Pushing is not punishing
The idea that challenging exercise is antithetical to self-care is an overcorrection for the worst of fitness and diet culture.
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There’s an idea I see sometimes in the so-called wellness space online that what’s healthy where exercise is concerned is something like, “Never push your body to do anything challenging because that’s the opposite of self-care.”
Michelle Obama (who is currently marketing juice for kids that has less sugar, prompting infuriated accusations that she’s engineered a “diet drink” for children. Eye roll. Abundant sugar isn’t great for many reasons unrelated to weight, but OK, go off…) wrote in her book “The Light We Carry” that during the White House years she would book weekends away to exercise with her friends:
“For me, there is no quicker or more efficient way to obliterate stress and get focused on the present moment than to throw myself into a hard-core, edge-pushing workout. Or even better, a series of them. I guess you might say that vigor is one of my Love Languages. I like who we become when we’re feeling a little pushed. I like having friends who enjoy sweating a little, who can see the fun in finding their own inner reservoirs of determination and strength.”
In a recent piece of writing I read, this was characterized as a negative and the workouts were described as “punishing.”
Michelle Obama’s words are not those of someone who’s suffering through self-abuse. They’re the words of someone who’s learned to cope a bit better with life via the stunning mechanisms of the body. When you’re such a person, “hard-core” doesn’t refer to the workout, it refers to how it makes you feel. “Edge-pushing” refers to you meeting what you think are the boundaries of your ability and realizing they’re not cinderblock walls, they’re only beaded curtains.
Pushing your body is not the same as punishing your body, and the idea that any challenging exercise is antithetical to self-care is an overcorrection for the worst of fitness and diet culture. In making the case that self improvement through challenging exercise shouldn’t be a mandate (it shouldn’t), some people are going so far as to suggest that it shouldn’t even be an option — that if you choose to challenge or push your body past comfort, you have made an incorrect choice.
Pushing through challenging new stimuli is the only way anyone improves at anything, but people are suspect of this in the realm of the body — no one finds it problematic to push themselves through the challenges of learning a new language or writing a book. People are suspect about vigor when it comes to the body because it can become obsessive in a way that physically harms us. But I’m exhausted by the hot takes on wellness that presuppose people are helpless children who can’t tell what’s “bad” or “good” on their own. I think people can be trusted to tell the difference between pushing and punishment for themselves.
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Exercise was long seen as serving only one purpose: Getting buff (men) or getting thin (women). To those ends, we were told we must suffer: “No pain, no gain.” For women especially, exercise was a kind of self-punishment for the crime of consuming calories. Now the pendulum is swinging and the concept of “joyful movement” has arrived.
Slate and Romper published items earlier this year about reframing the purpose of exercise. Romper is “celebrating the joy of moving our bodies because it feels good – full stop.” Slate is getting fitness “right” this year, it’s “trying to understand how working out can achieve one incredibly simple goal: feeling good.”
Now, credit where it’s due: Both outlets present what I think is the most important point. Romper says:
“Finding a workout you enjoy doesn’t necessarily mean finding one that’s easy or gentle. Nor does it mean you have to enjoy every moment of the experience itself. We often derive the greatest satisfaction from physical activities that encourage us to challenge what we thought we were capable of, and to overcome fears and obstacles.”
And Slate says:
“Even if running or weightlifting or swimming isn’t always a total joy in the moment, the net improvement of exercising in your life isn’t that you become a different shape, or a well-oiled machine. It should be that you feel better. Not as confirmed by metrics, heart rate, your shape, or even your top speed, but simply for you.”
They bury these ledes, though. The main message — what you see circulating on Instagram and wherever else context and nuance are in short supply — is that the point of exercise is joy, that the only way it’s done “right” is if it feels good every time.
If your goal is to take immediate and total pleasure in moving your body every time you do it and never feel challenged or pushed, go for it. If getting started with joyful movement opens the door to a long-lasting exercise practice, great. But I hesitate to fully endorse an approach to exercise that I see as based on instant gratification, because exercise is a habit we should do even when we don’t want to (with caveats), because we’re not going to want to some of the time. Also: my goals are different.
Among the reasons why I exercise, what Shelly O. said about “finding inner reservoirs of determination and strength” is one. I exercise to get stronger, faster, more flexible, more mobile, and more stable. This requires me to be uncomfortable — and sometimes frustrated, and sometimes to fail — because the body doesn’t get better at anything if it’s never challenged. I have to add some weight, or do a new rep scheme, or stretch deeper, or make adjustments that enable me to brush up against those beaded curtain boundaries so I can eventually breeze through. I don’t put my body through pain, I put it through pressure.
My exercise ethos isn’t “no pain, no gain,” but it is kind of “no strain, no gain.”
Knowing I can come out better on the other side of pressure and strain is the stuff of life. I just use exercise to practice. I also use it to feel better when I don’t know how else to feel better, as I wrote here:
After my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease seven months into the pandemic, I walked the soles of my shoes down. I disappeared into the woods and hiked as fast as I could until I collapsed sobbing next to a tree. I went to the gym and picked up 250 pounds over and over until my limbs sizzled and then ran outside to weep. I exercised — exorcized, I suppose — my emotional pain away for a bit. Exerting yourself physically is a release, an explosive cathartic act, the firing of the wadded T-shirt that is your stress out of a cannon and into the stratosphere. This is simple and elegant in the way that so much is not.
With all due respect, if you can’t imagine how a hard-core, edge-pushing workout can be helpful, not harmful, it’s because you’ve never experienced one. I hope you do sometime.