, at which time I began to falter...
The weather turned, my peri-menopausal insomnia returned after a several month hiatus and both our kids were back home for the week which meant more meal planning and meal making, just more energy expenditure in general.
During that second more difficult week, I ended up walking two days and driving two days and I had several aha’s that surfaced, both having to do with just how important and integral my WHY was in this experiment.
Let me explain a little further. My decision to begin walking to work was not based on an attempt to exercise more, burn more calories or up my daily step count (if I was someone who measured those things, and I am not). The decision I made to walk to work was based on a desire to get out of my car more, a small shift that aligns with my desire to activate myself and the people around me to wake up to the desperate situation we are in as a global community with regard to climate collapse. This has deep meaning for me. And my move away from getting in my car daily for a short trip to work was representative of this meaning.
What I realized on one of the days that I was walking during that challenging second week was that had my decision to begin walking been related to a fitness or body goal, I would have abandoned it completely. At the first sign of difficulty or discomfort, my human nature would have taken over and any health driven motivation would have evaporated.
Simply put, health and fitness WHY’s do not have enough meaning to motivate us for the long game. No matter which way you slice it. It’s just how human behaviour works and there is a great deal of research out there to back that up.
Have a read through these quotes below from the book “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring you a Lifetime of Fitness” by Michelle Segar PhD
The two days I ended up walking when I really wasn’t feeling it were due to the fact that my motivation for the behaviour had a deeper personal meaning for me. The desire for this behaviour change was something that went beyond my body. I was still enhancing my fitness- getting my heart rate up and working my muscles by walking to work- but that was a happy by-product of something that is much more meaningful to my heart and soul.
OK, so what about the two days that I ended up in my car during that second week?
Well it turns out that there were some great lessons there as well. The rain that was pouring down those days was definitely a deterrent and the thought of being extra soggy was what pushed me into my car those days but as I reflected on the decision to drive, I had another realization.
20 years ago when I was still in the throes of disordered exercise, I would often resolve to do some form of exercise on a regular schedule. My mind would create some false structure with the desire to have my body follow along. The result of which would hopefully be whipping it into shape, controlling it, making it smaller, tighter and more acceptable.
Inevitably the behavioural goals I would set for myself with regard to exercise would be lofty and there would always be a point at which I would fail myself. This would devastate me. Because my movement goals were tied to my body and at that time my sense of worth any deviation from the “plan” would leave me feeling an abject failure. It would often send me into a depression that led to me straight to my decades old coping strategy of binge eating and I would end up not moving at all for several months until the pendulum swung the other way again.
This is not what happened with my walking to work intention. Getting out of my car more as a small act of reverence for our Mother Earth is a long game. It’s not intended to be a short term burst of climate awareness or point getting from something outside myself. So when I chose on those days to drive, I didn’t beat myself up. Instead I allowed myself to feel happy about the days so far that I had stayed out of my vehicle and resolved to see how the next week felt. My intention and my connection to my deeper meaning WHY remained wholly intact.
Why am I telling you this story about my last few weeks walking to work?
To bring home the point again, that your movement WHY matters. It matters a great deal. Any and all exercise intentions that are tangled up with a narrow definition of health or body control or manipulation are doomed to fail us in the long run. We simply must get reconnected to the broader spectrum of what movement brings into our lives in order to do the following:
I’ve thought many times as I’ve been writing this book, “What’s the point?”
I mean why am I talking about finding a new way to exercise when the world is literally on fire.
Why not spend more of my time resisting against government and corporations who continue to choose profits over my son’s future?
It’s a really good question. And the answer I’ve come up with so far is this;
Reverence for Mother Earth is mirrored in the reverence we show for ourselves. The stark separation of mind and body/soul that we see and feel within the toxic spaces of wellness and fitness culture (and of course in other arenas as well) is the same separation that allows us to remain untethered from our living, breathing oceans and forests and all the beautiful creatures we share this planet with.
When we as a culture are void of ritual and experience only a fraction of the sacredness and presence found through being in motion, we inevitably find ourselves seeking external motivation for ways to simply check “workout” off of our to do list. And then we move on just as unconsciously to the next item.
I believe God is in exercise, just not in the way most of us practice it right now.
