Monday, October 12, 2009

Enjoy the Benefits of Exercise

I’ve been an Oprah fan since she hit the national airwaves, and I’ve read almost everything she’s ever written about her weight struggles. She gets it, and I find reading about her lessons so inspiring. Ten to 15 years ago, she and her trainer Bob Greene wrote a book entitled Make the Connection. A lot of it is about the importance of regular exercise to weight loss or weight control. I’ve always believed that and often have used exercise to try to lose weight.

The problem with that is weight control has never been a strong enough reason for me to continue working out regularly. It falls too easily into the “have to” category then, and that doesn’t help me drag my butt to the gym on the days I really would rather stay seated on my coach reading or watching tv. I do my best with exercising regularly when I'm doing it for the value it brings itself - and not necessarily because I hope it will make me look better or lose weight. If I focus on the benefits - it makes me feel so good, it improves my mood and reduces stress, I have more energy, I sleep better, it keeps me "younger" – and even the fun or joy it brings, I’m much likelier to keep it up. It’s not a chore then but rather something I want to do.

The key to this approach is finding the kinds of exercise that you will really enjoy. This is a very individual choice. A few years ago, I discussed with two friends of mine, Laura Graham Booth and Carol Elise Hayes, what form of exercise we liked the best. My favorite was step aerobics; Carol preferred running, and Laura enjoyed yoga. Each of us was intimidated by the others’ favorite. Jeanne Adams shared on Friday how martial arts does it for her. Trish likes hiking, and Tawny walks while listening to podcasts. One or two friends prefer playing tennis regularly while others train for 10Ks, marathons or triathalons.

It’s worth exploring lots of options to discover what you will enjoy the most. Sometimes, I feel like I tried it all. Growing up, I had a lot of jock friends. They got so excited before every sport season, and their enthusiasm would convince me to join the team once again. Within a week or two, I’d remember all that I hated about sports, but I was stuck because I had made a commitment. I played soccer for ten years and softball for five. I was always one of the worst players on the field, and I can only remember brief stretches of time when I enjoyed it. I just never cared if we won. Playing sports wasn’t for me and could never be my main form of exercise.

With the rise of Jane Fonda as the exercise queen, I dabbled with aerobics. I’ve always liked to walk and have tried speed walking. In college, I was introduced to step, and I still think it rocks. I always preferred it to low-impact or dance aerobics. I also did some regular weight lifting on nautilus machines, but it always bored me. I've dabbled with skiing (very fun), tennis, and golf. I even tried a little regular jogging, but I got killer shin splints.

When I first started making money after grad school, I joined a lovely, welcoming, supportive women’s gym in Austin, Texas. Once again, step aerobics welcomed me back with open arms. I really enjoyed the pool classes. I never could understand why folks were so excited about kickboxing. It never felt like it raised my heart rate enough, and I'm not into hitting or kicking. Weight lifting still bored me. I got better acquainted with the treadmill and the elliptical, and I liked the latter.

After I moved to the DC area, I joined another women’s gym and had a pretty similar experience to Austin though there was no pool. When this gym closed because the owner embezzled from it, I did what was once unthinkable and joined a co-ed gym. There, the biggest appeal was still the classes and the elliptical machine.

Even though I have belonged to gyms for the past 10 years, I can’t say that I always went regularly. There were vast stretches when my monthly dues were more like donations to the owners’ bottom line as opposed to payments for services rendered. But, when I was going, it was because I was trying to lose weight. I never did lose more than 15 pounds in any stretch. I hadn’t realized that not only did I have to change my relationship to food, but I also had to change my view of and approach to exercise.

I did first go back to the gym this year in May because I was trying to do “something more” in my journey to becoming healthy. I was wary of burn out and started slowly. I went two times a week and then three instead of my usual pattern of going whole hog from the very beginning. I slowly built up to my current average of four times a week. During busier weeks, I go three times, and other times, I’m able to manage five times, but overall, I'm maintaining my average of four times a week.

Around the same time I returned to Gold’s Gym (which is not dominated by unfriendly boxers and serious body builders as I always feared), I read David Kessler’s The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. It had a profound effect on me. He argued that the only healthy feeling of reward close to the one you get from overeating comes from exercise, and you can literally rewire your brain to want the healthy version and not the unhealthy version. When I first started going to the gym regularly, I'd sometimes tell myself I'm rewiring my brain. Somewhat to my surprise, it is working. Every time my body longs for exercise for its own reward - for stress relief - to feel good - etc. - I act on it.
 The books I’ve read on emotional eating also stress the importance and benefits of exercise.

I focus on doing exercise I enjoy. I started back with step classes and the elliptical. One day, I accidentally showed up an hour early for a step class. It was for a body pump weight lifting class. It had always intimidated me, but I took it as a sign that I should give it a try. To my great surprise, I loved it. I now attend this class two to three times a week. I can't overstate the difference it has made to how my body looks and how quickly that happened. It really firms up and sculpts your body. My positive experience with the weight lifting class convinced me to try some of the many other classes. Zumba, a Latin and international dance aerobics class, is a new favorite. We all grin our way through it.

