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HAES® Matters: Exercise and the HAES model (part 1)

From time to time the Health At Every Size® Blog will be sharing HAES Matters “roundtable” posts with our readers. The questions that appear in the HAES Matters posts are based on questions generated by participants at ASDAH’s 2011 Educational Conference.  The participants were asked to list the most common questions they heard with respect to health, weight, dieting, and the Health At Every Size approach to promoting wellness.  We have compiled responses from some of ASDAH’s HAES experts to these commonly asked questions. We hope you will comment below with your own questions, answers, and reflections on these HAES matters.

Q: I don’t enjoy exercise at all. How would a HAES approach include people like me?

A: Deb Lemire
Well I am right there with you. I don’t enjoy exercising either. I think one of the main reasons I don’t like it is because I was always told I HAD to exercise because I was too fat. And when I was in gym class it became about trying to not be too obviously fat and weak or uncoordinated to do what seemed to come naturally to EVERYONE else. And even though it was something I hated to do, I knew that I physically felt better after playing basketball in gym class, or running around the track (after the waves of humiliation passed). So it’s a conundrum. For me the HAES approach gives permission to move your body in a way that not only makes you feel good for having done it, but feel good while doing it. I am not good at formal “take a class,” “go for a run,” types of exercise. Too close to my experience when I was younger. I do enjoy dancing, riding my bike, gardening, performing and even vacuuming once in a while. And the HAES model says, “Guess what? That all counts!”

A: Michael Loewy
I think doing physical activity that is not exercise is much more enjoyable. So, I walk to the store when I can or walk other places that I used to normally drive to. Most of my activity is either walking or in a pool once in a while, because I like it.

I would say that if you don’t like to move around, then don’t. But I would also want to examine why I don’t like to move around. It is natural for the body to want to move around sometimes. I hate exercise, however. It was used as a punishment for being fat when I was a kid and I still don’t like it. And I like resting and relaxing, but I also like to move my body around sometimes. Dancing can be fun. To sum up, life enhancing physical activity does not equal exercise (unless you find exercise to be enjoyable).

A: Dana Schuster
In my past role as co-owner of Woman of Substance Health Spa and currently as a fitness instructor, I have talked with many individuals who adamantly told me they “hated” exercise. Their specific reasons included things like “I hate to get sweaty” or “It just isn’t any fun” or “Some body part always hurts”. Yet, in nearly every situation, we were able to successfully brainstorm a physical activity option that could transcend these negative experiences. Perhaps it was getting into the water to do an aqua aerobics class, or working out with a small group of similarly minded raucous women bouncing on balls, or walking calmly while talking with a good friend, or learning the hula hoop, or sitting in one’s wheelchair be-bopping to a favorite tune. The gift of the HAES approach to physical activity is that it offers an escape from the limited traditional “exercise options” that are usually focused on modifying a body that is somehow seen as “unacceptable”. When this is cast aside one can redefine “exercise” and almost always find a type of physical play that they can enjoy.

A: Lindo Bacon
If you don’t like exercise, try reframing it so it’s not a workout, but rather a fun way to move your body. Enjoyment and feeling good are great motivation. It may take broadening your idea of what activities “count”- family walks, for instance – or getting more creative. My parents never enjoyed neighborhood walks until I challenged them to find the tackiest garden displays in their new Florida neighborhood. Then they had a blast exploring the area, camera cell phones in hand, ready to alert me, or one another, to yet another tacky display of plastic pink flamingos. They forgot they were “exercising” – they were just out for fun.

A: Deb Burgard
You are not morally obligated to exercise! Pleasurable or purposeful physical activity is a right, not an obligation. The HAES model does not specify a particular set of health practices for all people, but rather points to a process of supporting individuals in choosing where to focus their energies (i.e., on sustainable practices that add value to your day-to-day life, rather than pursuing weight loss). If someone has had negative experiences with “exercise,” then the question might be whether it is worth looking at the context for those experiences and whether that could be different for the future. Has the experience been one related only to the drudgery of weight loss? The drudgery of poorly paid manual labor? The social stigma of being teased on a playground? The lack of imagination and accessibility of many PE programs?  If so, there is more to be discovered about moving one’s body – and still, there is no obligation to do so, only recognition that there should be an invitation to you in whatever body you have.

