Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Don't We Exercise? ...

Hi everyone! I've just finished my morning workout and, as usual, it has left me feeling great - energetic, alert and ready to meet whatever the day brings. I love this feeling. But this being the case, I often wonder why I neglect to make space for exercising every day. 

There are so many benefits to regular exercise - all well known to me - that it's hard to understand why I wouldn't exercise daily. Regular physical activity helps control weight (and therefore how I'll look in last fall's jeans). It helps to prevent and manage a host of illnesses including stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, some types of cancer, arthritis and injuries from falls. It also improves mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, improves your libido and adds some fun and variety to your day.  So, why wouldn't it always get top priority in my day?

Many of us have "good reasons" for avoiding physical activity including:

1.  Believing that we and our self care come last after caring for others.
2.  Believing that time should be spent on more important things.
3.  Believing that the world will fall apart if we take time out to exercise and aren't present to hold things together.
4.  Believing that we aren't worth our own tender loving care.
5.  Believing that feeling stressed, exhausted and depressed is a normal facet of life that nothing will alter.
6.  Believing that exercise is an inherently stressful and potentially dangerous occupation, to be avoided whenever possible. 

It is this last belief that was - and occasionally continues to be - at the core of my reluctance to be regularly active. From the days of my childhood, given the choice between curling up with a good book and engaging in physical activity, the book won, hands down. I dreaded PE and team sports at school and I once earned myself a weekend's grounding by forging my mother's signature on a note excusing myself from gym class. (A sure sign of desperation in such a "good" kid.)  It took years to understand why I had this aversion to moving my body.

The penny finally dropped when I first read the writings of trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk. He described traumatized children as feeling uncomfortable, uncoordinated and awkward in their own bodies. He also noted that these kids can exhibit problems with muscle tone and demonstrate sensorimotor developmental issues. Both the physical discomfort and the development delays, (and the shame that can arise from them), can lead children to avoid situations where they might be forced to participate in physical activities. This was a description that fit me perfectly and made sense as a natural consequence of four years of medical trauma at the beginning of my life.

It's taken me years of trying different exercise programs, in fits and starts, to finally create one that works for me. (ie that allows me to exercise without anxiety and to enjoy the sensation of movement and strength). These days, it's easier to create such programs because some trainers and instructors are  becoming aware of the impact of trauma and are learning to create safety so trauma survivors (including those with compassion fatigue) can learn feel secure in their bodies.

One gentle accessible program is described in a great new-ish book called, Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, (with foreward by Peter Levine, PhD and introduction by Bessel van der Kolk, MD). This beautifully written book provides brief, clear explanations of traumatic stress, yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga practices and then offers survivors, therapists and yoga teachers information about how to integrate trauma-sensitive yoga in their practices. Survivors learn how to develop an at-home yoga practice, clinicians learn how to integrate yoga-based practices in their therapy sessions and yoga teachers learn how to build trauma-sensitive yoga classes. Throughout the book, there is continuing emphasis on choice and empowerment plus gentle encouragement for practitioners to listen to their own intuitions. The authors model the safety they teach.

This yoga program, in combination with a 20 minute aerobic exercise DVD or aquafit class and/or walks at the lake are the core of my fitness practice now. If I'm stressed or triggered, my avoidance might still come to the fore but now I know that I have a safe core practice "to come home to" when I'm ready. What are you finding works for you to keep you exercising reasonably regularly? Might a trauma-sensitive yoga practice be a good addition to your routine or even a new beginning ...?

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