And frankly I believe that it deserves more from us. That when we practice exercise in an increasingly intentional and embodied way and we use it as ceremony to honour nature or to match the music we listen to, to the music within, we heal.
For our ancestors, movement was so much more than just a healthy habit. Yes, it was about survival but it was also about celebration and prayer, joy and grief, balance, medicine and creativity.
The reason I choose to use the word movement so often in place of the words exercise, fitness and work out is because these concepts by been co-opted to such a degree by capitalist industry that many of us feel we aren’t able to engage with them unless we’re wearing the right shoes, belong to the right yoga studio or have a fitness tracker strapped to our wrist.
I want us to take movement back from those who use it to profit through shame, relentlessly insisting on selling to us what we have forgotten is available for free.
The healing I’ve done personally in relation to my body and exercise and the resulting liberation I’ve found in stepping away from mainstream wellness and fitness culture has changed my life. I’ve been able to create movement and rest practices on my own terms, ones that match my personal rhythms and needs and aim to meet no one's standards of health and beauty but my own.
It has revolutionized the way I engage with the world.
When I was constantly monitoring my food intake and experiencing exhaustive, obsessive thoughts about exercise, I was in no position to rise up. I couldn’t rise to parent my young son, I couldn’t rise to truly and deeply connect with my loved ones and I most certainly could not rise up against those in power who threaten the health, wellbeing and continued existence of our species.
I write this from a beautiful rented studio overlooking the expanse of what is for me, my life blood, the Salish Sea near my home. It’s not lost on me that I am extremely privileged to be able to gift this getaway to myself. My son is being taken care of by his wonderful father. I have a career that allows me to book these days off. I have the means to pay for this accommodation. I have a loving and supportive partner and good friends who are cheering on my writing endeavours. I have healthcare. I’ve had access to therapy. These things matter and not everyone has them.
Despite how luxurious this sounds, I spent most of my first afternoon here looking out at the ocean in tears. Grieving for the salmon population that has declined so drastically compared to the years I joyfully spent fishing from my row boat as a kid, for the orcas that are struggling to survive as a result of that decline. For the pressure our entire eco-system is under as a result of human behaviour and government approved cognitive dissonance. I shed those tears in the form of apology. Sorry for not waking up sooner. Sorry for spending so much time tangled up in the crash and burn, bigger, faster, more mentality that was my coming of age.
I have awareness now of my own privilege as a thin, white, cis gendered, able bodied female who is no longer pre-occupied with changing her body. This is not just me spouting the language of the day, this is actual power in my hands. Power that can be used for good; to be an ally to those who are marginalized, to be a warrior for this impossibly beautiful planet and those who inhabit it.
So I wonder and I hope. By writing about my leap to freedom from these fucked up shackles of patriarchy’s ideal female and the oppressive, capitalist structures within the diet and fitness industry, might I just liberate a few others so they are able too, to see what really matters in this moment in history. Perhaps they’ll feel well enough to come and fight alongside me.
So that’s my answer in this moment. I realize it might be deluded but I’m following my soul’s calling and crossing my fingers it’s the right path. I’m not writing to get famous or rich. I’m writing to share the peace I’ve found and to soothe my own aching heart.
It’s been the mantra of media and health experts for at least the last three decades. What is the solution to the western world’s supposed weight and health crisis? (the question of this "crisis" is a blog post for another day...)
“Eat less and move more”
It sounds like a simple enough concept. So simple in fact, that personally, I've often felt like a fool for being so inept at consistently applying it in my own life. I got to thinking recently, "What is it exactly that makes this basic formula so difficult for us to put into practice?"
1. Our culture is currently too disembodied and fear-based to apply such an open concept to health and well being.
The realities of health and wellness industry messaging offer little to none of the simplicity and choice suggested by the "eat less, move more" mantra. Dive into any health related website, book, blog or podcast and more often than not you will find preachers of very specific, often extremist and disembodied approaches to food and exercise. Undoubtedly you will find some version of a rule book that lays out” good” vs “bad” and then something you can purchase in order to stick with the good and avoid the bad. The reason for this, I believe, is that as disconnected humans, we actually have no bloody idea what to do with such broad suggestions. Dogmatic and externally based approaches to food and exercise are attractive and continue to be the norm because we struggle so mightily to get in touch with the deeper needs and desires that should serve as our compass. To add to that, even in moments when we do feel that delicious electric pulse of connection, we are instantly told that it is not be trusted. No wonder we're so confused about how move and eat, the system is rigged and raises us this way.