We have not begun to harness the range of possibilities for movement, from all the varied cultural heritages and all the different ages and all the different abilities we represent. At any given point in time, our bodies have a wide range of talents and our environments are usually very limited in the imagination (and purposes for which) we invest in moving and playing.

And still, there will be people who want to focus their energies on other things, and that needs to be an honorable choice. What is not honorable is to not have a choice.

Q: Weight loss is often the primary motivator for exercise. What would motivate someone to engage in this self-care behavior if not a number on the scale?

A: Deb Burgard
Weight loss can often motivate people to start exercise but it becomes a problem for people who are trying to make exercise a permanent feature of their lives. When weight loss is the goal, and weight loss slows, stalls, or reverses, as it does nearly all of the time, most people stop exercising. What’s more, the things people do to lose weight are often the most boring, annoying, injury-inducing ways that humans could possibly exercise. Many people don’t even have an experience of movement that is outside of that realm and think they don’t like it.

What if people spent their initial burst of motivation exploring different kinds of movement and seeing what they really enjoy? If they find reasons to continue to move, like the pleasure of doing it, the sense of mastery in learning a skill, the time spent socially with others, the building of an athletic identity in the body they already have, then when the inevitable disruptions occur, like a deadline for work, an illness or injury, family needs, logistical challenges, or other typical reasons people stop moving, they have multiple ways of finding their way back. Building a deep foundation of reasons to move is more likely to keep people returning to move again.

A: Lindo Bacon
Suggesting that people exercise to lose weight might, or might not, motivate them in the short term. But when the weight doesn’t come off (exercise does not usually lead to slimming), discouragement tends to quash motivation. The HAES approach encourages physical activity of any kind for the purpose not of weight loss but to feel good. Discovering that physical activity can be fun makes it a treat that you’ll want to do. Don’t do it for weight loss, don’t even do it for health – and if you feel challenged finding it fun – here’s other great motivation: exercise can help you feel more integrated, so that you actually live in the body you’ve got.

As I was walking recently, I was thinking about how amazing my body is, that I have legs that can take me from one place to another and allow me to expand my world. I felt so much appreciation for those legs. What a contrast to my earlier years when I used to view my legs as fat and ugly and a sign of my failure. These are the same legs; what’s changed is my view. The more we inhabit our bodies and let them do what they are capable of, the more we can find celebration. Our culture tries to steal away our appreciation of our bodies, particularly if your body doesn’t conform to cultural standards, but exercise provides great opportunity for you to reclaim it.

A: Deb Lemire
It is unfortunate that we are culturally conditioned to think that the primary reason for exercise is weight loss. Physical activity has so many benefits regardless of weight change. It elevates your mood, eases joint pain, builds strength, helps with digestion, the list just goes on. I think most people can find motivation by focusing on feeling good, having fun learning a new dance or a cool new activity, like fencing or juggling. Not only are you then engaging in a behavior that contributes to your health and wellness, you have fun, you meet new people and you become the coolest mom or dad, aunt or uncle, on the block.

A: Fall Ferguson
Pleasure.  Of course, there are well-documented health benefits of engaging in regular movement, such as improved blood sugar regulation and cardiovascular fitness. But for me, the easy answer to the question of why people would move their bodies if not for weight loss is “pleasure.” Here are some pleasures that I experience through movement:

  • The pleasure of embodied awareness.
  • The pleasure of embodied connection when I dance or move with others.
  • The pleasure of having a body that is more supple and pliant than it would otherwise be if I did not move my body.
  • The pleasure of breathing a little more easily due to enhanced cardiovascular capacity.
  • The pleasure of relieving stress.
  • The pleasure of sleeping more deeply and for longer periods of time.

I think we should practice “mindful movement,” similar to mindful eating. This means paying attention to our body’s cues about movement, just as we have learned to do for eating. Do I want to move? If I do, then how do I want to move? There is no judgment, just a deep connection with my embodied reality.

The fact that this question about motivation for movement even gets asked suggests to me how misguided our cultural conceptions of “health” have become, and how distanced we are culturally from what feels true or good or right for our own bodies. Our level of disembodiment is stunning, and it grieves me that we have so lost our sense of our own bodies that we think people need extrinsic rewards to justify moving.

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