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 a purchasable way 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 this 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 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
It’s strange that we live in a culture where trusting the vessel we live in is more difficult than trusting the advice of a stranger on the internet.
Such is the effect of a few hundred years of patriarchy and capitalism where the unrelenting vigor of the messages telling women their bodies are unacceptable has all but severed the connection to our own instincts and intuition. This is especially true with regard to food and movement where media and marketing for the industry is a mine field of shame and disparagement designed to lead us further away from ourselves and our power.
All is not lost, however. Blessedly, the river of knowing and wisdom remains full and flowing within all of us and reclaiming that wisdom is as simple as being willing to crouch at the edge of the embankment, cup the water in our hands and take a drink.
I remember very clearly the time period when I first started playing with the idea of exercising intuitively. Although I didn’t exactly know that was what I was doing at the time, I had come to a significant turning point in my relationship with food, exercise and my body. After over 20 years of compulsive behaviors, I had finally hit a wall of exhaustion. The misery that had been my constant companion whether I was fit or unfit, lean or fat had suffocated the vitality of my life for too long and I was desperate to try something, anything different. Boldly, I realize now, I took a giant step away from food restriction of any kind (diets, cleanses, detoxes, lifestyle changes, etc) and let go of all manner of workout programs and scheduling. No more gym or fitness class memberships, no need to do some form of exercise every day and no calendar tracking of workouts or sign ups to fitness challenges. I threw every bit of structure and all my carefully curated workout and food rules out the window pretty much in one fell swoop. I was ready instead to attempt listening to my body.
It was terrifying. I was thrust right up against my 20 plus years of body-hatred conditioning what felt like hundreds of times a day and the urge to slide back into my comfort zone of restriction and exercise obsession pulled at me constantly. The desire to try just one more program (because maybe it would be different this time…) felt like a powerful ocean wave whispering promises to take me to a new shore. Yet I resisted. Somewhere deep inside, my soul seemed to understand that this was just another rip curl of lies looking to rough me up and pull me under once again. Each time I struggled, I would remind myself of the painful relationship I had been in with my body for so long. I would come back to the fact that what I had been doing since I was 17 to try and change my body had never ever “worked” in the long term. On the toughest days, I assured myself that this was just an experiment to get a glimpse of what it looked like on the other side and that I could always go back if things here ended up being worse.
Thankfully, this was not the case. As my experiment continued, I began to have the tiniest glimpses of a life and mind not dominated by thoughts about my body or when and where my next workout fix would be. The brief moments of peace eventually started to string together as though brick by brick there was a new path unfolding for me to walk along and after a year or so, I finally began experiencing more days of relief in the form of body neutrality than ones of anguish and body hatred. I was still moving my body during this time but far far less than I ever had in the past and strangely, people didn’t respond to me any differently. It was as if they didn’t really care whether I was fit or not.
I won't pretend that this wasn't a long and emotionally difficult journey. If the decision to heal childhood traumas and free oneself from oppressive and damaging culturally supported behaviors were as easy as signing up for a spin class challenge, we would all be doing it. And just because you make it to the other side, doesn’t mean the siren song calls to return simply stop. As insulated as you try and make yourself, the barrage of images telling you that you are not doing enough to make yourself "healthy", "well", "fit" or "lean" will continue, and chances are the majority of people around you at the office, in your family and in your circle of friends will go on participating in the distortion of diet and exercise culture. Unfortunately it will likely continue to be the norm for a while. Trusting your body is a radical act. Choosing to no longer use exercise as a tool of punishment or control is a radical act. Understanding that your body doesn't need changing is a radical act.
This path requires you to be a radical.
I can’t tell you exactly how exercising intuitively may look for you for our body stories are all unique. What I do want to offer here however are some concepts that continue to work for me in my own practice; ideas you can play around with if you feel pulled in this direction. I also want to simply let you know you that exercising this way is possible. That this is exactly where I’ve been for the last 6 years, moving regularly and pleasurably according to the intelligence of my body. And feeling a deep sense of peace with and appreciation for movement itself.