2. The mantra is problematic in that it completely ignores psycho-emotional and social aspects of health.
Our culture is in desperate need of an expanded definition of what it means to be healthy. Did you know that one of the biggest predictors of health and longevity for humans actually has to do with the strength of one’s social/family network and sense of community? It turns out that connection (ding ding ding!!) is actually far more important than what we put in our mouths or how many miles we run. Somehow this information never seems to get disseminated from media or online health gurus to the same degree that diet and exercise data does. Perhaps this is because there is little money to be made in the selling of connection and so few repeat customers when people are capably filling up their own health and well being cups with something free flowing and sustainable. It’s truly time we stop ignoring the myriad of other factors that lend themselves to being fulfilled, healthy human beings and to take food and fitness out of the driver's seat for a while.
3. The implied assumption is that eating less and moving more leads to weight loss, that weight loss is the yellow brick road to health and that health is something all of us must constantly and tirelessly be striving for.
These are not universal truths and yet they are often touted as such. You are expected to want to be healthy. You are told that it is your duty to society, in fact; to consistently be striving to become less of a burden on the medical system, to be healthy for the sake of the loved ones in your lives and weight loss is the path that will get you there. Enough already. Let’s leave room for people needing and wanting to eat MORE and move LESS. Let’s stop once and for all this conflation of smaller and thinner (not mention whiter and cis-gendered) bodies being inherently healthier. AND let’s continue to refer back to point number 2 and remember that the scope of health is so much broader than what we are currently allowing it to be. These assumptions are what lead directly to the cheering on of disordered eating and exercise behaviours in our friends and family as well as the shaming of those who choose not to participate. No more.
4. This is a grand oversimplification of the steps required to change food and exercise behaviours.
I am 100% likely to get riled up when I overhear or observe people discussing health and weight loss and someone (someone, I'll add, who most likely is not a person who uses food as a coping mechanism but equally likely employs a different, less visible form of coping since we all do) inevitably chimes in with our chippy mantra. “Well, all you have to do Barbara, is eat less and move more”. Fuuuck. Anyone who’s tried to work this oversimplification knows that there is so much more to the story. Getting underneath behaviours of disordered eating and exercise, requires a deep dive into the core of why these behaviours are happening. Anyone who has done any kind of therapy or personal work on this knows that the answers to these questions often lie deep in our subconscious minds and require difficult and often excruciating digging into childhood messaging and past traumas. This is not simple work. It’s not that simple. Stop oversimplifying it.
Several years ago I committed to venture outside the mainstream diet and exercise health chatter and instead invited my body to captain the ship. Here are a few things I’ve figured out so far:
*Truly connecting with your body is something the majority of us do not know how to do AND within that connection lies the key to our health at any given time. Connection requires pause in a world that never pauses. It requires that we get curious as well as compassionate about the various distraction mechanisms we employ in a culture where distraction is sold (oh right, capitalism again!) to us repeatedly as the top drug of choice for the existential pain of humanity *(side note: a certain amount of distraction in order to cope with life on this planet is completely healthy and normal, in my opinion and this includes sedentary things like Netflix binges and eating!). Currently, we are disconnected from each other, from the land and Mother Earth as a whole and from ourselves. I believe this is at the root of so much of what is ailing us and threatening our very existence as a species. The body is not typically loud (unless something has gotten so far out of balance that it is sending you messages through ill health) so we must become quiet in order to fully embody and understand it. Only then can we follow it’s wisdom and find a path to what health and happiness looks like for each of us as individuals throughout the course of our lives. Perhaps we'll even save ourselves in the process.
*Allowing your body to lead you in our current culture is an act of rebellion. When you start doing things like no longer discussing your body in disparaging ways or deciding to skip the gym in favour of a nap or you eat grilled cheese sandwiches on gluten full sourdough bread every other day for a month because you love them (*enthusiastically raises hand on this one), you find out very quickly how counter culture listening to the wisdom of your body truly is. It's simply not done. It's not modelled or mentored and yet it's THE pathway to peace. I encourage you, when you're ready, to start modelling this for those in your circle. See if you can help them get a little free too.
