Arianna Huffington has a point: We’ve made “working out” a miserable experience. We talk about dragging ourselves to the gym. We distract ourselves from running with music and TV. We force ourselves to endure the experience of working out in front of other people, but often the humiliation — of not being able to do things the “right” way, of not feeling like we look good enough in our spanking new spandex (or dingy old college T-shirts), of having to wipe up other people’s sweat —gets the best of us and we give up.
The way we’ve managed our “fitness centers,” it’s no wonder working out is often too much work for a large portion of Americans.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way. Ms. Huffington points out in her essay that we’ve disconnected our minds from the process of exercise. It’s all about our bodies: What shape we’re in, what clothes we can wear, how much we weigh. And as we push our bodies to weigh less or become stronger, we disconnect our minds and plug them into somethings else: podcasts, soundtracks, TV shows, newscasts. In doing so we miss out on the other half of “working out” — the part that turns it from work to play.
Many of us spend a good portion of our time sitting at desks or tables, our bodies inert and our brains strained to complete tasks. When we exercise, we have the chance to reverse the process: to let our bodies and minds run free, to stretch and wander and explore new territory. Instead we keep our brains plugged in and that plays a role in making working out such a hard, miserable experience for many of us.
It is true that rocking out to tunes on a run can help us keep moving when we’d rather stop. And I recognize the importance of having some podcasts or audiobooks on hand when running 3 hours in one stretch. But I think that it is important that we also honor the body-mind connection in exercise. The benefits of moving our bodies doesn’t stop with our bodies. Improved productivity, greater creativity, and decreased stress are just a few of the mental benefits we reap when we let our bodies “play.”
Taking the time to take care of our bodies gives us a chance to restore our minds. How often do we really allow ourselves to be alone with our thoughts? To listen to our brains without reaching for something else — a Facebook status update, the latest chart-topper — to interrupt it?
When I first started running 8 years ago, I’m not going to lie, it was hard. My body felt heavy and it wasn’t used to moving like that. My husband and I would huff out a couple of miles together and the only redeeming part of the experience, at first, was being done with it for the day. But before too long, I stopped thinking so much about how hard I was breathing or how funny I must have looked and started noticing the breeze, the vegetation, the number of frogs that had become roadkill (this was in Hawaii, where such things are quite common).
It didn’t take too many weeks of consistent running before the “work” was less arduous and the play was more obvious. I enjoyed seeing myself improve, of course, but I also enjoyed having some time to be alone. And that time has become more and more important to me over the years as I’ve had kids, become a real adult, and had to make hard decisions and deal with difficult and complex situations. Exercise — specifically running— has become my sanctuary, where I can go to relax, enjoy myself, and come back mentally rested and ready to face the challenges of the day. It is the very opposite of the “drag” that Ms. Huffington describes — a joyless experience that people complete merely to check off that box on their list.
The reason for that, I think, is pretty clear: When I run, I am whole. My body and mind are connected. I am connected to my surroundings. I am more conscious and aware of those around me. I feel restored, rested, and uplifted. It feels like fun. It feels like play.