Let me ask you something–
What have you been told about what you have to do and be to be fit, strong, and healthy? What are some common phrases that you hear associated with fitness?
Have you heard, for example,
“No pain no gain. Work hard for your body. Get your summer body ready. Push through your pain. Shaking is fear leaving your body.”
How did those messages shape your wellness? How did they frame your view of yourself, what you’re required to do to and with your body, and what fit feels like? What story did you internalize about yourself as a result?
Do any of those messages and views include feeling good, trusting your intuition and your body, and moving in ways that validate, honor, or care for yourself?
I’m going to bet on “no” here, because that certainly isn’t true for me, it’s not true in any visible way in any of the circles of friends I am and have ever been in, and it’s certainly not promoted by the multi-billion dollar Get Fit industry we love and pay for.
Social norms are based on agreements. If you present an idea to me as valid and I accept it, then we now agree that the thing is the thing you said it was. If we present that idea to someone else and they accept it, then it becomes valid to them too, we all agree it is the thing you said it was, and on it goes to the next person, and the next, and the next, until the entire group remains in general agreement that the thing is that thing and has that value.
When it comes to fitness, what we seem to have come to a social agreement on is that you, dear human, must never, ever, not ever, become comfortable, lest you surrender yourself to a painful, destitute and joyless life of complacent stagnation.
This sounds pretty weird coming from someone who has spent the majority of the last 39 years pushing boundaries and inviting you to do it too, eh?
But here’s the thing– yes, growth is part of how we thrive. Getting out of our comfort zone is actually beneficial not just to us, but as a collective society. But– TO A FUCKING POINT. To a point of growth, and not to the point of pain.
When we pass the pain point we are no longer helping, we are just harming.
I’m going to share a story with you. While the specifics are mine, and the characters and the timelines are mine, but I think that maybe, if you’re reading this, my story is yours too.
To say I grew up in a household that valued pushing through and past your physical edge feels like a gross understatement.
My biological dad was an Olympic Athlete. He was also the first American to race on the European circuit, he coached the first US professional cycling team and has been inducted into the US bicycling Hall of Fame. He did it all out of pure grit, muscle, and a more than fair amount of white privilege. In America, you can be a white male who runs away from home and does and sells a lot of drugs and still become a raving American success, but I suppose that’s either my entire point or none of it.
Anyway . . .
My mom, also the product of superhuman grit, muscle and white privilege, was too, a professional athlete and American sports celebrity. She was on the front cover of the November issue of Bicycling magazine in 1978 and raced in the National circuit before her second big crash resulted in her to going into early cycling retirement, marrying her former coach, and having… me.
My mom’s second husband, the man who raised me, my dad, is a Farmer. From age six to seventeen I lived on a farm with my family, and I witnessed what it meant to work a physically hard job. Farmers don’t have office hours. Farmers don’t get PTO. Farmers don’t get to not go to work because they are hurt. There is shit to do all the time and farmers do the shit because the shit has to get done, period. There’s no “too early” to cut hay, there’s no “too cold out” to feed cows and there’s sure as fuck no “too sore” to get chores done. You work until the work is completed and then if you are able and lucky, you might get to take a short break. End of story.
When I (ill advisedly, let me tell you) googled my own biological parents I was able to relatively easily pull up articles for each of them describing the ways they pushed right past and through their physical pain in order to continue racing, and winning. Their stories speak to their powerful determination to:
Just keep going. A message that was passed down to me, perhaps genetically but most certainly environmentally, my entire childhood.
I ran my first race at age eight with my mom in 1989. I ran my first marathon at age 21, and crossed the finish line shortly after vomiting what I thought were the entire contents of my stomach up at mile 25, only to release the remaining chunks as soon as I came to a full stop post race. Between that first fun run and that first marathon were 12 years of year round sports. Four years of three varsity sports every year of High School, and a growing attachment of my worth to the intensity with which I pushed my body.
That’s more than just endorphins and feel good hormones, y’all. That shit is deeply embedded in our Meritocracy.
I ran through my twenties and early thirties, literally and figuratively. When my life changed dramatically (see: divorce, career change, big break up, second career change, third career change, etc…) I used exercise as a thing to do when I wasn’t working. I didn’t know who I was or what I “did” anymore, so I produced a shit ton of content, and I exercised, a lot. A lot, a lot.
I used exercise as a coping mechanism for my anxiety, as a punishment, and as a place to find my power or claim my value.