*It turns out for me (and I’m guessing maybe for many of you as well) that “movement” and “working out/exercising” are very different mental concepts. Our bodies actually require a lot less “working out” than most of us think they do and certainly less than the fitness industry would have us believe. I know for myself that I became infinitely happier AND healthier when I stopped trying to “work out” quite so much. Playing volleyball, hiking with my partner, shooting hoops with my son, having sex, dancing in the kitchen as dinner is cooking. None of these things are done for the purpose of “exercise”, they are done for the sense of connection and the pleasure sensations they create, yet they all encompass moving my body in ways that’s good for it. They are all forms of exercise yet after so many years of indoctrination on what it means in our culture to "perform" exercise, they are not framed that way in my mind. Bonus: they also don’t require any of the nonsense vigilance or tracking in order to continue doing them. This makes them SO MUCH EASIER to do consistently. This is the answer.
*I don’t actually need to eat less and move more, I need to eat intuitively and move intuitively and sometimes that means I need to eat more and move less. The longer I come to trust my body and the more embodied I become, the less I look to any kind of health or fitness advice or instruction. To me this is freedom. Freedom from the constraints of capitalism and from the sexist ways that I’ve been told to alter my body since I was a girl. As long as I am truly inhabiting my body, it has yet to steer me wrong.
Reaching a particular fitness goal can be an amazing feeling. Whether it’s completing a 5 km race or maybe even a marathon, being able to do a push up or lift a certain amount of weight at the gym, goal setting can be motivating and can also help us reach performance levels we might otherwise have not thought possible. The coaching and personal development world is rife with support and promotion of goal setting information and exercises as a way to get ahead in life and it’s an extremely common tool used everywhere from corporate boardrooms to your local fitness centre. Seriously, Google “goal setting”, you’ll find thousands of articles and book titles on the subject. Finding clarity around where you want to go in a particular area of life and subsequently spelling out the steps on how you are going to get there can be an extremely helpful tool. I know from my own experience that training for specific athletic events (aka setting a goal) often adds a certain amount of structure to my fitness life that feels welcome and can also be highly enjoyable. So just to be clear, though the title of this article, “The Trouble with Fitness Goals” might suggest otherwise, I am not indiscriminately opposed to goal setting when it comes to movement and exercise. If you guessed, however, that I may have some caveats to share when it comes to creating healthy fitness goals that don’t blindly feed into the problematic ideologies of fitness culture, you are correct! I hope you find a few of these ideas helpful.
1. A healthy mindset before goal setting is key.
During the years that I was working toward healing from my disordered exercise behaviours, my mental health required that I let go of all structured workout programs in order to create more connection with my body. In order to learn how to trust the signals and desires of my body with regard to movement, and subsequently begin following its lead, fitness goals needed to be put aside in favour of a deeper purpose and connection to movement and my body. This was a more difficult feat than you might think given the fact that so many of us are typically striving toward some sort of body or “health” related goal at any given time. Intending to get to the gym more, attempting to lose that “extra15 lbs”, working toward completing a 30 day challenge; it’s all such normative behaviour that you actually feel odd and somewhat radical choosing NOT to be pulled along by some kind of goal or imagined end point. Tough as it was, this was one of the healthiest things I could have done for myself during that time. It allowed me to create the movement practice I now enjoy which is body and soul driven as well as punishment and shame free. Setting fitness goals if you are in a disordered mind set with your body, food and/or exercise is not a good idea. Get free first, then set goals from a place of freedom.
