I don't like exercise, but I love moving

I have a confession to make: I don’t like exercise. I did not realize this until recently. Specifically, it was a talk by Dr. Darren Morton from Australia, speaking at this year’s American College of Lifestyle Medicine conference. Dr. Morton gave an excellent presentation on the different facets of Lifestyle Medicine and how they all relate to mental health and emotional well-being. When he talked about activity, he talked about the positive connotations around the word “movement,” and the negative connotations around the word “exercise.” I thought it was interesting, but otherwise I just carried on. My sub-conscious, however, didn’t.

A day or two previous, Dr. Dean Ornish had spoken about the importance of recognizing that changes in a person’s lifestyle will not occur long-term if the motivation is fear-based, i.e. the person fears something, such as a heart attack or pain or death. Rather, changes in lifestyle will only occur and be sustained if a person believes they may feel differently making the changes: they hurt less or have less chest pain when they eat differently, or when they move more they feel better and happier. His words too had resonated within me, but I was somewhat puzzled as I tried to make sense of my own attempt to change my lifestyle.

For years I have struggled to exercise. Even before I began doing Lifestyle Medicine (LM), I knew I should exercise, I knew I should work out. Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. And when I joined the ACLM, and then I became board certified, and then I opened a LM practice, at all these points in time I recognized that now, I needed to exercise more. Now, I needed to work out more. And sometimes I would, and sometimes I wouldn’t. When I did get active, I would really enjoy it. Sometimes I would completely forget that I was working out, or exercising, and then I was happiest, especially biking and downhill skiing. Even with exercise and working out, I was beginning to find joy again, but it was inconsistent, and I was not happy because I am supposed to be practising all facets of LM, and I was not living up to my intention to do so. I never considered why I was finding it so difficult to exercise or work out.

During Dr. Morton’s talk, he had an audience participation activity involving movement, and everyone in the room was laughing and grinning by the end of it, myself included. But after the talk, which was the last talk of the day, I returned to my hotel room, where I was going to change quickly and go and exercise, because that is what I “should” do. True to form, I procrastinated, calling my husband, checking the news, anything to delay. But, as others were going elsewhere to do a walk/run, I eventually persuaded myself to get downstairs and get on a treadmill for a walk.

Once on the treadmill, assuming there are cogs and wheels in my head, these began to turn; clearly, my sub-conscious had been trying to figure out this inconsistency: I love exercise, I love working out, but I always procrastinate or avoid it where possible. And then it hit me:

I hate exercise. I HATE exercise. And then my eyes got misty. But as I reflected further (while walking on the treadmill, thankfully alone), I realized that I truly hated exercise. Now, as far as I could recall, I had loved doing sports in public school and high school. I loved them, and I did a lot of them. As I thought about it, I realized that things had changed when I got to Royal Military College (RMC). Or maybe a bit before, in Chilliwack for basic training. I was never, ever fast or very strong, even when I had been of normal weight, so from the beginning people would cheer me on during a run, or the group would circle back and I would be one of the ones who they would rejoin, until I fell back again. At RMC, I immediately thought of a PERI (a trainer) saying after a successful physical training or PT test, “well, you scraped by again, Purdy.” The Director of Athletics cheering me on during a run, “you run big girl, you run” (I didn’t learn until years later that she said this to most women!). I remembered all these tiny cuts, and I also remembered that afterwards, I would, at some point, in privacy find my hidden stash of food and emotionally eat. And then I would feel shame because I wasn’t fast, and now shame because I couldn’t control what I was eating. Through this new lens of understanding I finally recognized why I have never liked to be seen when I exercise or work out. In my experience, to be seen was to be judged.

After RMC, I was in the military for almost 20 more years. I always thought I “loved” exercise and I “loved” to work out, although I normally had problems getting down to it: even when I was in fantastic shape I would procrastinate getting out the door to work out. But I hated it. I absolutely hated it, and as I was walking on this treadmill in Indianapolis, I finally realized that I hated it, and I knew why.

Most people want to fit in in an organization, and even more so, in the military. It is clear to me that that is why I never confessed, even just to myself, how much I hated exercise, and how much I loathed working out. And I sure as heck did not say anything to anyone else. I always aspired to get in better shape, to run this event, etc. But in the few events I did do, I normally procrastinated and trained inadequately, and now I know why. I hated exercise.

But all is not lost! There were several fantastic and educational talks at this conference, but Dr. Morton’s talk ranks as my favourite on a personal level. Thanks to his wisdom, I understand behaviours that have affected my health and my happiness, and it was causing much cognitive dissonance. And, I now recognize that while I hate exercise, and I hate working out, I love movement and moving. Love it!!!

If you love to move, then fantastic! Independent of any other lifestyle changes you lower your risk of all-cause mortality by moving more, 150 minutes weekly of moderate-level activity or 90 minutes weekly of high intensity activity. But if you sometimes experience hesitations, consider Dr. Morton’s teaching on the connotations that words may have, and see how you and your body feels when you move, instead of exercise.

Dr. Jennifer Purdy