Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gym talk: exercise as punishment or pleasure?

I had an interesting experience at the gym yesterday.

As I was stretching in the locker room before starting, another woman came in and asked: 

"Are you cooling off or about to go in?"
"I'm about to go in," I said.
"Oh, good luck. Thankfully, I'm finished torturing myself."

An hour or so later after finishing, I was walking back to the locker room and another woman who had been in the gym the whole time I was there followed me in.  As we got to our lockers, she said:

"Hard work, eh? I'm done with punishing myself for the day..."
"Oh, I don't think it's punishment,"  I said.
"It's hard to keep reminding yourself you're worth it," she stated.
"I think it's amazing to see what your body can do. I couldn't run 20 seconds when I started. Now I can run 6 minutes," I said.
She didn't reply.

Medieval depictions of flagellants
(image in public domain)
I was struck by the fact that two different women in the course of a little more than an hour referred to what they were doing that morning as some form of punishment.  I thought about how I used to feel about exercise, and how my mind has changed.

That frame of mind reminds me of self-flagellation - that practice that some priests, monks and other religious individuals use whereby they beat themselves physically (as well as mentally and spiritually, I can imagine) in order to punish themselves for committing sin, to purify themselves, or to share in the suffering of martyrs and other figures in their religious history.

An equivalent: you go to the gym to sweat it out and pay physical penance for the cookie you ate yesterday, or the binge you had this morning or the pie you were tempted to eat. 

It's totally disordered thinking.  It's unhealthy and does nothing for achieving balance and sustainable transformation.  It's a form of torture. Self-inflicted, but torture nonetheless.   And if you think of exercise as punishment, there's no way in hell you're going to be able to convince yourself you're worth it.

'Cause nothing says "I'm worth it" more than being told you're "a worthless piece of sh*t"
(image appears to be in public domain)
Of course, there are some who enjoy pain.  There are some who enjoy being screamed at.  I know that, and lord knows I'm not going to try to figure all that out here.

But I think there needs to be some serious talking going on about the whole bullshit idea that suffering is redemptive. The theologian in me wants to pick that all apart here, go into the evolution of atonement theories, why people feel the need to suffer, the power issues behind the pain and punishment, etc., but I won't (because this isn't a theology blog).

Instead, I'll say this: 

Exercise should not be punishment or feel like torture. 

If it is, either your head's not right about it or you need to find something else to do that doesn't feel like torture (or maybe both).  If it feels like punishment or torture, your mind is naturally going to be reluctant to do it, you'll find excuses, and overall it will be unsustainable.  The purpose should be striving for balance, not beating yourself up.  By all means, push yourself, sweat, and increase your endurance - but get there by doing something you're proud of, not something that is linked with feelings of shame and regret.

I want to give a shout out to my friend Marnie who decided to get more active, started running, realized she hated it and has gone back to walking (which she loves).  That was an excellent decision and I'm so happy for her!  Don't do stuff you hate!  (although, I would encourage exploring why you hate it - do you hate it because of how it makes you feel (i.e., because you let it defeat you) or because you just simply don't like it?)  Find stuff to do that you love or that makes you feel good about yourself, your capabilities and where you're going. 

Question for comment:
What do you love doing?  What exercise do you do that makes you feel good about yourself?  And what feels like torture?


  1. i love walking, hiking, practicing yoga, and swimming. i love the mindfulness of yoga and the stretching that shapes my daily balance. i love that it affects the present.

    i'm having a hard time thinking about what feels like torture. A friend commented the other day that her daughter would "wear me out" when i was simply running beside her, playing, walking with her. it's a little like torture when others don't see my present health and wellness. Then I question if that's really about me or a projection. It's interesting that my response to torture comes from another's misperceptions rather than something i'm actually experiencing. i'll have to give this a little more thought.

    oh, sitting on my bottom for too long feels a bit like torture. i need to move.

  2. Great post! It took me forever to find what I love, Zumba, but now that I have found it I literally can't wait to get to the gym. Biking outside is wonderful as well. And I also love team sports, so I've worked add a softball league to my summertime activities. It really is all about finding what you love and doing that. Everyone has some sort of exercise that they would enjoy, they just have to keep going until they find it.

    <3 Katie

  3. I totally agree - exercising isn't something I do to punish myself. It's something I do because I care about myself. If I don't like some form of exercise, I don't do it - there are so many other ways to work out that can be enjoyable! I'm really looking forward to warmer weather and getting in some workouts outdoors! Hiking especially - I loved it as a kid, and I can't wait to try it again!

  4. Thanks for this post! I definitely exercise because I love the way it makes me feel, not as self-punishment. I think it's important to remind people they are worth it, and that exercise should be about celebrating and improving health rather than making up for perceived faults.

    I love swim/bike/run and tough boot camps. And yoga. Anything that gets me moving, really :)