The June 2013 issue of Elle is “The Body Issue,” and I contributed this essay on the science of exercise motivation and my personal quest to stop thinking of my workouts as yet another chore (to be avoided at all costs) and start being one of those people who actually craves physical activity and gets grouchy when they can’t do it.
To get to the bottom of my exercise issues, I worked with Michelle Segar, PhD, a motivation psychologist at the Univer-sity of Michigan and associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls. I’ve known Michelle for several years — since I interviewed her for More Magazine in 2008 — and think her research on fitness motivation is some of the most insightful and exciting work happening in that arena today. (That’s probably why I’ve also blogged about her work here and here.) Michelle has a deep understanding of the love/hate relationship that most women have with exercise and working with her forced me to break through some pretty big barriers that, even with all the writing and thinking I do about these issues, I didn’t even know I had.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that now that the warm weather is here, I have not laced up my running shoes again, as I ponder at the end of the piece. The most obvious reason is, of course, that I’m 7.5 months pregnant and just walking around the neighborhood or working in my garden is enough to wear me out right now. But even post-pregnancy, I’m not sure that running will ever really agree with my feet again (in the year when I exercised a lot more obsessively, I gave myself some pretty intense stress fractures and plantar fasciitis) or that I want to risk going back to the negative head space that it triggered. (You can read about that in the story.) When I’m honest about why I want to get back into running, I know I still think it’s the fastest route to skinny* — and I know now all of the reasons why that won’t sustain me as a long-term workout motivation.
But there is a new exercise development in my life that is a direct result of this article (it just happened so recently, it didn’t make it into the draft): Swimming! When Michelle and I hashed out all of the things I like about being physically active — being intellectually challenged as well as physically challenged, feeling graceful and strong, having time to myself to de-stress, etc — we realized that swimming might be the kind of “cardio” that could tick a lot of those boxes. The only problem: I never learned how to swim as a kid, due to years of chronic ear infections and a general lack of interest. I can doggy paddle and basically stay afloat, but I didn’t know the first thing about freestyling, or how to put my head under the water without freaking the f*ck out.
In April, I was traveling on another assignment and kind of had to force myself to go swimming to report it — it’s a crazy story and I’ll tell you more about it when that piece comes out in a few weeks. I also realized that I don’t want to be a mom who can’t swim or accidentally instill my fear of it in my daughter. (We live a block from the Hudson River in an area with lots of great swimming holes, and have family and friends who live near beaches. And I have always, always loved the beach and the water — I don’t want to be sitting on the sand while Dan takes her out to play in the waves.)
So long story short, I came home from that assignment talking a big game about how between Michelle and that experience, I was totally inspired to face my fear and finally learn to swim. And Dan called my bluff and got me swimming lessons as a birthday present. So now I’m 32 years old, in my third trimester of pregnancy, and learning to swim for what feels like the very first time. My lovely teacher is at least ten years younger than me, and clearly a little confused as to how someone could reach their 4th decade without properly learning these skills. The lesson before mine is a bunch of six year olds who are way more bad ass about jumping into the pool than I may ever be. Also, I have to wear dorky ear plugs and my form is a hot mess. But I’ve already managed to float, tread water, get my head under for at least a couple seconds at a time, and muscle through half a pool’s length of sloppy freestyle.
It. Is. Awesome.
And that’s because, for maybe the first time in my life, I’m not exercising to lose weight or because I’m “supposed to,” or any of the other motivations that, as Michelle explains in my article, just don’t really work. I’m doing it because being in the water when you are 100 years pregnant feels amazing. Because I can’t wait to take my daughter to the beach. And because if I learn now — before we jump into the madness of new parenthood — maybe it will make it a little easier afterwards to hold on to exercise, and how good it can now make me feel.
*I just want to say, very clearly, that I am not against running per se. I know so many people who find running to be super empowering and wonderful and it doesn’t make them hate their bodies at all. For whatever reason, it just pushed all of my obsessive/perfectionist buttons and took me to a not-so-great place, especially once I injured myself and couldn’t keep it up the way I had hoped. But that’s just me and my brain. If running works for you, I think that is delightful.
Well, to be honest, I still sort of agree with Parks & Recreation’s Ann Perkins on this one.
Still, I’m glad it’s working for you.