2. Be prepared for the “what now?” feeling that happens when we complete or reach a goal.
So many of us have been conditioned to push and drive continuously. And it’s no wonder as we live in a culture that aggressively celebrates the energy of doing over simply being. The “sleep when you’re dead” message is exalted as one of human success and our culture rarely elevates or promotes the concepts of rest and recovery the way it does striving to get more done. So if you are working toward a goal or an event, know that its ok to allow yourself some time (possibly even a really long time) to just bask in the accomplishment of that goal. Know that you don’t ever have to set another goddamned goal again if you don’t want to. There doesn’t always have to be another physical accomplishment on the horizon. In my interactions with patients and clients over the years, I’ve seen many people realize great physical achievements in their life only to follow that up with admonishing themselves and their bodies for requiring a period of slowing down afterward. Goal setting and the high of achievement has the ability to lead us into a continuous quest for and focus on that “next thing “and a life always lived in the future rather than being able to enjoy the present. It’s helpful to understand that an appropriate answer to the “What now? Or what’s next?” question can be simply be just to enjoy the pause that comes after your hard work.
3. Happily release a goal that is no longer serving you.
Sometimes a goal that sounds absolutely stellar at the beginning can dramatically lose it’s lustre along the way. Do NOT be afraid to abandon said goal. Ignore the memes that say quitting is for losers and Bill Gates never gave up a day in his life, blah blah blah. If you are not feeling the event or the training anymore, if it feels like a chore every single time and there is little to no joy in it, this is a great time to check in and ask yourself if it all still makes sense. Guess what? You’re allowed to change your mind at any time and I give you ALL the permissions to decide that this goal doesn’t serve you as you first thought it might. This does not make you a failure in fact the decision to let go is often a decision that deeply honours body and soul and any time we make decisions from that honourable space, we help facilitate the shift in a toxic culture that is continually encouraging us not to trust our own instincts and desires.
4. “I was not put on this earth to be fit”. Return to my mantra as needed when you get caught up in the rushing river of fitness culture.
There is more to you than how fit you are or what you decide to accomplish physically however the messages coming out of the fitness world can often make it seem otherwise. It can be very easy when you are immersed in a training schedule to slide into the dominant mind set of fitness culture which attempts to convince us that there is nothing more important in life than being as fit and healthy as you can possibly be. We know that this culture of fitness is broken, that exercise can be used in obsessive, self punishing and addictive ways, and that fitness is almost exclusively misconstrued with weight loss, thinness and ableism. Please do not forget that there is more to life and more to you as a human being than your fitness, the aesthetics of your body or any physical feat you may achieve. Use my favourite mantra above or choose one of your own as a reminder for when you need a healthier perspective. (You can read a poem I wrote about my personal fitness mantra here.)
5. Bring as much consciousness as you can muster to your fitness goal setting .
Ask yourself the following questions:
A) Why am I doing this? What am hoping to get out of this goal?
B) How much of this desired goal is coming from within me vs. some kind of external pressure or perceived reward?
C) How will I feel if I abandon the goal before I reach or or if I simply fail? Will I make that mean anything about me or my worth as a person?
D) How will I deal with a possible change in my fitness level after reaching my goal? Am I expecting myself to maintain that level of fitness or the changes to my body that may have accompanied my training?
E) How will I stay embodied and connected to myself while I set out achieving my goal?
6. Hold goals loosely so as to avoid negative emotional consequences if something unforeseen ends up derailing your goal.
Life happens. Injuries happen. And priorities have the ability to pivot both quickly and dramatically. I’ve seen clients and friends experience severe anxiety and depression when unforeseen obstacles interrupt their exercise or training routines. I know myself that in my disordered past I chose training over my bodily health, over family and social events and even skipped out on work and school. When physical training becomes your everything in life, not only does your life have the tendency to become one dimensional and small but you also set yourself up for the possibility of disastrous emotional and mental health consequences if you lose the ability to keep training. Pushing your body to the point of serious physical injury and/or ignoring all other areas of life in blind pursuit of a physical goal is not healthy behaviour. So when you decide on an event or training related goal, hold it’s achievement loosely rather than with an iron grip. Allow your mind to entertain the idea that it’s possible (not probable but possible) you may get sidelined along the way and reassure yourself that if you do, you will be ok. No missed Tough Mudder race is worth spending months in the depths of a depression over so I highly encourage you to do as much as you can to safe guard yourself. You can do this by not allowing your mind to get overly attached to a specific experience or outcome and by reminding yourself that your goal and you as a person are not the same thing.
7. Goals associated with weight loss or the aesthetics of your body are ones that are built on oppressive and unhealthy diet and fitness culture concepts. Avoid them.
