Two years ago I started running. Prior to that I used to be adamantly against it. It’s not that I thought it was bad; I was well aware of the health benefits, I just didn’t like it. Sometimes exercise can feel terrible and this particular form of exercise just felt awful to me.
Then a professor challenged me to run a half marathon. She said if I did, she would do a powerlifting meet. I love a good wager so I was in. I was running three or four times per week and just about every time I would get ready to run I would absolutely dread it.
The second my feet hit the pavement my brain would tell me to stop.
But I kept going. I completed the half marathon and since then I have completed a triathlon, two 10ks and am currently training for a 15k. I still don’t love running nearly as much as resistance training but I must say it sucks considerably less.
The truth is, most of us don’t exercise enough. My exercise specialty is in resistance training and I’m a zealot for it. I’ve got eight powerlifting meets under my belt and probably would be a psychotic mess if I went more than a week without lifting.
The benefits of resistance training are numerous. There was even a semi-recent review paper that compared it to medicine. However, only slightly over 20% of the American population hits the recommended mark of resistance training for two times per week for 30 minutes.
There is a reason for that though. It might be that it’s hard to make time, or we’re not sure if we can exercise correctly, or maybe we just don’t care. But I’d wager to say that there is one big reason why many of us don’t exercise.
It’s because exercise doesn’t feel good when you first start, in fact sometimes it can feel terrible. Not only does it involve physical discomfort but new exercisers have to deal with psychological discomfort as well.
“Are these people judging me?”
“What if I fail, is it really worth the effort?”
“I can’t do this.”
To be a consistent and successful exerciser there has to be something a little different about you. Think about it; why would anyone want to run for 6 miles straight or lift weights for 90 minutes? It’s likely that people that do this enjoy it but that also makes them very different.
The fact of the matter is that exercise can feel terrible. For people just starting, it flat out sucks.
But for most of us we’re going to have to be okay with that. It’s going to have to be something we just straight up deal with until we actually start to enjoy it.
Being okay with not feeling great
There is a scene in the latest Wolverine movie, Logan, and I’m obliged to talk about to talk about it because I am a complete and utter nerd, right before about 37 people die. Logan is talking to a farmer as they walk into a corn field and the farmer says (in reference to corn syrup):
“It’s in those drinks, stay awake, cheer up, feel strong, sexy, whatever. Used to be a time when a bad day was just a bad day”
I might be the only person in the world reading into that line but I love it. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling bad, if even just temporarily?
Why do we consistently engage in pleasure driven eating? Is it to avoid feeling bored or to suppress negative emotions? Why are we so concerned if people may or may not be judging us in the gym? Is it that we are afraid to look like we don’t know what we’re doing? Why should it embarrass us or why should it matter if we accidentally used the hamstring curl machine to work our arms?
This is not to say that these feelings aren’t real or that they aren’t scary and they certainly shouldn’t be minimalized or trivialized, but why are we so concerned with feeling good all the time?
Something that I firmly believe is that no one grows within their comfort zone. Anytime a person sets a fitness related goal they are essentially saying that they want to change. They might say that they want to change physically, but those physical changes necessitate changes in behavior.
The thing is, change isn’t easy and often times it’s pretty uncomfortable. But we should be completely okay with that.
There is a concept in psychology called experiential acceptance. Experiential acceptance encourages people to ask if they would be willing to be uncomfortable, or experience negative emotional or even physical sensations if it means that they are living a valued life. For example, a person may want to improve their fitness and lose some weight.
This person gets a gym membership for the first time and starts exercising. Unfortunately, she feels completely lost. Every time she enters the gym doors she is overwhelmed with anxiety. In her mind, she is clearly in the worst shape of everyone at the gym. It also seems like everyone in the gym is watching and judging. Not to mention she has been chronically sore for the last two weeks.
If she stops going to the gym these negative feelings would go away. But she wouldn’t be any closer to reaching her fitness goals.
That’s experiential acceptance; is this person willing to accept all of these negative feelings while engaging in a behavior that would help her be the person she wants to be? Is she willing to let a bad day just be a bad day, or a bad feeling be nothing more than a bad feeling?
Eventually exercise will feel good both mentally and physically. It’s exactly why people run for 6 miles and lift for 90 minutes. It brings them pleasure and enjoyment. But it’s unlikely that it started out that way. It involves consistent time, effort, and acceptance of negative feelings. If you are struggling to exercise, ask yourself if you are willing to feel bad (temporarily) in order to achieve a health and fitness goal.