Why Hearing “Exercise Increases Energy!” Might Make You Want to Sit on the Couch and Never Move Again – and What You Can Do to Change the Story
Stop me if you’ve lived this one.
You’re having a rough day, just because you’re you, or because you’re you and there’s only so many hours in a day.
You’re ricocheting from point A to point B when a well-meaning acquaintance squares up for a check-in.
“Hey! How are you doing?” she asks. You already know what her answer’s gonna be, and you’re already ready to tap out of the conversation.
But you vaguely remember that answering honestly will help you feel like you’re living a more authentic life...or whatever.
So you take a chance on this whole answering honestly thing.
“Things are busy. I’m tired.” you say, already wishing you could take it back.
Why didn’t I just say fine? you think.
“Oh, I know!” she says. “You know what gives me more energy?”
Here it comes. you think.
“Exercise!” she says, clearly manic.
Then she goes on and on about how her exercise class / new hiking habit / gym membership / yoga practice is giving her “more energy than she ever thought possible!”
The longer she goes on, 1 the more repulsed you are by the idea of ever moving again.
Loath to witness even one more of her peppy vocal cartwheels, you suddenly remember you left the oven on, and bolt.
Your acquaintance wasn’t lying. Exercise does give her more energy. That’s what it does for almost all of us. The more we move, the more energy we have. 2
Despite what you believe, you aren’t immune to this and myriad other short-term benefits of exercise.
Like mental clarity.
And general well-being.
So if exercise would bump up your energy, why does her suggestion make you want to camp out on the couch?
Or, at the very least, end the conversation promptly?
The answer, in a word, is shame.
Shame can be defined as the internalized belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. If you have shame like I have shame, you learned this young, and repeatedly. Like proper verb conjugation, it became a simple, subconscious knowing.
I’m wrong. What I do is wrong. This is not something that can be fixed.
Jump ahead 35 or 40 years, and you subconsciously interpret your acquaintance’s well-meaning suggestion to exercise as evidence that you’re fundamentally broken.
She says “I feel better when I…”
You internalize I feel like hell because I deserve to feel like hell.
She says “Exercise is just so great!”
You internalize I don’t exercise like she does, therefore she’s better than me.
She says “I used to be exhausted, but now I have more energy.”
You internalize Lack of energy was her problem, she fixed it with exercise. But I’m my problem, and there’s no fixing that.
How Does Shame Keep Us Stuck In Inaction
Odds are this woman is just sharing her experience.
Instead of simply taking in what she says, we shame-based folks use it as a basis for comparison. And inevitably, we come up short.
We feel judged, inside and out.
Then again, maybe she’s trying to be helpful.
Instead of feeling inspired by her experience to take action, we get bogged down in a torrent of memories of all our efforts to ‘get more active.’
We feel suffocated under the lead blanket of our own ‘failures.’
Until we recognize shame’s power over our thoughts and actions, whatever she says, and whatever her motive may be, it can feel like torture. Those shame-based ideas hurt, and we’ve been numbing those suckers out almost as long as we’ve been alive.
We’re more uncomfortable with each passing second. We want to feel different, or less, or better, or nothing.
Hence feeling magnetized to the couch – to the promise of rest and relaxation.
On the couch it’s easy to drown out how we feel. We’re not standing on achy joints. Our legs, feet, and back aren’t getting fatigued. Focused on a screen or a snack or both, we’re completely free from having to experience these, or any other, thoughts and feelings.
That is, until we have somewhere else to be. And then the sensations, thoughts, and feelings come back, and we feel even worse.
Thankfully, we have the power to change the story. There are steps we can take when we’re in the midst of a shame attack that can help us feel better and make stronger choices.
When you catch yourself comparing or rolling your eyes or being critical, 3 recognize that the voice you’re hearing in your head may well be the voice of shame, the voice of the sabotaging beast. This voice was given to your when you were too young to say no. Just because this voice is loud or convincing or familiar doesn’t make what it says true.
Use the beast as a prompt to ask yourself a question you might have very little experience taking seriously: What are you feeling?
I feel like I hate small talk.
Not what are you thinking, what are you feeling?
I hate myself.
Is that anger?
I hate that I’m still not where I want to be physically.
Is that fear?
I’m scared that I’ll never be able to walk down the street feeling good about my body.
And I’m hungry.
Armed with the facts, respond in a way that actually meets your needs.
You can take a deep breath. 4
You can become curious about her and her process. She’s a woman, just like you. By sharing her truth, she’s making herself vulnerable to you, your judgement, and your reactions. Depending on how you choose to respond, this conversation could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 5
You can go home and do something that will make you feel cared for, like clean or make your bed.
You can act as your own best caretaker by doing something to make you feel cared for. 6
Take it from a shame-based personal trainer who uses these steps every day – you can make strong choices for yourself and your health, even (especially and specifically) when you’re under attack by the beast.
I hope the next time shame whispers in your ear, you remember that the beast inside you is spinning lies specifically to keep you stuck. You absolutely can choose in that moment to focus on the truth – maybe that you need a snack, or maybe that you’re precious and beautiful and deserve a stronger sense of self-worth than what you were handed in childhood – and then you can respond by doing whatever it is you need to do to make it so.
- Not long at all, really, but it feels like forever. ↩
- The less we move – I’m looking at you, office workers – the more useless and exhausted we feel. ↩
- Of you or your well-meaning acquaintance. ↩
- Yeah yeah, I know it’s cliche, but g’head and do it and tell me you don’t feel better. I double dog dare you. ↩
- Hell, you might even go on a hike with her! ↩
- As opposed to numb. ↩