I plan to continue sampling classes – especially if I start getting bored with my current fitness routine. The hip hop aerobics class, body jam, is not nearly as good or enjoyable of a workout as Zumba, so I never returned after the first time I went. I plan to return to some of the yoga, pilates or body flow classes. One of these days I’m going to try a spin class and perhaps body attack. I’ve also played with the idea of starting running following a couch to 5K plan. Really, exercise and thinking about new ways I can mix it up have become fun for me. I’m going to work to keep it that way.

Do you exercise? If so, what are your favorite things to do? If you don’t, what’s keeping you from trying it?


10 comments:

Nicki Salcedo on October 12, 2009 at 2:42 AM said...

I like Zumba. You can't not smile while doing it! I love Body Pump. These are things I miss from a traditional gym. I'm working out at home these days. I love yoga. I'm trying to learn to like running. I've bought some good running shoes and it has helped how much I enjoy running. I agree with mixing it up, too.

Michelle Butler on October 12, 2009 at 9:38 AM said...

Nicki, why do the good running shoes help you enjoy running? A friend of mine is encouraging me to invest in a pair.

Elise Hayes on October 12, 2009 at 11:11 AM said...

I had asthma as a kid and physically just couldn't exercise. I remember how my parents would have us bike to the Dairy Queen two blocks away for a weekend treat, and my mom would have to stay back with me, stopping every half block so that I could fight for air.

I hated sports as a child because I was always the worst person on the team--always, always the weak link in the chain; always, always the last one to arrive on a hike or in whatever else my P.E. classes were doing.

But the asthmas slowly got better as I got older, and at age 18 I took up jogging to fight off the ten pounds I'd gained as an exchange student in Switzerland. I've been running ever since (more than 20 years now). Jogging was ideal for me because it didn't involve other people--those years of being the worst person on the team were pretty scarring, so team sports weren't a possibilty for a long, long, time. Running I could do alone, anywhere, anytime, and during those years when I was a broke student, it was financially viable: all I needed was a pair of shoes.

Running is not a sport that I love--rock climbing (in a gym) and Ultimate frisbee won those places later in my adult years--but it's the exercise I've stuck with because of its convenience.

I'm with Michelle on the need to make exercise mean something to yourself: at various points, it's been a strategy for controlling weight, for stress release, for emotional balance, or even a way of training for another sport.

Thanks for your post, Michelle!

lauragrahambooth on October 12, 2009 at 5:55 PM said...

I always hated gyms. Like you, Michelle, I thought they were full of serious body builders who would laugh my pitiful attempts to figure out the machinery. But a friend of mine talked me into going with her, and it became a "social outing" for me (where I just happened to sweat). That made me a lot less likely to skip it!

Yoga was a great discovery for me. I feel so GOOD when I'm done a yoga class-- limber and refreshed. I also love swimming, so that's always been one kind of exercise that I didn't mind. As you pointed out, we all like different things-- my husband (an avid runner) doesn't enjoy swimming as much as I do, and I don't enjoy running.

Zumba sounds like fun. I'll have to look for that at my gym!

Nicki Salcedo on October 12, 2009 at 6:53 PM said...

I used to run in whatever shoes I had. Always good running brands, but never running specific shoes. Then I got my feet analyzed at one of those running stores, and I'm amazed at the difference. My shins and my ankles used to hurt when I ran. Now they don't. One less barrier to not running is feeling comfortable. Who knew?! I'm not going very far or fast yet, but I'm slowly building up to it.

Michelle Butler on October 12, 2009 at 10:06 PM said...

Elise - 20 years of running regularly when you don't "love" it is so inspiring! Are you considering getting back into rock climbing?

Michelle Butler on October 12, 2009 at 10:07 PM said...

Laura, I got myself back into the gym environment by joining an all women's one. It took me awhile to get to a co-ed one. I'm so glad your friend got you to one, and you are enjoying it. Have you spoken to a trainer or someone at your gym about appropriate work outs for pregnant ladies?

Michelle Butler on October 12, 2009 at 10:09 PM said...

Nicki - My shins and ankles hurt too when I run, so that is encouraging news. Elise and I have tentative plans to get fit for great-for-us running shoes in the new year, and you've just given me more motivation to follow up on that commitment. Thanks!

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on October 13, 2009 at 1:00 PM said...

Sorry I'm a day late responding to this wonderful post. I think enjoying the exercise is key to a long-term commitment to it. I love hiking because not only am I getting physical benefit from it, I love to be out in the outdoors, enjoying beautiful scenery.

Oddly, I also feel really good after yard work because it's good for me and I'm doing things that need to be done anyway. Can you tell I just came in from mowing the front lawn? :)

Franklin Antoian on October 27, 2009 at 9:14 AM said...

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