By Lisa Couto
A few months into my eighth grade school year, we moved to Florida due to a job relocation and I was dropped into another world. Aside from having missed the very start of the semester, when there may have been some new kids who hadn’t already formed a rock solid clique from the prior year, I was also injected into a bizarre super-human physical education program. Being from New England, our gym classes mostly consisted of kick ball, dodge ball, and maybe some pull ups once the Presidential Fitness Test rolled around. Anyone old enough to remember those knows that’s a whole other story in itself. But I digress.
In Florida, someone got it in their head to make the kids actually exercise. We had gym three days a week, outdoors, and my class happened to be at eleven AM. Just in time for the the blazing hot sun, humidity and low blood sugar directly before lunch. Gym class turned out to be calisthenics and track at that point in time, so on my first day of school I found myself in a lineup doing jumping jacks, sit ups, pushups and intense stretching. Then we were timed doing a mile run around a track. I started out with the best intentions but never having been an active child (you’d more likely find me with my nose in a book), I petered out about a quarter of the way in.
I still remember passing the coach four times. On the first lap, he looked kind of hopeful but by the end he was peering disconsolately at his stopwatch, no longer encouraging me or even making eye contact as I walked to the finish line. So my first days in my new school consisted of having no one to eat lunch with and coming in last on the track run, barely having made it before passing out. I didn’t measure up.
I already had the notion that I couldn’t really play sports but I’m not sure I realized how out of shape I really was until I got to Florida. This manifested as an internal dialogue that persisted throughout my childhood years that went something like this: “I can’t run. I can’t exercise. I am not athletic. I am not flexible”
Fast forward to many years later, I, like so many of you, have incorporated exercise into my life. Now it’s just part of my operating system like brushing my teeth or taking a shower. But this was over many years of just deciding to go for a long walk with my earbuds in and taking the the most gentle yoga I could find. Eventually, I broke up the stroll by jogging for a few minutes while staying comfortable. I would add distance in tiny increments over months. In yoga class, I found that, over time, I was able to increase my range of motion slightly and hold postures more deeply. This worked for me because exercise began to be enjoyable, something to look forward to and, well, something I could actually do. It felt good.
Once I became a runner (more like a person who jogs a lot), I was now invited to do races with friends. Once you do your first race, you realize that even though you’ve gotten to a point where you can actually run an allotted distance, now there are still people waiting for you as you bring up the rear of the pack. Uh oh. Your pace isn’t really up to par. Running becomes about measuring up again; Increasing your distance. Beating your personal record. Having a cute running outfit.
Many of us have started measuring all aspects of our workouts. How many steps did we take? How much weight did we lift? Can I do Crow Pose in yoga class? This is can be very motivational and healthy but we have to stay aware to make sure that slipping up on these goals doesn’t become an opportunity for self-recrimination. “I can’t run. I can’t exercise. I am not athletic. I am not flexible” can easily become “I don’t run fast enough. I’m didn’t meet my goal. I can’t do a backbend. I don’t compare. ”
For example, I have a friend who tracks her steps every day. If for some reason she is unable to adhere to her routine, she walks around her house every night to get the steps she set as a goal. I know another woman who is a marathoner and is always doing training runs. She feels like a “slug” if she’s not training and getting her miles in. Even if she’s already logged twenty miles in a week. So many of us feel like “we’re not good at yoga” because we don’t look like Cirque de Soleil performers. So many of us feel like we’re not good enough. Period.
I use fitness trackers and really like them. Sometimes. Seeing my pace can be really motivational but can also quickly become another tool I use to quantify the quality of my workout. What happened to being proud that I could do it at all without passing out? This is supposed to be about feeling good. As women, we have so many standards to live up to already, we need to be vigilant about not creating additional layers of stress in our lives. We need to applaud ourselves for taking time to nurture our vitality in any way at all.
In truth, exercise is beneficial to everyone, whether we are running a seven minute mile, a fifteen minute mile or strolling around the block. This doesn’t mean I can’t ever use a fitness app or run a race that includes a stopwatch, but it does mean I have to be aware of how I treat myself and how I judge my effort. I have to stay aware of my inner dialogue consistently and ensure I’m creating my own ideal to live up to. I have to ask if the ideal serves me or if it is just another way for me to judge myself. We have to be proud that we are nurturing our vitality and health no matter what form or amount of exercise we choose to do. Because, when it comes down to it, my old inner voice that told me I “couldn’t exercise” and “didn’t measure up” just wasn’t telling the truth.