The kids are back to school, the afterschool activity frenzy has begun, and you are most likely either a) thrusting yourself into a workout program after a summer (or decade) of, well, no workout routine or 2) wondering how to fit in your Self-Care into a jam-packed schedule of work, chauffeuring kids, spending quality time with kids. Or maybe you are 3) already happily tending to your health with regular exercise (congrats!). Read this anyway.
I regularly get the question, “what type of exercise should I do?” The typical thought is that we should think about what our goals are – do we want to lose weight? Build muscle? Lower our cholesterol or blood sugar levels? And then, pick a workout type that allows us to get to that goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Most people I know are aware that I am an avid runner, I’ve been doing triathlons for 10 years, I teach Poga (my version of yoga + pilates), I play Ultimate Frisbee once a week (a high intensity team sport), and I love snowshoeing, snowboarding, surfing (if my clumsy attempts can pass for surfing), and most things outdoors and moving. So when I say, “most people should NOT run a marathon” or "I do not recommend you snowboard" etc. they are often surprised.
The thing is, just like with this whole obsession with cleansing programs, or what type of diet to follow, or what brand of clothing to wear, we tend to fall for the gimmicks and our emotions and ego and desire to “have what she has so I can feel as awesome as she looks” get the most of us and we go into this autopilot mindset and make costly choices because we didn’t stop to think about the big picture, the sustainability, or the simple question, “is this right for me?”
This is what we should be asking ourselves when it comes to exercise, and we should ask ourselves these questions periodically because our situations and priorities change over the years, and so must the way we move:
1. How old am I?
I will be the first to say that chronological age is only relevant to a certain extent, as I know plenty of people my age (mid-40s) who have a more youthful existence than most college-age kids.
There is no denying that no matter what the multi-billion dollar “wellness” industry wants you to believe, we get older (hopefully) and as we do, our body changes. If you’re a woman in your 40s or older, you know that it gets much harder to avoid the beer belly and the hip spread, but luckily, in our 40s our brain protects us because suddenly we don’t care so much what people think of us. But that’s not all. We also tend to have to work harder at avoiding injury, improving our ability to recover from exercise, and we need to be more mindful of our Achilles tendons, our hamstrings, our rotator cuffs… So, when we go on Pinterest and see these fabulous bodies hoisting hundreds of pounds overhead, or running 50 miles across the desert, it’s a good idea to also take into consideration that these models of commitment are mostly likely 1 or more decades younger than us (therefore more resilient, faster metabolism, and their body hasn’t lived through all of our decades of use/abuse). So, rather than hold their abs or backside as a desired goal, I recommend having a flash of self-compassion and saying,
I am thrilled for her/him and I also love my body as it is today, in its wisdom and resilience, and I will move in a way that honors who and how I am in this moment.
2. How stressed am I?
Exercise is a great way to blow off steam. The chemicals released in our brain during a satisfying workout lead to hours of feeling a sense of accomplishment, and when we exercise in a way that provides meaningful interaction with people we find invigorating, we may feel loved, connected, supported and supportive. And that’s really fantastic.
When the other 23 hours of our day are spent in a way that basically activates our fight-or-flight mechanism, which is the way most of us seem to consider a status quo, or normal, this is not a good situation for a person who is subjecting themselves to a grueling marathon, Ironman, Crossfit, or other “extreme” training schedule. Inflammation is caused by eating unhealthy stuff, which is one reason the Gluten Free industry is making a fortune, as more people become aware of this possible reason for their lack of wellbeing. But exercise also causes inflammation, and this is good because in dealing with the stress, your body gets stronger since it rebuilds and refortifies so it can deal with future demands. But the problem comes in when you’re under a lot of stress from work, or your relationships, or you’re not sleeping because of menopause or something going on in your life, and now you’re going to subject your body to something you perhaps haven’t been gradually building up to over the years, and that will only stress your body and mind even more. Before you sign up for a marathon or join in on whatever bandwagon all your friends are on, try to do an honest assessment of your stress levels. If you're on high alert mode, joining a meditation group will be much more helpful for your blood pressure, weight management efforts, etc., and eventually you may be at a point where it would make sense to tackle the physical challenge on your bucket list.
3. What is my personality?
This is less about, how focused am I, do I like people, do I tend to finish what I start. It’s more about, am I high energy or more of a go-with-the-flow coaster? Do I thrive on structure and freak out when I have to modify the plan, or am I able to be flexible and obey my body more than the book? Am I self-motivated and able to push through hurdles, or do I need a lot of accountability and a support crew to make me do what I don’t want to do? These are important questions because we can wake up one day determined to accomplish a certain race or sign up for the class everyone is doing, and buy all the gear and have the best intentions – but we can’t change our personality or our inner style.
So, when it comes to picking the right workout, I recommend being honest with ourselves about these sorts of questions and then deciding, or asking a trusted friend or coach (hey, I’ll help you!) about this. A helpful way to do this is to think back on other workout experiences, the ones you loved and the ones that didn’t work out, and from a personality perspective, what worked or didn’t work? For example, if you keep getting injured while training for something or doing a certain class, perhaps it’s because you are so focused on pleasing or beating others, or you don't like to break rules so you ABSOLUTELY MUST follow the training plan no matter what, and you don’t listen to your body. Or, if you often find yourself prioritizing nail appointments and grocery shopping before a certain class, maybe you’re unwilling to make your exercise a priority (your girly-girl domestic goddess personality is the queen) so you’re better off finding a crack-of-dawn class before the salons open.
The one exercise I say IS for EVERYONE is Yoga. Everyone should do yoga. People would be less injured, less miserable, less angry, just overall happier and healthier if they did yoga. But even then – it needs to be the right kind. But, that’s another blogpost.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.