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Joyful vs Compulsive Movement: how we got here and how we can heal.


It might be odd to need guidance when discerning between something that is joyful versus compulsive. Seems straight-forward enough, if we're feeling joy that means it's joyful, right? But of course, it can be trickier than that. As both a recovering compulsive mover as wells as a professional who supports others in this process, sometimes it's hard to know when we're choosing something that feels like joy or simply running from something that feels bad.


As we consider how to reclaim our relationship to movement, I think its important to explore how we collectively got here in the first place. If you're eager to jump to the 3 questions, 3 relationships, and 3 practices, feel free to do so. I'll spend the next few paragraphs discussing how our environment supports this disconnection with the intention to build awareness and self-compassion along the way.


So how did we get to the point where we needed help reconnecting with joyful movement? For many of us, we were praised for suppressing our desires and overriding them for the sake of what is expected. (See my previous blog for support in connecting with your yes.)


Of course, the specifics of what is expected depends upon the values held by the people and insitutions around us. For people raised in the United States, the dominant expectation is that we as individuals prioritize our "health and wellbeing" over all else. How do we do that? "Eat right" and exercise. At least, that's the main-stream message in schools, media, and public health outlets. With that comes an expectation of what these behaviors will lead to, a visual that has been painted by a model that centers cis-gendered, white, males as the standard and anything outside of that is divergent and dare I say, pathological.


One of the model I'm referring to is the Body Mass Index (BMI), a tool used in nearly every doctor's appointment unless otherwise requested, has racist, patriarchal roots. Anti-Racism Daily wrote a brief article diving deeper into this topic. For those who prefer podcasts, the expert referenced in this article, Sabrina Strings, has been interviewed on multiple podcasts about her book, Fearing the Black Body: the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Social media creator and current med student, Joel Bervell shares how racism continues to be taught in medicine to this day.


Okay, so it's not our fault and in some ways, we got here by design. What now? How do we know when we're engaging in compulsive movement?


Next time you think about moving, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Would I do this activity regardless of it's impact on my weight or size? Movement will impact our bodies in a myriad of ways and how it impacts your body depends on many different factors. We can experience incredible benefits of movement that increases the quality of our lives even if our body shape or size doesn't change.

  2. Am I driven by QUALITATIVE data or quantitative data? How we feel during a given activity is qualitative data. Do I feel joy? Do I feel sad? Do I feel tired? Asking how we feel in the moment supports the journey back into ourselves during any given activity, as opposed to tracking the number of reps, minutes, or other quantitative information.

  3. Is this something I'm doing TO my body or WITH my body? I first heard this question from Dana Sturtevant, co-author of Body Trust: A Path to Healing and Liberation. Doing something with another entity, be it a person, an animal, a body; implies a spirit of collaboration. "We're in this together." Whereas doing something TO another entity implies lack of consent and disrespect. Movement that is done to the body is often compulsive whereas movement done with the body sets us up for joy.


Consider your relationship to the following:

  1. The term "exercise." For many people, we were told that exercise is something we should do. Many would claim it's the single-most beneficial thing a person can do for their health and wellbeing. While there are many benefits to moving, using the term, "exercise" can keep us in a place of obligation and using a more neutral term, like "movement" can help.

  2. Rest and gentleness. When are you allowed to rest or be gentle with yourself? Who is allowed to rest and who is deserving of gentleness? What are the conditions for receiving those things? So often people may not want to exercise but the guilt we feel from simply resting is harder to navigate than getting the workout done. Oddly enough, healing our relationship to exercise often requires that we heal our relationship to rest.

  3. Pain and progress. "No pain no gain" has been drilled into many of our minds and with it, the idea that progress only happens in the presence of pain. The more body workers I encounter, the more I'm confronted with the lie within this belief. Even personal trainers have said, "If you feel sore after a workout, it's a sign you're deficient in something: nutrition, rest, hydration, or stretching."


Finally, try these practices:

  1. Notice your "shoulds." Are you saying you "should" go on a walk? Often times when we says we "should" do something, there is an underlying desire the "should" is attempting to override.

  2. Use neutral terms. If it's hard to feel at-choice when considering "exercise," try using a more neutral term like movement. If the term, "healthy" activates an emotional response, try using a term like, "sustainable." Noticing what words activate a "Should" can help us identify more neutral terms that support our authentic yes or no.

  3. Find movement communities that use neutral terms or practice a relationship to movement you would like to practice yourself. These can include tracking something other than weight or body size to assess growth and progress.

I can't emphasize the importance of community enough. We didn't get here alone, we likely need community to get somewhere else. In the spirit of community, please consider sharing how this landed with you or other practices that have you found helpful in reclaiming your relationship to exercise.

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