I want to ask you a question. Well a few. What do you think of your body?
Are you happy with it and celebrate it through your thoughts, feelings and actions? Or are you constantly criticising it, always wanting it to be better and ‘perfect’ and punishing it for not being good enough?
Do you love your body or loathe it?
A few months ago, on a chilly bright morning, I got dropped off by car so I could run back home. I always enjoy linear routes as they seem more like a journey to me rather than ending up where I started!
The first part of the run was a mile long straight beside a salt marsh. It was a great time to relax, get into a comfortable pace and check in with my body to see how it was feeling and moving. It was then I asked myself a question I’d asked many times before when I was training. “Why am I running?”
In the past the answer has been along the lines of “I’m in training, I want to stay slim, I’m getting older and want to stay fit, I enjoy it, there’s a race coming up, its how I sort my mind out, its good for me, I feel better afterwards…”
This time the answer surprised me. I realised I was running because my body deserves to be rewarded and treated with love. Now if you hate running that’s going to sound bizarre. The reality is my body is how I experience the world physically. It provides the means for me to move, feel and explore. For this alone my body deserves to be treated with respect and ideally with love, compassion and kindness.
With this awareness, a switch had gone on somewhere in my mind and body and my running changed instantly. I found myself smiling and feeling lighter as I ran. Each step felt like it flowed, was more connected to the rest of me and there was a sense of joy at moving. Despite still sweating and puffing going up the last hill before home, something had definitely shifted in me.
When you do something you love and enjoy your energy within you, your mind and body, changes. Your approach is different and so are the outcomes.
This got me wondering how many people see movement, let alone nutrition, rest and sleep, as treating their bodies with love, or, at the very least, care and respect?
When people hit the gym, go for a run, swim lengths or take a yoga class are they loving their body or loathing it? Seeing their body as a power house or a broken down car?
Often when I hear people talking about their bodies they seem to be moaning about them, usually using the word ‘too’ to beat their bodies, and themselves, up. Too fat, too thin, too short, too wrinkled, too hairy, too hairless. A bust is too big, a chest too small, ankles too skinny, calf muscles too fat, hair too curly or too straight or too ginger, black or brown. Bodies are too weak, too slow, too ill, too stiff or looking too old or too young. It seems rare to hear, or read, that people are happy with their bodies let alone treating them with love.
People talk about the chore of exercise, berating their bodies for not being good enough, that their bodies are letting them down, never being satisfied, seeking perfection and spending energy and time training with punishing sessions that are literally that – a punishment, suggests many people are unhappy with their bodies.
From my years of coaching athletics, basketball, gymnastics and personal training, I know that overloading is a key principle in effective improvements in performance. You can’t keep things the same and expect an improvement! Often though there is little respect or care for the body. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard ‘no pain, no gain’ as an excuse to ignore a shoulder, back or knee injury!
I understand there are many influences and reasons why it can feel as if our bodies are ‘failing’ us. Some magazines delight in telling us when a celebrity has failed in their battle to stay slim or wrinkle free. Is that any reason to be so harsh and unforgiving towards the incredible machines that our bodies are?
When we exercise, train or compete we do it for all sorts of reasons. Its rarely for only one and most are similar to the ones I’ve used earlier – long life, health and improved performance.
Does the reason you are exercising even matter though? Yes it does.
How you think and feel about moving your body has an impact on you, the way you move and the results you get. Whether you are loving or loathing what you are doing determines the chemicals your body produces and means differing impacts and outcomes.
At a talk I went along to, Jo Marchant, author of Cure – A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, asked whether we perceived skiing down hill as a threat or challenge. The way we look at things matters to both the process and the outcome. Both raise heart rate and increase breathing, whilst the threat response means peripheral blood vessels constrict, the heart beats less efficiently, mentally we are fearful focusing on survival and it takes longer to recover from the experience.
Perceiving an event as a challenge results in blood vessels dilating allowing more blood to flow through the body and brain, the heart works more efficiently, mentally performing better with the focus on opportunities and less stress – an important factor heading fast down a snowy hill on skis, and the mind and body recovering quickly from the event. Being in a threatened state is more tiring than seeing an event as a challenge.
If you perceive your body as failing you can feel threatened that you are underperforming and not good enough.
The bottom line is you will move more effectively and efficiently if you perceive your training as a challenge. On that chilly morning I saw my run as a challenge rather than an threat. Of course this doesn’t just apply to hitting the gym or pounding the streets.
Whilst the occasional threat in our lives is healthy and necessary to keep us on our toes from the possibility of being eaten by the occasional tiger we discover on the high street, long term responses to perceiving life as a frequent series of threats have an detrimental impact on our overall health.
Our minds become rewired to always feeling under threat with corresponding increased levels of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These increases result in high levels of inflammation in the body which is linked to, amongst other things, hypertension, digestion, heart disease and damage to the immune system. Life becomes harder on our bodies and minds.
When experiences in life are perceived as challenges the responses within us are beneficial. They are important for our mental, physical and emotional well being. Temporary stress responses actually improve the mind and body’s response to stress. Overtime there is even the possibility of reversing the wiring of the fear based ‘threat’ mindset and resetting our bodies to manage stress more effectively. Challenges improve the quality of our life and may even increase the length of it.
Today as you put on your trainers, trunks or running gear are you loving your body or loathing it? Your answer will make a difference before, during and after your session and maybe throughout your life.
Enjoy the day you create.