If the main thrust of your goal setting is based around weight loss or body changes, I gently suggest here that you re-assess. Exercise motivation research supports the notion that “extrinsic” or externally motivated engagement in physical activity typically leads to more negative mental/emotional consequences than intrinsic motivation and also does not lend itself to the creation of any longterm commitment to physical activity. In other words besides there being negative mental health consequences to focusing solely on changing your body, there will also be no creation of lasting connection to movement. Divorcing physical activity from weight loss is the absolute best thing you can do to support consistency with movement and support your own bodily and mental health. Exercising to lose weight or shape your body leads straight to the front seat of the damn rollercoaster that many of us know so well. Fit then sedentary, weight loss then weight gain, then rinse and repeat all over again. If there is no alignment whatsoever with your goal and your own internal sense of joy or pleasure, if your goal doesn’t somehow nourish your soul, support your world view or contribute to the overall vitality of your life, maybe it’s a goal that’s better to say “pass” to.
I was not put on this earth to be fit
To keep my eyes downward glancing only
Either at numbers on a scale or at my feet as I fastidiously track each step they take
I was not put on this earth to sculpt a body as a measure of my worth
To keep my eyes downward glancing only
Judging the food set in front of me on a scale of morality and determining what portion was earned on a particular day
I was not put on this earth to feel shame upon viewing my image in a mirror nor to shame the bodies of others
To keep my eyes downward glancing only
Attempting to banish the lack of tautness from my thighs, or the flesh from my belly
I was not put in this earth to be fit
In these times of ever increasing awareness of horrific oppression and violence toward our fellow human beings, I ask
“Am I really to keep worrying most about my waistline?”
Culture shouts, “YES!”
My soul whispers something else...
I was not put on this earth to be fit
Awakened, I realize I am capable of accessing a power that goes far beyond the size and shape of me
Of privilege that can be used to lift and free others
Power that is only available when I release the obsession of altering my body, when I stop tracking and scheduling “fitness” and food and simply move when movement calls to me
I have the ability, the right, and dare I say, an obligation to my fellow travellers, to lift my gaze
To look up and out and beyond my body, while also remaining steadfastly in it
To raise my middle finger to the capitalistic industries that wish to keep me struggling under a blanket of lies
I choose to continue looking up
For only then can I take in the beauty of the horizon and the full expansiveness of this human experience
I’ve been in recovery from my eating and exercise disorder for 7 years now. Living in recovery means several important things for me; First and foremost is that I no longer conflate the size and shape of my body with my worth as a person. (Woo hoo! That is a big fucking win, let me tell you) Second is that I no longer restrict food in order to make my body smaller (another reaalllyy great reason to celebrate!) and Third is that I no longer participate in exercise as a form of weight control or punishment (ahh pleasurable and desired movement only… delightful!)
While all of this healing continues to feel like absolute freedom for me in my life, getting to this place was neither quick nor easy. Healing childhood wounds and breaking free from the non-stop, stifling culture of thinness and fitness has taken time, much introspection and heaping doses of courage. AND the effects on my mental and physical wellbeing and most especially on my ability to be present and loving in my relationships has made the effort more than worth it. There is no question that the constant focus on my body and the war I was waging against it was stealing my life.
So given all that I have to celebrate on my body liberation journey thus far, the following admission may come as a surprise to you;
Sometimes I think about signing up for fitness challenges and clean eating programs.
It’s true, I get roped in. Tugged on. Poked at. Pushed off balance. Confused. Most of the time, the thought is brief and fleeting and I end up back on the solid ground of my own body’s truth in a very short period of time, but I feel it only fair to let you know that it happens, that I still get stung on occasion by the poisonous tentacles of diet and fitness culture. Despite my mission to use my writing as but one voice in the chorus that is currently leading the charge to support fellow humans in finding liberation from restrictive eating and punishing exercise, I fully admit that I sometimes find myself questioning my own narrative. Shit, I think it would be almost impossible not to in our “health” obsessed, fat phobic culture.
There are days where every single message related to health or the human body I come across seems to be one of shame and fear mongering, messages very often rooted in all kinds of oppression. Most weeks the conversations I overhear at the coffee shop, experience in my clinic space or see on social media are ones that reinforce the damaging message that being thin and fit is the answer to every single one of life’s problems. Spoiler alert; I tried it and it’s not.
