My one-year trapeze anniversary recently passed, and celebrating it made me reflect on how much embracing joyful movement has changed my view of exercise over the course of my life.
As a child, I was very active and participated in karate, soccer, and basketball. But after I left organized sports behind and went through puberty, there was a long period of time in my life where I chose which kinds of exercise to do based on their (perceived) power to make me skinny or to “cancel out” what I ate (even if I hated it.)
My first real foray into exercising for fun as an adult happened when I started going to Zumba classes with friends towards the end of college. As someone who has no innate dancing talent whatsoever, I was surprised by how much fun Zumba was, and I looked forward to it every week.
It wasn’t long after I started Zumba that I added strength training to my life as well, and my view of exercise began to shift permanently. It took time, but the slow realization that moving my body in certain ways felt good and didn’t have to be about looking good changed my life.
Our Culture Encourages an Unhealthy Relationship With Exercise
The two clearest cultural messages we get about exercise are that: (1) exercise is a tool for counteracting food consumption (and consequently, losing or maintaining weight); and (2) exercise should be intense and even painful.
The first message, that exercise and food are inextricably tied together, is so common that most of us barely even notice it anymore. Many people learn to start equating exercise with calories burned by their teenage years, and language to that effect is everywhere.
If you’ve ever participated in a group fitness class, chances are you've heard an instructor use “motivating” language like:
- “Pick up the pace! That cookie is not going to burn itself off!”
- “This move will help tighten up those bingo wings!”
- “Who’s ready to earn their happy hour margarita?”
This is such a standard way for instructors to interact with class participants, that most people don't think anything of it. Why would they? Magazines, books, TV, and movies all teach the same as gospel. And now in the age of wearable devices like Fitbits and Apple Watches, it’s easier than ever to track and obsess over calories burned, steps walked, and more.
The second message of “no pain, no gain” seems to have come about with the rise of CrossFit culture and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in particular. Most of my clients come to me initially believing that a workout is only worthwhile if their heartbeat is sky high, their body is covered in sweat, and the next day they are so sore they can barely move.
Treating exercise that way is a recipe for injury and burnout, but it’s viewed as a way to slash more calories (and thus lose more weight). The underlying message is “What is exercise even for if not to keep our bodies in line?”
Becoming a Trapeze Artist Changed Movement for Me Forever.
After seeing an acquaintance posting lyra videos on her Instagram, I decided to take an introductory aerials class at Sky Candy in May of 2017. In that class, I had the opportunity to try out four different apparatuses, including trapeze, lyra, silks, and hammock.
I had no dance background, I was not flexible, and the idea of me being graceful was laughable at the time. But I thought aerials might be fun and decided to just lean into the fear and awkwardness of trying something new.
Luckily, the class was so engaging and entertaining that I haven't stopped going to classes since. I've adopted the trapeze as my main apparatus, and you can find me at Sky Candy multiple times per week taking classes and private lessons.
Over the past year, the practice of trapeze has really brought me back home to my body and reminded me how grateful I am for all that my body can do. I’ve been strength training consistently for 8+ years now, but trapeze has helped me view movement in a totally new way.
Being a beginner in trapeze took me right back to those college Zumba classes. The initial trepidation and frustration, yes, but also the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning challenging new things and getting better with time and practice.
When I’m on the trapeze, I don’t care about my body composition. I’m not counting calories or checking my heart rate on my Apple Watch. It’s just me and the trapeze, moving, playing, and experimenting together.
Finding Joyful Movement May Help You Change Your Relationship With Exercise for the Better
Joyful movement is any kind of movement and exercise that you enjoy and do for you—not to manipulate your body or to punish yourself, but because it feels good. Joyful movement may sound cutesy, but just because you like the way you move doesn't mean it can't be challenging (Exhibit A: my very hardcore trapeze cuts, scrapes, bruises, and scars).
Exercise as we commonly think of it hinges on very specific outcomes like losing or maintaining weight or burning off those pesky life-giving calories. Focusing on those outcomes as the only reason to move our bodies makes us feel defeated and full of dread before we ever even begin. Joyful movement, on the other hand, gets us excited to move our bodies on our terms.
There are so many more reasons to move your body than only to change its composition, and focusing on your “why” can bring new meaning to movement. As I’ve described with my trapeze adventures, the right kinds of movement and exercise for you can shift your view of yourself and help you reconnect with your body.
It's Time to Try to Seek Out Movement You Love
Intrigued by this whole joyful movement thing but not sure where to get started or what you might find fun? Here’s what I want you to do: Consider what kinds of exercise you might like to do if you could completely divorce exercise from eating food and changing your body. Make a list of all the types of movement you already know bring you joy, whether that's dancing in your bedroom to Beyoncé or bowling with friends. Any kind of movement counts, and nothing is too silly or insignificant for your list!
If nothing is coming to mind, that's okay too. There's an opportunity for exploration ahead. Try making a list of kinds of movement that might pique your interest. Include everything, and initially ignore any reasons that might be coming up for not adding certain kinds of movement to the list, such as wanting to wait until you’ve lost some weight or feeling like you're not yet coordinated or strong enough.
Then, take what you've learned and make a plan for exploring those kinds of movement more thoroughly. For example, if you're gravitating towards yoga, you could search for a free yoga class in your area or try a free online yoga video first. If you like the idea of trying something new, like bouldering or barre, but you don't want to go alone, you could invite some friends and make a date out of it. It might take a couple of tries to find the right fit, but stay curious!
I also want to honor that there are very real barriers to finding movement joyful, such as past trauma, chronic pain or illness, cost, accessibility, weight stigma, or an eating disorder history. Additionally, some people just don't want to prioritize exercise in their lives, and that's fine too.
If you do want to make exercise a regular part of your life but you're struggling to find the joy in it, maybe finding exercise that is tolerable can be good enough. Or perhaps you need to do some deeper work to understand your specific feelings about exercise. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to movement and sorting through your feelings about it, so try to offer yourself grace as you're figuring things out.
Exercise Doesn't Have To Be the Part of Your Day that You Dread.
Don't fall into the diet culture trap of thinking that exercise always has to be awful or is only useful for manipulating your body size. Work to leave behind the “should”s “have to”s and “can't”s of moving your body, and instead focus on what feels good to you day by day. Ask yourself what kind of movement your body is craving, and try to honor whatever comes up. If you can do that, you'll be well on your way to having a better relationship with exercise over time.
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