Bringing Joy Back to Movement

By: Morgan Abercromie, Intern at HNC

The culture surrounding exercise oftentimes places emphasis on results, specifically physical results. Many individuals start working out to change their bodies, influenced by so many exercise programs promising thinner thighs, thinner waists, bigger glutes, and bigger arms. There is no promise of fun or enjoyment in sight for the duration, just a focus on how you’ll look by the end. In addition to its focus on physical “gains,” exercise is often viewed as a form of punishment, something a person does after they’ve consumed “too many” calories or to earn their dessert.

Theoretically, we know that exercise is great for our health. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that we aim to get exercise for at least 150 minutes per week, which is 30 minutes a day for five days. It provides our bodies so many benefits beyond just weight control, also helping to maintain blood sugar levels, reduce heart disease and high blood pressure risk, decrease stress and anxiety, improve sleep, and increase overall quality of life. Unfortunately, we also know that exercise has a negative side, and that it can lead to body comparison and negative-self talk when we feel like we’ve failed. 

You may have a love-hate relationship with exercise—it may be triggering for you, or you might just simply hate it—all of these feelings are valid. You are allowed to exist in the world as you are without exercising to change your body. Exercise does not have to be done with the intent to change. There are so many ways to incorporate movement into your day that are kind to your body and help you to connect with yourself.  You do not have to do a traditional, planned HIIT workout or run on the treadmill for exactly 30 minutes for your body to count it as exercise. Rather than continuing the negative view of exercise, let’s change the mindset around movement by incorporating something we all need—joy. 

Joyful movement changes the approach to exercise by focusing on how your body feels and taking your mental health into account. It also focuses on doing enjoyable, varied activities, rather than mundane gym exercises such as rounds of planks and squats.

Think about activities that bring you joy. They may include hiking, going to the park with your dog, playing with your kids, practicing yoga, or dancing around your room. These all count as movement, and they don’t require you to go to the gym. Do not force yourself to do a form exercise if you do not enjoy it. Don’t run if you don’t like running. Don’t take a spin class if you don’t like spinning. There are so many diverse ways to exercise. Give yourself permission to not continue things that do not bring you joy or serve your body well and find something you do enjoy.

Some Activities to Try:

  • Swimming
  • Working out with a buddy
  • Joining a recreational sports team
  • Taking a group dance class
  • Starting a walking group with friends or neighbors
  • Walking downtown with a date
  • Horseback riding
  • Kayaking
  • Roller-skating or ice-skating
  • Riding your bike
  • Playing tennis or basketball
  • Jumping on the trampoline
  • Pushing your baby around the neighborhood in a stroller

Try new types of movement so that you can identify what feels good to your body. The type of exercise and intensity of exercise that feels good to you may also vary from day to day. It is important to recognize this fact and take your energy and motivation into account when approaching movement. Don’t be discouraged if something that feels good one day does not feel good the next day. Ask yourself, what can I safely, realistically do under the current circumstances? Work to distinguish the types of movement that you can do on days when you are thriving, on days that you are barely surviving, and on days when you know you just need to move. By recognizing the physical, mental, and emotional limitations that you bring into your exercise on that day, you can avoid depleting yourself and creating a resentment towards exercise. Exercise might not always be joyful; for example, when doing physical therapy for injuries, mobility for chronic medical conditions, or simply on days that you have lost motivation. This may mean working out when you aren’t really feeling it, but as long as it doesn’t come from a place of punishing yourself, not all movement has to be joyful. In these instances, try focusing on the joy that comes from reaching your goal, such as having fewer limitations due to your chronic illness or overcoming an injury.   

There is no moral obligation to like exercise or engage in it. It is something you can do for your health, but there are plenty of other things that you can do for your health instead. You don’t have to punish yourself with exercise. You never have to repeat the same workout/movement. The goal is the be compassionate with yourself and to find the things that are good for your body and what you enjoy. Celebrate what your body can do where you are right now! 

Need more resources? We love The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal.