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 as punishment for what I ate. This mostly meant logging hours on the treadmill or elliptical despite being bored out of my mind and taking grueling kickboxing classes.
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 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 that I started strength training regularly, 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 was life changing.
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 losing or maintaining weight; and (2) exercise should be intense.
The first message, that we need to use exercise to “burn off” food or punish ourselves for what we eat in order to get or stay thin, is so common that most of us barely even notice it anymore. I hear from new clients all the time that they are in the habit of exercising as a way of atonement when they feel guilty about something they ate.
Many women learn to start equating exercise with calories burned by their teenage years, and language to that effect is everywhere. If you’ve ever taken a group exercise class in your life, chances are you’ve heard an instructor use “motivating” language like:
- “Pick up the pace! That cookie is not going to burn itself off!”
- “Let’s work on getting rid of those saddlebags, ladies!”
- “Who’s ready to earn their happy hour margarita?”
This is such a standard way for instructors to interact with class participants that most of us don’t think anything of it. Why would we? 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. Exercising like this all the time is a recipe for injury and burnout, but it’s viewed as a way to slash more calories (and thus lose more weight).
We are taught to beat our bodies into submission, even if that means exercising in ways we don’t like or that deplete us, or being nauseous, exhausted, cranky, or so “hangry” we can barely see straight. The underlying message is “What is exercise even for if not to keep our bodies in line?”
Unexpectedly becoming a trapeze artist changed movement for me forever.
A little over a year ago, I decided to take an introductory aerials class at Sky Candy, a local studio in Austin, where I tried four different apparatuses (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 go with it.
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 practicing and 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 shown me new and exciting uses for my strength.
Being a beginner in trapeze took me right back to those college Zumba classes and when I first started lifting weights so many years ago. The initial awkwardness and fear, yes, but also the sense of accomplishment that comes with learning challenging new things and succeeding at them 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.
Joyful movement is the answer to the question you didn’t know your body has been asking.
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; Exhibit B: my 220 lb, super joyful deadlift PR in May).
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. For one, in the words of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” So if not being a murderer is high on your to-do list, exercise can help with that. In addition, exercise can also improve mental health and mental clarity, stave off disease, improve digestion, improve markers of health (like blood pressure and heart rate), and it can be freakin’ fun!
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. Joyful movement has the power to make you feel capable, strong, energetic, badass, and so much more.
It’s time to seek out movement you love.
While I have found my movement home lifting heavy weights and flying high on the trapeze, the kinds of movement that feel joyful for you might be totally different from what feels joyful for me!
Not sure what might float your boat? 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. You have some exciting exploration ahead. Try making a list of kinds of movement that might pique your interest. Include everything, and 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’ve always wanted to try yoga, you could search for a free yoga class in your area. Or if you’d rather try it in the safety of your own home first, do some YouTube yoga. You could hire an experienced coach or trainer to teach you something new, like fencing, jiu jitsu, or whatever else your unicorn heart desires. Or you could gather a group of friends and head to your local bouldering gym or barre studio to move your bodies together.
Exercise doesn’t have to be the part of your day that you dread.
Humans evolved to move, and somewhere out there is the right kind of exercise just for you.* Don’t fall into the diet culture trap of thinking that exercise has to be awful or is only useful for manipulating your body size. Leave behind the “shoulds,” “have tos,” and “can’ts,” of moving your body, and instead focus on what feels good to you day by day.
The kinds of movement that feel most joyful to you will likely change by the day, the week, the season of the year, and the season of your life, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Each day, ask yourself, “What kind of movement is my body craving?” and honor what your body is asking for (even if what it’s asking for is rest). If you do that, you will be embracing the joyful movement your body has been pining for all along, and you won’t ever want to go back to doing exercise you hate.
*It’s important to add here that you are under no obligation to exercise and exercise is not a moral imperative. I think that exercise is wonderfully beneficial, but it’s up to you to decide if it’s something you want to prioritize in your life. Additionally, there are real barriers to finding exercise enjoyable for some people (including things like past trauma, an eating disorder history, chronic pain, etc.), and it’s completely valid if exercise never feels fun for you.
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