The Happiest Year’s Month of Movement: What I Learned When I Quit “Working Out”

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I think it’s safe to say our world’s current health crisis derailed many of our plans for the month of March, including my focus on how exercise influences happiness and mental health (safe to say, and I think we all know…it DOES, and positively).

What I was able to continue focusing on throughout my own abrupt work closure (I am a teacher) and thrusting into home isolation with two small children who had also been abruptly removed from their routines, was moving my body in some way each day.  In fact, I would argue this became even MORE of a focus, considering going out on long neighborhood walks has become necessary to breaking up our oft-monotonous days at home.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I started out this month with aspirations to see how a change in my inner-dialogue would translate to a change in how I approached exercise.  Back in January (gosh, wasn’t that a lifetime ago??), I shed some tears in my therapist’s office about not feeling great in my body and being ashamed that I hadn’t done more to lose the baby weight, but simultaneously feeling like squeezing daily workouts in while my kids fussed nearby or climbed all over me was causing me more stress than benefit.

You can read more about this experience here, but essentially my therapist suggested offering myself more grace and considering exercise in a less-conventional sense: how did I move my body in any given day?

Strange, but after 33 years of feeling pressure to get a tough workout in most days, having someone else re-frame this mindset for me was so FREEING.

So for this month of March, for The Happiest Year, I challenged myself to a different kind of exercise plan.  How could I move my body daily (or lets be real, MOST days), to move in a way that worked best for my family and my needs?

First, some science:  I think it’s a well-known concept that exercise has myriad health benefits, including making us happier.  Exercise has also been shown to improve symptoms of mental health disorders, especially depression.  It does this by releasing different hormones in our brains, including opioid-like chemicals, acting like a natural anti-depressant drug.  There are also several pyschological mechanisms involved during exercise, like exposure to anxiety-causing sensations, distraction, and self-efficacy, that can improve mood (source).

While it has been argued that exercise must be intense, 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise, 5 days a week (source), to reap all the benefits, there are some experts that argue that you can see positive results from even 15-30 minutes of exercise, 3 days a week (source).  Essentially, something is better than nothing when it comes to working our bods and mental health.

This information might not be incredibly groundbreaking to most, but for me (and I’m guessing for others), dropping the “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to exercise has helped me actually exercise MORE.  You see, before, I often fell into the trap of “well I don’t have time to get my workout in today.”   Combine that with the expectation that the planned workout -usually via a fitness app- was my only option for moving my body that day and…well, there were several days I didn’t move much at all.

So, back to March!  Did a change in mentality RE what constitutes a workout and how long I need to be working out help motivate me to move more or give me a research-backed excuse to move less…?

I’m happy to report that our March was VERY full of new, different, and challenging ways to move, almost daily!

Now, of course, my reporting is solely anecdotal, but approaching exercising through these new eyes definitely relieved some of the stress I was feeling about, say, getting in a HIIT workout every day.  I almost felt as though my psyche was rebelling against my own internal pressure to workout in this way, making me less inclined to work out.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a challenging workout.  I do NOT enjoy a challenging workout squeezed into times of the day that are not ideal for me, or cut into choppy increments of time while my toddler crawls all over me and my infant inevitably cries for me.

So what I’ve really been focusing, and relishing, actually, has been moving my body WITH my kids.  We’re lucky to live in a hilly neighborhood.  The gift of time that coronavirus has brought our family has meant that we can spend extensive time every afternoon exploring our neighbordhood together.  Typically, on the walk out, Lu tires herself out balancing on stone walls or jumping from boulders.  We take our time, and observe nature changing around us, the little things.  I bring a snack for her to dig into on the way back, and I get my own workout pushing her in the stroller up the hills as fast as I can.  All while carrying brother in our Happy Baby Infant Carrier (hey, that extra 18 lbs has to count for something, right?)!

Another gift that re-framing my mindset on exercise gave to me this month was the permission to rest, or to go easier on my body when I needed to.  It seems silly to need a monthly challenge, or anybody’s permission but your own to do this, but when you’re so used to pushing yourself to be on a workout program, it’s easy to feel that pressure all the time.

I’m not bashing anybody who likes structured, challenging programs.  Again, I typically do, too.  But that’s just not me in this season of life.  Personally, my body takes a looooooong time to recover from childbirth, and I really believe that I jumped into intense exercise too soon after C’s birth last summer.  I spent about a month doing a workout program but pelvis and hips really suffered for it.  I had pain for weeks, and I was forced to rest.

This month, I enjoyed gentle yoga with Lu when I felt stiff, or even just a stretch before bed.  I really tried to listen to my body more…and for that, I think it was really grateful!

In general, YES, there were more days this month that I got my body moving than in previous months since C was born.  Even on the days that I didn’t take the kids out for our long walk, I enjoyed cleaning the house while baby-wearing or running races in the backyard with L.  Anything can count as movement if you’re creative!

But what about happiness?  Did I feel any more happy incorporating movement into my days this month?  Well, as challenging a month as it was for all of us, I can honestly say that I did notice a difference in my mood on days we went for our long walks.  I don’t expect every day to be perfect or happy, but I do know that even on days that I was reluctant to drag us out of the house, my mood was genuinely lifted upon our return home.  Fresh air and those exercise endorphins will do wonders!

I hope I continue to evolve toward body positivity and total self-love.  For myself, but for my children, as well.  I’d love to continue to model choosing things that make our bodies feel good and that we enjoy doing.

I also hope that my experiences can encourage you in your own journey.  For some good mood lifting, get those booties moving…in ways that feel maintainable and joyful to you!

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