Body Love and Body Kindness

Exercise as Play

What if we thought of exercise as play?

I think most of us know that exercising is an important part of being healthy.

However, many times, exercise feels more like punishment, rather than like a joyful, helpful activity.

I have had a mixed relationship with exercise all of my life.

My early experience with it was a happy one.

I attended a fabulous elementary school in Oregon. And in gym class, we got to roller skate, do gymnastics, play with the parachute, and learn how to use stilts and unicycles.

Gym class was a magical, imaginative place.

Then I got into middle school, and suddenly PE seemed focused on competition. I remember the class doing a running unit. I have never felt like a natural runner.

Unfortunately, there were a bunch of cross-country and track kids in gym class, and the PE teacher clearly favored them.

He praised them and their stellar running times while either ignoring or criticizing the rest of us tentative runners.

That is how gym class in middle and high school felt.

The natural athletes were the stars of the show, and it seemed like one’s popularity, attractiveness, and coolness were suddenly tied to one’s athletic prowess.

Those of us who were not natural athletes (in the way the PE teacher defined it) seemed like afterthoughts and, often, an inconvenience.

I really missed my carefree, magical gym class from elementary school.

Fortunately for me, my mom signed me up for an aerobics class at a local health club when I was in high school. And I was smitten.

I love music and dancing. Now, I am certainly not going to star in the Flashdance remake. And I mainly dance by myself where no one can see me.

But it doesn’t even really matter because when I get absorbed in music and dancing, I get lost.

And suddenly I am not exercising anymore.

Rather, I feel like I am floating or sailing. Some folks might say I get in the Zone, but that feels much too clinical and detached.

I feel euphoric and alive when I dance.

Photo by Peter Conlan, courtesy of Unsplash

So, I am really grateful that I found aerobics when I did. I loved it and was good at, and it felt more like play, rather than punishment.

In fact, I loved aerobics so much that I eventually got an aerobics teaching certification and was even an elementary gym teacher for a very short time at my first teaching job.

In PE, we played with the parachute a lot. I liked creating weird obstacle courses that involved things like imaginary peanut butter pits. And exercise felt magical and like it was for everyone again.

Sadly, in my twenties, I increasingly fell into the trap that a lot of people, especially women, fall into.

That is, I began using exercise as a way to punish my body and shrink it.

Accordingly, I lost my connection to exercise as play and used it to control myself with arbitrary and unhelpful social standards regarding bodies.

I would constantly compare myself to people who were fitter and more athletic than I was.  Accordingly, I developed the idea that unless I was competing in marathons and triathlons, I was a failure.

It seems like I had internalized the voice of a really mean PE teacher, and I was making myself miserable.

It is no wonder, then, that in my late twenties and early thirties, exercise and I temporarily broke up. I still knew exercise was good for me, but I was tired of my exercise routines being fueled by fear and loathing.

In time, I began to exercise again.

For instance, I started to do yoga. And I started hoop dancing, which I love. It reminds me both of the magic I felt in elementary gym class and the euphoria I felt while doing aerobics.

In addition, I went on a lot of slow and meditative walks, and I taught myself how to juggle.

Around this time, my husband got into CrossFit.

He started designing workouts of the day (WODS) that would go like this:

Run a mile, do 30 pull-ups, do 30 squats. Sprint a quarter of a mile, do hand-stand pushups, jump-rope for a minute.

Now, CrossFit can be really intense and probably a little over zealous sometimes.

But there are a couple of really cool things about the CrossFit community.

First, CrossFit generally tends to believe that exercise is for everyone.

So, no matter what the workout is, it can be scaled down or modified for any person of any fitness level.

Can’t do actual pull-ups? No problem.

You can attach a rope to a bar, and with your feet firmly planted on the ground. And you can lean back a little bit and pull yourself up to a standing position.

Voila! Modified pull-ups.

Any exercise can be modified so that anyone can do it.[1]

It is really common at CrossFit gyms to see extremely fit, highly competitive people working right alongside, and cheering on, people who are significantly out of shape and can barely do one push-up.

In such an encouraging atmosphere, it is no wonder that people who have never exercised before get really jazzed.

And because they get jazzed, they make amazing progress.

And they suddenly start doing things they never thought they would be able to do.

I am not really a CrossFitter or part of a CrossFit community. And my goal in this post is not to convince people to do CrossFit.

Rather, I use the example of CrossFit to point out something. Exercise and movement are actually great fun.

We know this as little kids. As such, we take joy in movement, in trying new things, and in finding out what our body can do.

So we run, jump rope, skip, and climb trees just for the fun of it, without worrying about how we look or how we compare to someone else.

That is the way exercise should be. It should be play and not punishment.

 I feel like I am slowly relearning this lesson I knew as a child.

Yesterday was Memorial Day, and I celebrated with my husband by doing this workout called Murph. Murph is a Crossfit workout named in honor of Lieutenant Michael Murphy who died in Afghanistan in 2005.

It is a really intense workout that involves a 1 mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another 1 mile Run.

Please note that I scaled this workout way down. I cannot run very far, and I cannot do a real pull up.

In addition, I had a lot of work to do yesterday, so  I did not have a lot of time.

But I scaled down the workout and participated as best as I could.

 I ran/walked a half a mile, did 20 modified pull-ups (like the rope ones I describe above), 40 modified push-ups and 60 squats (broken up into sets of four).

And then I ran/walked another half mile.

But here is the thing. I had a wonderful time. I did just enough to challenge myself, but I was never overwhelmed.

In addition, I went at a pretty slow pace, and enjoyed the sunshine and trees around me as I was doing the workout.

It was a meditative experience.

My husband has done Murph every Memorial Day for the last couple of years, and I always said that I wanted to do it, but I never did.


I think I still had that mean PE teacher voice inside of me. It pointed out how slow I was and how better everyone else was at doing Murph.

I think I was afraid to fail.


Photo courtesy of Unsplash

This year, I kicked the mean PE teacher out of my head and now I have this wonderful new PE teacher instead.

She reminds me that the point of exercise is to play, to explore, and to learn new things about my body and the world.

And she reminds me that there is no such thing as failure with exercise.

There is just trying new things out and learning and having fun.

My new PE teacher reminds me that exercise is never a punishment, and there is no need to be afraid. I think the exercise magic is finally back.

By the way, these are two the books that helped me learn to view exercise as play: Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes.

You might also like this post: Exercise So There’s More of You, Not Less of You.


[1] It is important to note here that all CrossFit communities are different, and there are probably some CrossFit communities that are not as encouraging and as healthy as the ones I have described above.

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