For The New Year, May You Resolve To Stop Being An Athlete {if you wanna}

I hated school as a girl. It wasn’t the math lessons or the writing assignments or the science experiments that fuelled my distaste. It was the forced sitting still at a desk that drove me to the edge of insanity. To maintain my cool, I stared out the window and daydreamed about what I would do when I got home: Ride my bicycle.

And I did. I rode up and down hills, traced figure-eights, meandered alleyways, circled cul-de-sacs. I was blissed.

As a young teen, my bicycle gave me independence and freed me from the confines of my neighborhood. I rode to the drugstore to buy rose-scented lotion and Snickers bars. I rode to my boyfriend’s house to make-out while his parents were at work. I rode to the movie theatre. I rode to the beach.

As an older teen, when another boyfriend broke up with me, I strapped my bike to a rack on the back of my car and drove to a the trailhead of a paved path that circled the lake. I rode for hours and cried. I did this nearly every day for an entire summer. The sun, the sweat, the sobs healing my hurt.

When I was 25, I got divorced from the man who had been my college sweetheart. At that point, I hadn’t owned or ridden a bicycle in years. I decided to buy myself a shiny, sleek road bike as a symbol ~ and tool ~ to help move me into a new phase of life. 

I rode to work and to the grocery store. I took the long way home and discovered surprising new things about my city.

I made friends with a few women who were part of a road racing team. They invited me to join them on a weekend group ride. I did, and while on that ride something inside me shifted. Suddenly my relationship to bicycling seemed inadequate, my little rides through town felt wimpy, embarrassing almost. I believed I needed more in order to be healthy, strong, a true bicycle lover.

I joined the road racing team. I went on long weekend rides. I bought team jerseys and clipless pedals. I learned about carb-loading and what to eat mid-ride so as not to bonk. I attended racing clinics and team potlucks. I studied strategy. I started tracking miles and watts and rpms.

I hated it. Every. Minute.

But I kept at it, because somehow I got it in my mind that in order for my bike rides to be meaningful, they had to be focused, goal-oriented and push me beyond on my comfort zone on a regular basis.

In a disguised stroke of good luck, the long road miles created chronic pain in my knee. I went to physical therapy. It didn’t help. I quit the team.

Nearly a year later I became friends with a man who rode a beautiful upright, Dutch-style bicycle around town while wearing nice pants and Italian leather shoes.

He told me, “People often ask me ‘How do you ride your bicycle in those clothes?’ Don’t you sweat?’ I say, ‘If I’m going to sweat too much, I just slow down.”

“What’s the hurry?” he’d ask. 

“We aren’t rich unless we have our time,” he’d say.

This made sense to me. His philosophy liberated my mind and helped me reconnect to the joy of bicycling I had as a young girl. It’s been this way for me since.

I share this story because I see a similar struggle happening in the minds of so many of my clients. They want to know what “counts” as exercise. They believe that if exercise isn’t a little bit {or even a lot bit} dreadful, then it surely isn’t worth anything.

In our culture we have made movement synonymous with exercise and athletic performance. We have put movement into the realms of achievement, quantification and identity. In so doing we have taken movement away from the realms of pleasure, spontaneity and, ultimately, health.

I am not against sport or against programming and calculating one’s exercise sessions. If these things work for you, great. Keep at it.

What I am against is the narrative that the only way to a healthy body is through athletics and intense exercise. There are so many ways to move your body, so many ways to experience the health benefits of movement, most of which have nothing to do with playing sports or participating in exercise as we know it. In fact, just because somebody is an athlete or fitness professional does not necessarily mean that they are healthy. Too much intense, repetitive exercise is not good for you.

I share my personal stories and philosophies because I have come to find over the years that many people resonate with both my struggles and my solutions.

I am a strength coach, but I am not the strongest women in the weight room. Although I certainly admire women who lift heavy, my personal goal is simply to be strong enough to navigate my daily life with ease ~ to uproot the blackberry bushes in my backyard, to carry my paddleboard from my car to the waterfront, to rearrange furniture on a whim, to help friends carry moving boxes up and down stairs. I don’t want to lose these abilities as I age, which is why I lift weights a couple times a week. I deadlift and squat and pull up and push up. I jump onto boxes and lunge and toss heavy balls and press barbells overhead. I do what I need to do to be strong enough given the circumstances of my life. I never work at a level that is so intense that it leaves me straining or dreading my movement sessions. 

Exercise is not my everything. I don’t want it to be. Exercise is just one part of my life, one tool to help me live the kind of existence that I long to live. I want to be a present participant in this world. I want to notice, I want to create, I want to engage, I want to contribute. I want to be fierce when it is needed and soft when it is needed.

So how do I move my body throughout the week to support these goals? First of all, I move around constantly. On days when I have to do a lot of computer work to do, I get up every 20 minutes for 1 minute to change my body shape. I stand up. I squat down. I twist from side to side. I look into the distance to give my eyes a break.

I walk every day for at least one hour. Sometimes all at once, sometimes split into small 15 minute strolls.

I lift weights twice a week.

I do a sprint workout once a week.

I stretch and use a soft foam roller before bed.

I do focused breathing exercises or a simple meditation every day.

I dance and ride my bike and rollerblade and hula hoop and whatever else I feel inclined to do whenever I feel inclined to do it.

I am healthy. I rarely experience aches and pains in my body. I sleep well. My digestion is good. My senses are alive. My mind is bright. I enjoy my body.

I have found what works for me, but my way is certainly not the only way. There are many ways to use movement to support a healthy life. It is my hope {and my primary goal in my work with clients} that you do what works for you, not what you think you’re supposed to do.

I would estimate that about half of my clients over the years have been people who feel, for various reasons, alienated from sport and fitness culture. One of the big hurdles that these people need to overcome is not in their bodies per se, but in their minds. In these instances I simply give them permission to do what they want to do. Each of us has an innate knowing about what our bodies need to be healthy; we just have to learn the language. And each of us has an intuition about what would be the right sort of movement for us; we just need to trust that this is right and good and enough.

To these people I say, “Yep. That counts. Do that.”

And, “Yes, you’re doing it right.”

And, “Nope, you don’t have to push harder.”

And, “Keep doing what you enjoy. Do it every day.”

And when they do, they flourish.