Intuitive exercise practices are born through body trust, something we are taught early on as consumers and especially as women, to dismiss. Because of this, one of the first steps in finding more ease with exercise is connecting to your body and re-aquainting yourself with that lost treasure.
Repeat after me:
My body knows what it needs.
My body’s desires can be trusted.
My body finds joy in movement as well as in rest.
My body finds nourishment in rest as well as in movement.
Use these mantras or find others that invite you into your own wisdom. Repeat them regularly, journal about them or put them in spaces where you’ll see them daily. Remind yourself that your body signals you when it needs things like water, food or sleep and begin to understand that movement is no different. Start believing that your body actually wants to move, that it doesn’t need to be pushed and prodded with weapons of self hatred to do so.
Below are some practices I’ve found to be helpful on my own path. This list is by no means exhaustive and not all of these will necessarily feel right for you. Play with the ideas that feel good and leave the rest.
1. Shelter yourself from fitness culture as much as you are able: Yes, it’s impossible to escape the toxic messaging altogether but being intentional about your engagement with it is integral, especially in the beginning stages of recovery. For me this meant taking time away from the gym and group fitness classes as I found it difficult to foster this new connection and trust in my body while remaining in the belly of the beast, so to speak. I was able to go back to these spaces later, once my foundation of body liberation was stronger but at first it felt like the right call for me to be moving my body exclusively either at home or outside. I realize this may feel like too large a step for some of you and it may not even be the most appropriate step for everyone, especially if these have been and continue to be spaces that feel comfortable and familiar. If this is the case, then another great starting point can be simply to notice conversations you have with others about exercise and bodies. How often does body shape and exercise come up in conversation with friends, family and colleagues? How much of that talk is typically negative, focused on “getting back on the exercise wagon” or someone sharing that they just started a new fitness and/or weight loss program? What happens when you choose not to feed into those conversations? Or try having them in a different way? How does it feel to start telling a new story about your body, to yourself and to others?
2. Find mentors, teachers and community that support this new way of interacting with movement and your body: Happily, there are so many wonderful resources available within the Body acceptance/liberation, Intuitive Eating and Intuitive Exercise communities. Connecting with these people and others who are also on this journey is something I continue to find immeasurably helpful especially when the pressures of diet and fitness culture are doing their best to wear me down. Here are a few of my favorite online people and spaces, ones that help remind me of my truth and let me know I’m not alone: Rachel Cole, The Food Psych Podcast (and FB group), Jes Baker, Melissa Toler, Curvy Yoga.
3. Try not to buy into the belief that exercise is complicated: One of the things I realized in stepping away from traditional exercise constructs was that working out, for many people, has become an unnecessarily complicated endeavor. From digital gadgets to be purchased and constantly monitored to specific clothing and footwear, to fancy equipment and elite, expensive and often cult-like workout spaces, there seems to be this underlying message that exercise has rules or at the very least a set of ideal parameters. This happens to be one of the main reasons why I love the concept of movement so much more than “exercise” or “working out”. Movement is really really simple. It’s anything where your body is in motion. Walking, gardening, having sex, dancing, stretching, swimming, skipping. This re-simplification feels important. Because every time we believe we need to wear, purchase or belong to something in order to properly “exercise” we just end up erecting yet another false barrier to finding our own true and unique version of health and happiness.
4. Lean into the discomfort when you can. Ask for support when needed: If you are moving away from heavily structured exercise and/or over-exercise or shifting toward a practice of more movement in your life, chances are you are going to feel uncomfortable at times. I know I certainly did. See if you can stay with that feeling and uncover what it’s about. Is there fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Name it. Bring it into the light. I’m afraid I’m going to fail again. I’m afraid I’m going to be lazy. I’m afraid I’m going to gain weight. I’m afraid I’m going to lose weight. I’m afraid of being in my body. I’m afraid of not being loved and accepted. Honor whatever discomfort shows up, let yourself feel it, say how you’re feeling out loud to yourself or a friend or a therapist. Chances are it will begin to shift once it’s given some space to exist. This is probably the hardest work you will do in this process.
