Physical Exercise beyond Pain/Gain Myth

No Pain, No Gain.

You’ve heard it. Heck, you’ve probably grown up with it. The steady stream of Nike ads and fashion magazines tells you over and over: “If you don’t go hard, go home.” 

Extremism is built into a capitalist society because it depends on people not ever having or being enough. This is not a direct indictment of capitalism (or a political push to exchange it for something else). Well before capitalism, yogic texts understood that the material part of ourselves is driven by the desire for comfort. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism posits that the source of all suffering is personal desire.

So even though runaway desire is not unique to capitalism, we do need to recognize the pitfalls we navigate as members of western society. Capitalism does indeed capitalize on the part of our brain that desires personal satisfaction. It tells us that our bodies are not good enough—and here’s a product that will help. It tells us we don’t work hard enough—and here’s another product to get you to optimum productivity. And, then, after we’ve exhausted ourselves trying to reach unattainable levels of perfection, they offer us consolation prizes of indulgence. Counter to consumerism is the truth that satisfaction never comes from an external source.

Exercise is healthy, but it too has become commodified. Equipment gets better and better with the roll out of technology. To convince us of the upgraded price tags, we get assurances that this product (or outfit or gym membership or phone app) will finally do it for us, we’ll finally reach peak beauty, peak strength or peak health, and be satisfied. And to justify our time and puchases, we throw ourselves into exercise like starving teenagers at an all-you-can-eat buffet. When improvements aren’t immediately apparent, we push harder, workout longer, look for the pain because how else will we gain satisfaction?

From there, we eventually injure ourselves—if we don’t burn out first. Since we can’t go hard any longer, we go home. 

And even if we keep at it, are we enjoying it?

When we were children, we exercised all the time, only we didn’t call it exercise. We called it play. (How many of you had your mind jump right to “Work Hard, Play Hard”? Rein that in for now.) We yearned to get any amount of free time to fill it with play. 

Play is about enjoying physical movement and discovering what the body can do just because. When we play, we do test the limits; I watched my daughter work a hula hoop with joyful ferocity until she could get it going ten times before slipping to the ground. A child will push herself to get across the monkey bars, but then she goes down the slide. There’s a rhythm to play: a push and a glide. Play allows us to nudge into our comfort zones rather than obliterating them.

Whether nature or nurture, I had type-A tendencies. I needed exercise—and I needed full-on cardio for at least an hour. An hour on stairmaster or cross-training, two kilometers in the pool. If I had time, I’d use yoga as my cooldown. Swimming was my meditation; I could let my mind go during lap swims, but only if I did hard cardio first, only if I’d “earned” it. As I got older, I didn’t have more than two hours a day to work out. Certainly not when the kiddo came along. It was hard to make the shift to less, so I went with nothing. If I couldn’t jog seven kilometers, why bother? It was all or nothing. The predictable happened: I gained weight and lost energy and my health took a serious hit. 

We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Life is not all or nothing. Perfectionism will suck the joy out of every last endeavour. 

For me, yoga kept me moving after the kiddo came along. Not a first, though. I dragged myself to the mat during sporadic nap times, all the while yearning for the two-hour-long power classes I’d done before her birth. It would have been easier to do nothing so as not to bring up the memories of better yoga sessions—and the irony wasn’t lost on me: the whole point of yoga is to stay present through distraction. So I stuck with it. I tucked yoga into my life with a newborn wherever I could: Warrior 2 while pushing her on the swing, lunges and squats with her wrapped in a carrier, Forward folds and butterflies during her tummy time. Once I rewired the mind to enjoy the slivers of time as they came up, it not only kept me present with myself, but present with her. It became play time.

What can we do to bring some of the enjoyment back into exercise? Play is spontaneous, it keeps us in the here and now. It doesn’t fret about how many calories are being burned or what chores are going undone. We’re out of practice, though, so how do we get back to that?

Mindfulness helps, being present with whatever movement you’re doing. As a starting point, keep the focus on the breath. Since we don’t tend to get ourselves hung up on past exhales or anxious about the next inhale, the breath holds us in the present. From there, slide the attention to the various sensations of the body: the opening discomfort of a stretch, the tension in a working muscle, the sweat on skin, the way the clothes move with the range of motion of your limbs. Savor every last detail as if this were your first day in your body. Then, notice your environment—gym, sidewalk, park, home—as it is, and appreciate it as it is. No, don’t stop exercising because you noticed some dust clinging to the baseboards and now need to vaccuum (and if you do have that tendency, find a place to move outside the home). 

Whether five minutes or two hours, get moving. Take it outside. Try a new form of exercise (break out the hula hoop). Take a different route. Wander. Explore a new pose. Let it be an adventure. Let it be a meditation. Notice the internal critic’s resistance (our monkey mind is evolutionarily programmed to conserve energy), but know that you get to ignore it—the way a child might ignore the calls from the parent that it’s time to come home for dinner. “Not now, I’m playing.”

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