At the peak of my reckless pursuit of physical excellence, in just a three year span I ran and completed over 30 races and events, completed four yoga teacher trainings and SWATted five Ragnar relays. A normal day for me included a minimum of two kinds of intense exercise- power vinyasa yoga and a run, CrossFit and hike, sometimes a combination of three.
And not only did I still not feel whole or good, I was constantly in pain. I had benign persistent vertigo, bone spurs and slipped discs in my low back, severe nerve compression in my neck, knee pain, hypothyroidism and a cyst leading to a partial thyroidectomy, and chronic digestive issues.
But because my internalized message that peak performance requires painful discipline was so strong, I did not stop unless forced by injury, and even then I could barely tolerate the pause.
That pause was so much more uncomfortable to me, in fact, that it minimized my physical pain. I carried a man on my back for part of my first Tough Mudder and asked my friend to drop me off two miles out from the hotel so I could run the rest of the way back. We went for a hike the next morning. I ran a 200 mile relay at altitude with a sublaxated set of ribs. I fell on a log one mile into my fourth Spartan race, sublaxated another set of ribs, and I just kept fucking going. I got dropped on my head at an assisting training which caused debilitating nerve pain down my entire left side and I STILL PRACTICED YOGA ALMOST DAILY FOR MONTHS.
This belief that being a strong, worthy, powerful woman meant denying any and all pain and stuffing it down beneath a smile was etched so finely into the deepest folds of my brain it was blinding.
And when you are blinded by something, any information that does not fit the pattern gets disregarded, and any information that does fit the pattern gets reinforced. If we look at other ways society helps reinforce a pain centric movement industry, we need to look no further than the cover of a magazine —
Hard work makes for hard bodies, and hard bodies are the best bodies.
Y’ALL- WE HAVE GOT TO STOP MAKING PUSHING THROUGH PAIN A STATUS SYMBOL.
Now, I have spent, and could continue to spend, all kinds of time working for that hard body. I could restrict my eating and push myself to and past my pain points and in some time I might be able to make parts of my body firmer, smooth out some lumps and bumps, and get some metrics to give me a temporary and false sense of control and satisfaction.
Well then I’d move on to shaming some other part of my body, and shaming myself for ultimately not being unable to maintain a diet and exercise regimen that keep those parts looking those ways.
Because no amount of exercise is going to fix me.
Let me just say that one more time.
No amount of exercise is going to fix me, because I am not broken. My worth is not dependent on my work, my pain, my strength, or my suffering.
I am worthy simply because I am. And because I am, I care.
I care enough to take care of myself. I care enough to recognize that a rigid attachment to how much and what kind of exercise I engage in is creating more stress, filling my blood and my cells up with more cortisol, causing more hurt in this amazing and wonderful body of mine, than it is helping me.
I care enough to move my body in ways that feel good. I care enough about my body to guide myself gently out of my comfort zone and into growth.
I am not here to tell you that you don’t need to move your body. You do. You absolutely need to move your body in whatever way you are able to that brings you into wellness whether that’s a lap around the park, ten minutes of chair yoga, a swim, or a long run. Whatever you can do without pain that incorporates movement is likely to be good for you. Movement doesn’t bring us happiness or perfection, and it will not solve your problems. But a few amazing things that movement can do is:
- Increase your endorphin levels, which contribute to overall wellbeing
- Improve circulation, leading to better joint and tissue health
- Give you greater access to activities in your daily life
- Offer you greater self sufficiency
- Increase your life expectancy
- Increase your immunity
- Decrease inflammation and pain
- Connect you to your breath
- Connect you to your thoughts
- Connect you to the present
It is only in the last few years I’ve come to terms with how I care for my body. It has taken me almost four decades to finally get to a place of radical acceptance about why and how and when I move. There wasn’t any one lightbulb moment, it wasn’t just “one more big thing” that helped me seek softness.
It was momentum.
One small change that led to another small change that’s leading to more and more small changes.
As some of my friends say, I’m working to stop shoulding all over myself.
I’m committing daily now to movement habits that feel good in my whole body. I back off or stop when I experience pain, I place movement breaks into my schedule at times when they won’t cause me additional stress, and I choose what I am doing mindfully.
I ask myself– how does my body feel? What does it need right now? What do I choose to do with the time I have available? And then I do the thing that brings me what I need, and not the thing that someone else told me I need to do to make them right.
And that thing leads me to another good thing, and another, and another. I do work hard, I do sweat, I do move my body in ways that challenge me, but I do it on my terms, for my purposes, and because it feels good to ME.
I choose to create momentum that builds a pathway to movement for and with my body because I deserve to FEEL as amazing as I already am.
Will you, too, please?
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