*Note: The process of moving into inhabiting our bodies more fully can often be blocked or made difficult due to past abuse or trauma. It’s a good idea to work with a trauma informed therapist or practitioner along the way if this work feels like it may be compromising your feeling of safety in your body or triggering emotional pain that requires professional support.
5. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: You’re trying on a new way of being and attempting to distance yourself from some pretty heavily ingrained patterns. You’ve also likely experienced some form of body related shaming or trauma in your life as most of us have. Because of these things, this healing journey requires heaping doses of self compassion. I held compassion for myself as a child attempting to navigate difficult circumstances first with food and later on with exercise and for myself as a woman who had been imprisoned for years by an ideal body image that was ridiculous and unattainable. I also continue to have compassion for myself as a human being trying to exist on a planet ripe with the contrasts of deep beauty and equally deep suffering. Compassion was the thing that helped me stay the course and create a new relationship with myself and also subsequently with those around me.
6. Don’t be afraid to try new things: It’s easy to get limited by the narrow scope of exercise that is marketed to us. Use this time to expand your view and experiment with any and all kinds of movement that pop into your head. Notice when your body feels most alive and if and when the mind no longer find’s itself counting calories burned or noting steps taken. During what kinds of movement do you actually find yourself more fully IN YOUR BODY? What kinds of movement could you do for hours and feel lost in it? Explore fully the sensation of pleasure as it relates to movement for yourself. And do your best to release ideas that limit exercise to activities that feel like “shoulds”.
7. Understand that it’s ok if you’re moving less (and also if you’re moving more!): It took me a bit of time to get to the point where I was able fully access my body’s rhythms with regard to movement. For the first several months I kept running into what seemed liked constant fatigue and/or disinterest with regard to exercise. Here was one of my greatest fears; that this process would lead me to a life a laziness, apathy and ill health. This is not what happened. It turned out that after so many years of over-exercising, my body needed some time to re-set and recover. Though it created panic at times, holding myself through that period of time where it seemed like I would rarely ever exercise again allowed me to move into a natural balance of rest and movement that I’ve now easily maintained for years. Continue trusting your body and movement will find you again, I promise.
8. Before deciding whether or not you’re going to move your body take 5 minutes to be still and ask some of the following questions: How do I feel today? Am I fatigued, energized or somewhere in between? Does anything in my body feel tense or painful? What are the emotions I am feeling in this moment? Am I aware of any thoughts coming up about what I “should” be doing with regard to movement and my body? If so, what are those thoughts? Are they true? What type of movement, if any, might feel really good? If I’m not craving movement itself so much, is there something else I would really love to do?
I often use something I call the imagination tool when I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not I want to move my body and/or what kind of movement my body might be desiring. It’s a simple exercise in which I allow my mind to imagine doing different activities and then I gauge my body’s response to each activity. Typically when I do this, one activity will come out as a clear winner with my body. It shows up as a feeling of lightness, an opening through my chest and shoulders or a small spark throughout my body. When one or more of these sensations show up, I know I’ve found what my body is asking for.
Unless I am booked in for a session at my Pilates studio, I typically hold my exercise plans each day VERY VERY loosely. This means that I tend to have a general idea upon waking as to whether or not I plan to enjoy some form of exercise or relax into a rest day but for the most part I let my body’s intuition be the guide and I'm always open to changing direction based on that. The ultimate question I hold in my mind when it comes to exercise is, “What would feel good today?”
This is a dramatic shift from the days of my exercise disorder when I was chained to a very specific and cumbersome workout schedule, one that had little to do with health and nothing at all to do with what gave me pleasure. The focus back then was three fold; to tame and alter my body, to punish myself for overeating and to exercise enough to numb emotional pain.
