Rethink: Before we enter the time of year that often involves extra ‘giving’, do you have enough to give? I don’t mean money or time, I mean of yourself. When exercise is another thing on your to do list it drains energy, whether you do it or not Let’s look at what turns exercise into a source of self-care that you enjoy giving to yourself, so you can enjoy giving to others.
The other day, I was chatting with a client about why she wants to lose weight. She simply said “my family needs me”. She went on to say how tired and stiff she feels, and how it is stressful to not be able to help her family. She finally said, “I need to feel better so I am able to care for them”.
This is essentially what I hear from nearly everyone I talk to about their Why for exercise. Whether it is to lose weight or reduce back pain or have more energy, the core Why for exercise is most often connected to the ability to enjoy time with and/or care for others.
Whether you care for a pet, a friend, a cause, a child, a spouse, or customers at your work, you are a caregiver. As a caregiver, you may have heard the analogy to put your own oxygen mask on first. It’s a great analogy, but what counts as oxygen? What does self-care really mean?
I was telling my colleague Jennifer Lauretti, PhD, a wise and curious psychologist, how I want people to think of exercise as self-care. I shared how often I hear of people using exercise as a form of punishment so they can someday feel better. She said “I struggle with the word self-care. I find that people don’t really know what that means.” As we chatted, I understood what she was saying and it tied right into this challenge with the concept of exercise as self care.
Superficial self-care is the use of a treat, some external reward, in order to soothe the stress and strains of daily life. Getting a pedicure or facial or taking yourself out for a late can be a lovely gift you give yourself. However, it’s not oxygen. It’s not what you really need. It is a shortcut to feeling better temporarily.
Exercise is superficial self-care when you think of it as a means to an end. Sure you can feel better because you ‘got through’ a workout or reached your step goal or an app said you burned more calories than you ate today. Like the pedicure or facial, though, this is not oxygen—it is a superficial and temporary source of feeling better. You feel good when you accomplish something and bad when you don’t. Exercise becomes a ‘should’ rather than self-care, adding to the stress and strain of daily life, rather than reducing it.
Sustaining self-care is when you recognize the root of the stress or anxiety or exhaustion and give yourself what you really need. You might need to de-stress because you are in a high-pressure job. You might need to recharge your energy because you are drained from taking care of a child all day. This takes pausing and noticing what is really going on inside rather than just distracting yourself by watching Netflix or having a glass of wine to relax.
Exercise for health and well-being is when you move for the sole purpose of taking care of your own body and mind. When you know how to exercise right, you can move in a way that truly relieves stress and restores energy. The trick is knowing how to make exercise what you need, not another task on your to do list. When done well, movement sustains your body and mind. It calms your mind and strengthens your immune system. The side effects of exercising right are feeling calmer, happier, more focused, and energized all at the same time.
Bottom Line: Take care of yourself so you can care for others. Know what you really need to restore and recharge by learning to listen to and trust your body. Make exercise a source of sustaining self-care by learning how to exercise right so it is not a should, but the source of sustenance it is meant to be.