I saw a Facebook thread about what folks were reading on the treadmill. It’s pretty common that people will try to zone out while doing cardio. Their focus is just putting in the time. Maybe that works OK for them but for those of us who deal with serious weight, we need to realize other benefits from exercise besides just keeping up with the hamster wheel. For us, trying to read on the treadmill could be a big mistake.
Dealing with serious overweight for a number of years tends to make us want to disconnect from our physical presence, primarily for two reasons. First, if we begin to experience physical limitations, we try to ignore them and carry on. I used to get very winded from climbing the stairs at the L train. So I stopped taking the train and I would drive even very short distances. Eventually, I had difficulty getting out of my small, low-to-the-ground Volkswagen. I used to have to swing around and manoever myself around the steering wheel to get both feet out the door. I’d then rock back and forth to get the momentum to push myself out of the car.
But the worst way that we disconnect from ourselves is how we attempt to reject shame. When everything about our culture tries to convince us we should hate ourselves for being fat, we retreat into our heads. Yes, we are truly defined by our intellect, our values, our personality—but connecting with our physical presence can be powerfully transformative. Exercise can be the mechanism for bringing you there.
I avoided exercise for most of my life. It made me feel very weak and inadequate. I’d be so winded so quickly if I tried to do practically anything. My face would get purple and I’d even gasp and choke. I didn’t want to put myself through that at all until I decided to go with it on my own terms. I decided not to care about anything I’d been told to do in the past.
I’ve mentioned many times that the first “exercise” I started doing many years ago was about one minute on a recumbent stepper, a machine primarily aimed at use by the elderly. There happened to be one in the gym in my building. I could do about a minute so that’s all I did. I did not think about what I “should” be doing. Work up to an hour on that thing? No, I could do a minute that day and I’d do what I could the next day.
I didn’t want to go to a gym; I didn’t want to go to a trainer. I did what I could and I was fine with that. I let go of everything I’d tried and hated in the past. Instead, I worked myself until I breathed really hard. I noticed just how hard so as I kept at it, I could tell my breathing was improving. I did not concern myself with time or distance. I paid attention to my own breathing and how I felt. I dug out the heart rate strap I’d gotten back when I’d briefly tried working out with a private trainer. I made exercising all about focusing intensely on my breathing, my heart rate, and how I felt.
I found that I developed a natural sense of wanting to work harder. Not so I could hit some arbitrary amount of time or distance but because I wanted to feel what it would be like. I wanted to see how hard I could work. When I realized that my heart and breathing rates were changing, it was incredibly exciting! More than anything, I did not feel so betrayed by my body anymore. I did not feel weak. I was experiencing my body’s specific response to the exercise I was doing. It was in very tiny steps back then but it was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel like exercising was beating me down! The number on the scale did not even matter so much. I felt like I was figuring out a way to be in control. Reps, time, distance, somebody else’s idea of a goal—It did not matter. I discovered that I could improve my health myself, beat by beat and breath by breath.
To this day, I pay attention to my heart and my breathing. I could never want to “zone out” with a book or magazine. That would take me away from connecting with what my body is doing as I’m working. I know my body so well that I can usually call my heart rate based on how I’m breathing. I’m not going to pretend that I LOVE cardio! But I love feeling connected to my body’s functioning. I love feeling my heart work hard and breathing very deeply.
Your body is never a lost cause. Start listening to it and you’ll be amazed at what it will tell you.