My current approach to exercise is a version of what many in the eating and exercise disorder recovery arena are calling Intuitive Exercise. As an ally and partner to the growing community of Intuitive Eating (which I heartily endorse), Intuitive Exercise offers a way of moving my body that releases strict rules about if, when, where, how and for how long I exercise, in favour of a system that puts my own individual body’s needs and desires at the centre of the process. Basically it’s a way of bringing my body back into connection with movement as opposed to handing it over to people and programs that don't have access to my own internal wisdom. This does not necessarily require that you toss aside gym memberships, personal trainers or workout schedules (although it may be beneficial to separate from them for a time depending on your current relationship to exercise), it simply means that you begin to seek out joy inducing movement practices and strive to remain in true connection with your body throughout the process.
For any of you who have been in the body shaping and/or weight loss game for a while, you likely have figured out that most fitness programs typically do not create an “endless love” type relationship with movement. At least they never did for me. What they did end up creating however was a proverbial exercise band wagon that I would jump on all fired up on the structure and the workout tracking only to find out several weeks or months down the road that my body and soul simply could not sustain the enthusiasm my mind had experienced upon signing up. I’m going to guess that this scenario may sound familiar to some of you. I believe much of this so-called “loss of motivation” comes from the fact that most exercise programs actually ignore the body altogether. Sounds strange, dosesn't it? But here’s the thing; instead of listening to the body’s needs and desires and seeking out positive feeling states with regard to movement, exercise plans, programs and challenges tend to be created and committed to almost exclusively with the mind. So although we're led to believe that exercise is prescribed according to body-centric principles (exercise science and current concepts of health, as skewed as they may be), the all important voice of the body itself is actually no where to be found. The practice of Intuitive Exercise is all about learning to listen for and trust that voice.
So here's what we're told; A certain amount of cardiovascular exercise is good for our hearts and lungs. Some form of resistance training helps increase lean muscle mass and bone density. We also know that regular sessions of movement have the ability to benefit mental health. This information is not wrong, BUT it’s also not helpful in and of itself. If it was, far fewer of us would be at war with our bodies around movement. The data and science alone just ignore so much. They ignore the importance of ancestral and sacred ritual that was often the purpose of movement. They ignore the mind, body, spirit connection. They ignore the very complicated relationship most humans have with their bodies due in large part to a lifetime of toxic cultural messaging and media. And they also ignore the fact that a very large segment of the population do not have the financial ability and/or privilege that allows them access to the "fitness" and "wellness" that's being marketed to us. That is a really big problem. In fact the data and science are most often used as both a tool of shame and a tool of exclusion, one that many industry and health professionals mistakenly believe to be motivational. All of this makes me angry and I believe we can do better.
Humans tend to do repeatedly what feels good on some level. So why don't we aim to invoke feelings of pleasure during movement instead of plying people with statistics and bullshit body shaming. Let's help people uncover rewards that stretch beyond the physical appearance of their bodies! Let's up level our consciousness around movement! Trust me, tearing down tired old, oppressive constructs can be a super fun side hustle!
What we need more of now are motivational movement “WHYs” that we can truly get excited about. Here are a few of mine;
My practice no longer has anything to do with why or how I “should” be exercising (shoulds are so 2000's anyway). Intuitive Exercise, for me, paints a picture that is so much richer and more colorful than anything I could have experienced when I was using movement solely to try and control and punish my body. It's given me freedom I didn't know I had been seeking.
“EARN YOUR BODY”
“EXERCISE UNTIL YOUR BODY BEHAVES”
“NO SHORTCUTS, WORK FOR IT”
This is fitness culture in a nutshell.
It stinks and I'm over it.
Maybe, just maybe, you might be over it too.
And if you are you can follow me to Part Two of Intuitive Exercise: The Art of Listening Before Moving where I'll be discussing specific tools to help you start creating and nourishing your own Intuitive Exercise practice.
It was early morning on a Saturday and a group of us were gathering in the parking lot at the lake. There was a slight chill in the air and a layer of light fog was hanging over the water. Some of us wore gloves and hats. A few people were jumping up and down, doing short jogs and stretching out their muscles. Others were less energetic, standing still and allowing the odd shiver to ripple over their limbs knowing that soon they would be running and warm enough.