I will tell you that when my pants get tight, (and they sure as hell do because my body is not and never will be a damn machine!) it can feel pretty darn tempting to simply throw up my hands and toss back a shot of the koolaid that most everyone around me is drinking. After all, I’ve been conditioned to do just that for 40 plus years.
Sally’s doing Whole 30. Barry’s counting macros. Jane signed up for a bootcamp challenge….and on and on. And then come the kudos. Way to go girl! You’re getting healthy! Such will power and control!
It’s Every. Fucking. Where.
And so with all this bombardment, it’s truly not surprising that despite all the work I’ve done, I occasionally hear a small voice in my head that whispers,
“Maybe I should be doing that too?”….
The truth is, the diet and fitness neural connections in my brain are still present. It makes sense given that I spent over 40 years forging and then grooming those connections into a streamlined electrical super highway. These pathways of restriction don’t just crumble overnight. What does happen to that super highway over time however is that it gets much much quieter the less traffic there is on it and as a result it becomes much easier to manage when one lone vehicle does decide to take the old, out of date road.
(This is the part where I say, "Hang in there! It's a practice and it does get easier, I promise you. Set backs are normal and expected when attempting to extract yourself from a belief system as insidious as the thin ideal but you can break free.")
The cultural story we have about food and exercise has not yet changed. There is no doubt that it is chang-ING but there are still relatively few diet and fitness outliers out there compared to the legions of “thin and fit is it!” preachers we see in our media feeds. We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a world that idolizes the lean body and demonizes any body that’s not that. It’s hella difficult to shield oneself from that! Especially when the “your body is wrong” message is consistently communicated under the guise of concern for one’s “health”. (And there’s a whole other blog post brewing on that topic as well!) The good news is that this does not mean that it’s not possible to choose a more peaceful and loving existence individually within our bodies and in our relationships with food and exercise. Cultural shields can be erected and triggers can be managed and I’ve learned that it all drastically lessens in intensity the longer peace has been a viable option.
So how have I learned to combat the voices around me that sometimes trigger those old out of date ones still lurking within?
Step one: I notice my thoughts and the reactivity that’s present. I become the watcher of my reaction and simply register that I am contemplating diet and overexercise ideas AND I do this with compassionate curiosity. “Isn’t that interesting that I think I need to sign up for a 30 day bootcamp challenge. Why am I thinking that would be beneficial? What am I hoping that would do for me in this moment? If I pretend that this isn’t actually about my weight, what might it be truly about?”
Step two: I pause and find my centre. Not the centre of someone else or of the culture that is broken, but my own. Very very often when I find myself contemplating some form of self harm through dietary restriction or exercise, I find that I have actually left my own energetic self and jumped into someone else’s beliefs, energy, or fear. My centre knows my truth. And when I’m solidly in myself it’s so much easier to see through the lies of what I think a small body will get me. Often times for me, this re-centering process will involve spending some alone time out in nature, doing some journaling, listening to music or simply giving myself a day off from my to do list.
Step three: I ask myself what I know to be true on my journey so far. The longer I’ve been in recovery the easier and quicker it gets for me to move out of diet and fitness triggers. After 7 years on this path, I now know very deeply that the answer to whatever is happening for me when I’m ruminating about my body rarely ever has to do with the need to change it . The desire to lose weight or be fitter is usually a symptom that something else may need my attention. It’s typically a call to move inward for a bit and have a look at my self care process or the balance of my life. Obsessing about food and exercise never once made my life better.
Step four: I call upon community. I pull up an article or listen to a podcast that helps re-affirm my truth. Even the most stalwart of body liberation warriors need help and support sometimes because…well because the culture. I have several people, websites and podcasts bookmarked for just such occasions and they save me repeatedly. I’ll share some of my favorite bad ass body liberation warriors with you in the links below.
Christy Harrison MPH, RD, CDN- Food Psych Podcast
The Militant Baker
Made on a Generous Plan
Be Nourished with Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC and Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD
Lori Race is a healer, health clinic owner and writer with a passionate message to share from her past as a fitness instructor suffering from compulsive exercise disorder.