When I was a 20-something, I’d beat my body into submission with hours of grueling weight training, running, and cardio equipment. While I liked how the exercise felt when I was done, there was something joyless about it. I didn’t love it. I didn’t even really like it. But I did it day after day because I felt like I had to. It became just another thing I had to do, instead of something I looked forward to doing.
I also believe it played a role in developing 25 years of autoimmune disease that caused me to gain weight (lots of it) and rendered me unable to work out. During those years of heavy exercise, I failed to heed my body’s signals. I believed in the mantra, “No pain, no gain,” and I worked myself past exhaustion and pain in pursuit of a physical ideal. There was no joy, just work as I grudgingly rose at 4:30 every morning to get to the gym for hours of exercise.
And then I was ill for 25 years. I developed exercise intolerance. When I worked out, my body rebelled, and I was left feeling even sicker and more pain-rideentn than if I didn’t exercise at all. I was trapped in a downward spiral, all because I failed to listen to my body’s request for activities that brought pleasure and joy instead of pain and drudgery.
I’m not saying that for everyone, conventional workouts are drudgery. I know many people who love weight lifting, cross-fit, cardio machines, and similar exercises. If these workouts bring you joy, then by all means keep them as a part of your life.
However, what if you’re like me, and you don’t really like it? What if your body is sending you signals begging you to engage in activity that brings you pleasure and allows you to experience joy? What if you found a workout you loved so much you couldn’t wait to get to it another session, and another, and another?
For me, finding those joy-filled workouts has been just the key for regaining my health (along with the foods in the recipe articles on this website, of course.) And so, while I encourage you to seek your own joy in finding unconventional forms of exercise, I offer a few suggestions as a place to start.
This is the workout that brought me back into daily movement. It’s a combination of dance, playing like a kid, martial arts, and many other forms of exercise. Nia, which you take in a class (or you can order videos) emphasizes working the body’s way, tailoring movements to your own level, bringing your own style of dance to the routines, and experiencing the pleasure and joy of movement. It’s also a great cardio and strengthening workout, and I love the way it feels in my body and my soul.
#2: Belly Dance
I never saw myself as a belly dancer, but here you have it. I adore belly dancing. I’ve recently started taking tribal belly dance classes, and I love it. The movement comes from learning to isolate muscle groups, and it’s great for your core muscles. It’s also all about women dancing together and engaging in the Divine feminine, so for me there’s a lot of joy associated with it. Plus, you get to dress up in cute, swishy hip scarves that jingle.
I’m talking about the kind you did when you were a kid – not spouse swapping (although that’s probably pretty good exercise, too). Head to the park and hop on a swing set. Pump your legs to go as high as you can. It’s great for the core, and it feels freeing and fabulous.
#4: Dancing – of Any Kid
While I list tribal belly dance and Nia separately, I think any kind of dancing is a wonderful workout. Sign up for ballroom dance classes or salsa lessons with your partner. Turn on music and dance around the house in your underwear. Go out dancing with friends. Just move. To music. It feels fantastic, joyful, freeing, and fun.
It doesn’t matter if it’s tennis, racquetball, ping pong, kick ball, basketball, dodgeball, or any other sport. Find a sport you love and participate. Join a recreation league. Run around like you did when you were a kid.
Remember when you were a kid and you’d play frisbee, roll down hills, climb on the monkey bars, spin in circles, fly kites, ride bikes, roller skate, and dozens of other activities that were fun and allowed you to blow off steam? What’s stopping you as an adult? Take time every day to engage in active play – with your kids, with your dogs, with friends, with family, or even by yourself. Move with joy, and your body will respond. So will your spirit.
Get outside and move. In nature. While appreciating nature. Taking local hikes or walks is a great way to gently encourage your body to move.
#8: Water Sports
Whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, waterskiing, swimming, or rowing a boat, you’re exercising. But it’s so much fun, you hardly realize what you’re doing. Water sports are great exercise that can also provide you with moments of zen if you remain present time focused in what you’re doing.
#9: Biking, Skating, and Scooting
Whether it’s a skateboard, scooter, inline skates, bicycle, unicycle, or long board, if you’re making something with wheels and no engine move, you’re getting a great workout.
What’s the trick to bringing joy to your exercise routine? Just move. Move while it feels good in ways that feel good in your body. When your body tells you it’s time, stop. If your body wants to work harder, play harder, slowing down or stopping as your body signals you it’s ready. By finding activities you love, you can give your body all the exercise it craves without needing to engage in workouts that feel like work.