Each one of us that morning held a coloured duo tang in our hands. This was a sign that we were all on the “weight loss program”. On the first page of our duo tangs were written our starting measurements. Body weight, bust size, waist size, hip size and calf size. A list of numbers that added all together supposedly made us a person (And in this particular situation, a person who needed to become smaller). From there, the duo tang turned into page after page of food diaries. Daily records of every morsel of nourishment that had entered our mouths each day for the past week.
I remember my perfectionist side having a great deal of trouble actually writing down any “bad” foods I had eaten because once I did, it would be there permanently, in ink, reminding me that there was a reason my ass was so big. A reason that I wasn’t acceptable. A crystal clear reminder of my dreadful lack of willpower and control.
Our instructor, Suzanne, arrived, scale and red marker in hand. She was petite and muscular. No matter how she was dressed or what situation you saw her in, there was no mistaking her fitness level. She laid the scale down on the pavement and one by one we jumped on to see how successful our efforts had been. The scale would let us know our worth and we all looked to it to do just that. Once the weights had been recorded it was time for Suzanne to go through our food diaries. Now if you thought weighing yourself in a parking lot in front of a group of near strangers was humiliating, it was nothing compared to having the intimacy of your food choices judged and assaulted with a red pen.
I was up.
I thought I had had a pretty good food week and was secretly hoping to receive the “good girl” praise that I had missed out on in my youth.
Chai tea latte- Red X
Bagel- Red X
Cream Cheese- Red X
Chocolate- Well duh, of course that was a Red X….
On and on it went. My smallest food transgressions highlighted to the group and labeled as weak and wrong. Those fucking red X’s. They haunt me to this day. They make me angry. How dare someone play judge and jury on something so personal. How dare someone sum up my worth as a human being in a goddamned cup of chai tea!
And yet that was not at all how I felt at the time.
I was there voluntarily. I had signed up knowing this would be the drill, thinking this kind of structure and shaming would lead me to the promised land. A land where I felt good about my body and about taking up less space in the world. I was paying for those red X’s!! God, if I was looking for shame and criticism, there was plenty of that available for free in my own head.
Looking back on those years I can now see that I was desperately seeking solutions to the wrong problem. In my late teens and all through my twenties and early thirties I had always believed that my biggest issue was the size and shape of my body and that if I could just put enough structure in place and summon a sufficient amount of will power, my problem would be solved and I would be free from my misery, my anxiety, my despair.
But, just like the industry experts who continue to peddle these same ideas, I had it all backwards. The misery, anxiety and despair was what was crying out for the attention, not my body. Those emotions (and many others) needed to be investigated with a tender and compassionate lens and also felt in the presence of a open heart. The roots of them dug up from the deeper soil of my childhood and brought into the rays of sunlight in order to allow for true healing.
Pitting me against my body was simply a convenient and culturally supported distraction from the deeper work. The red marker, the food diaries and yet ANOTHER RUN AROUND THE LAKE were not the solution to my soul’s pain nor my broken body image. In fact, those things and the many many other fitness and food configurations I tried only served to disconnect me further from my buried self, the one that actually knew the truth.
That it had nothing to do with my body.
It is my greatest hope that the red marker has been retired from not only Suzanne’s practice but from all fitness programs around the world.
I want the tired old reactions to food, fitness and body size to be replaced with words of compassion and curiosity and also with the realization that shame is never ever a solution to food or exercise struggles.
Will power and structure do not equal a cure for the pain of being human and the sooner that the fitness industry as whole truly understands this, the more we can all begin to seek and experience the freedom that comes with and honest love of self, acceptance of self and above all CARE of self.
What is my story on embodied movement?
It’s about presence and beauty. The grace of a dancer in motion completely unaware of anything beyond that very next step. What is it about dance in particular that makes it so compelling to behold? Is it the stimulation of our visual and auditory senses together? The musical accompaniment coordinating the dancer’s lines and flow? What is the difference between a performance that evokes emotion from within the observer versus one that does not. Is it the presence? the spirit if you will?
