We all want our exercise to be effective: we want it to be good for us, to improve our health, to make us stronger, inside and out. When choosing a way to exercise, we are presented with many options that take a “no pain, no gain” approach. This philosophy asks us to override discomfort. It asks us to ignore messages from our body.
Some disciplines, like yoga and Pilates, are described as “mindful movement.” In exercise like this, we are asked instead to listen to our bodies. Listening to our bodies does not mean backing off from hard work. Instead, it means finding options within different kinds of exercise that are effective without being detrimental. When we listen to our bodies, we try something, continue if it feels like good work, and cease if it feels uncomfortable or painful. This is key to effective exercise without injury. You really can work hard without feeling pain if you listen. Your body will tell you what it needs.
But to listen to your body, you need to respectfully acknowledge exactly what is there, in that moment, from head to toe. A truly effective approach to exercise begins with accepting your body in its present form. If you’re not fully and respectfully acknowledging a part of you—it’s shape, size, strength, or ability—you can’t listen to it. You can’t hear important messages about what it needs to get stronger and healthier without getting injured.
This may be more difficult than it sounds, especially for women.
Our culture can make it incredibly difficult to be accepting of our bodies. As an instructor, I have heard a lot of reasons exercising. Often, women tell me they “are sick of having this belly,” or “hate this jiggle on my hips.” They’re in my class to “fix” the parts they’re having a hard time accepting.
But if we deny the shape or size of a part of us, we deny its right to speak to us. When we combine this lack of acceptance with a “no pain, no gain” philosophy to exercise, we are much more likely to hurt our bodies than help them. If we accept our bodies for the beautiful, amazing, complex, organic machines they are, and then listen to them, they will tell us exactly how to gain without pain.
The next time you exercise, practice listening:
Start by drawing all of your attention to your body. What does the top of your head feel like? Your jaw? Neck? Shoulders? Keep going until you get to your toes. You may want to do this every time you reach a certain common point in your exercise—every time you come back to Mountain Pose in a yoga class, every time you change exercises during weightlifting, etc. You can even do this during movement. Check in with yourself at regularly timed intervals during your morning walk or run.
When you get used to listening to your body during these moments, it becomes easier to listen during exercise. Pay attention to what each movement does to your muscles, joints, breath. Listen hard, respect your body, and back away from movement that causes pain. Stick with what feels like good, hard work, and nothing else. Your body will thank you.
At the time of this writing, certified group fitness instructor Heidi Stevenson taught yoga, Pilates, and aquatics for the HPER Department and Recreational Sports program at Northern Michigan University. She has taught a wide variety of group fitness classes in Michigan and Pennsylvania beginning in 1995.
Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2009-2010 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2009. All rights reserved.