What happens when I’m fully inhabiting my body while I move. While I exercise. What happens in my soul and in the way my neurotransmitters spark and sizzle when I really believe I am punching a heavy bag in a gritty, sweaty Rocky-esque gym in the bronx somewhere rather than simply punching air in my living room? What happens when all thought drops away and I lose myself in the natural landscape that surrounds me until there is only me and my foot fall on the trail? Do I hear the rocks whisper my name? Do the trees share with me a message of peace and enlightenment?
Letting all the nonsense drop away, fully and divinely inhabiting my body. It doesn't happen all the time but it happens just enough. Enough to light up every cell of my being, so each one glows as if warmed by a sunbeam. Enough that I know I will return again to these movements and this space because it feels just that delicious. Pleasure in motion. A vibrational match between movement and the divine. Is this not what we truly crave? More so than numbers on a scale or calories burned, it’s about SO MUCH MORE than that. It’s bigger, more expansive and deeply meaningful when we allow it to be that way.
Movement can heal the most profound level of wounding, connecting us to ourselves and also to that which is greater than than us, moving us beyond the minutiae of our lives. As an elixir of sorts, a magical incantation that allows us to be visible to ourselves in a different way than before. Seen as both animal and spirit. Awakening the animal spirit within.
We’ve removed the sacred from our movement practices. We worship seated and still. We exercise without intention or connection. Just another task on our overcrowded to do list, void of any presence or meaning beyond the check mark. Many of us are running scared, running away from rather than into deep connection and understanding of what drives us. Of what this existence is really about.
How do you begin to create more presence in your movement? Maybe surprisingly, it begins with a pause. A moment to connect and check in with how your body is feeling as a whole, to ask it once you’re truly listening what it’s needs and desires might be in this moment. Then breaking it down and feeling your way forward as you go. This is an expression of trust in your body. I know I want to listen to music. I know I want to be outside. Once outside where am I being called to? The stairs? The ocean? The playground? Allowing my body to lead me and trusting. Sometimes I’m not sure and it starts with putting some workout clothes on. Maybe I put something in the dvd player or look at a class schedule. I begin. Maybe it feels good and I continue. Maybe it doesn’t and I stop, change direction or simply allow for my body’s needs to surface through the contrast of what it isn’t aligning with today.
So what’s different?
I mean now that you’ve healed. Now that you’re no longer addicted to exercise, obsessed with your body, feeling a deep sense of repulsion and despair every time you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.
What’s different is everything. And also nothing. For on the surface the only behaviour change really noticeable to the outside world is the fact that I no longer exercise several hours every day.
The everything remains mostly invisible to those around me. Things like;
I no longer panic when I gain weight.
My brain is not on a constant loop of calculating the amount of exercise I’ve done and the amount I still need to do each and every day.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see beauty. I see a whole person with a soul rather than fragments of too big, too small, too soft and too fat.
When I exercise, it is about the pleasure of movement. There is no longer any level of punishment involved.
My weight has stopped swinging erratically 25-30 lbs at a time because there simply is no “diet and exercise wagon” to be on or off. Things are level. More balanced.
I no longer vilify rest. I embrace it. And I do it a lot.
I inhabit myself and my body more fully than I ever have.
I am at ease when I walk into a room. Free from the anxiety of the constant comparison of my body to others and the judgements I once placed in their heads.
So while its true I no longer exercise obsessively and in many ways it may not seem as though not all that much has changed, in reality nothing is the same. Much like an iceberg, of which you see only 10 percent of it’s overall mass emerging out above the water, the majority of my substantial transformation remains hidden.
What’s palpable to you when you read the statements above?
Does resistance show up? Do you scoff? Or can you feel a sense of peace? Maybe even a small drop of freedom? Is there somewhere deep inside you where it also might feel like the truth?
These feelings, this expansion of consciousness, this dropping of the emotional and mental weight of using exercise to correct something you believe to be wrong…it’s available to all.
And with this note, I just want you to know that it’s possible. That there is a different way to invite movement into your life. A different way to inhabit your body and a different purpose for exercise that's far more expansive than simply attempting to change the shape of your body. And it’s where the real juice is.
It’s where both nothing but mostly everything can change.