Yes, “exercise” can and should be joyful.
Imagine all the ways to complete this statement:
- something I have to do to lose weight
- for athletes
- hard and sweaty
- not fun
- prescribed by my doctor
- something I’m not good at
I didn’t “sport” as a kid.
I really wanted to be with my friends on the tennis team in high school, but no one could tease any skill out of me. When they gave up trying to teach me, I went back inside to my books.
A few decades have passed, along with many gym memberships, group classes, and 30-day “get fit quick” programs.
There are people who thrive on intense workouts, crave them. I wanted to lift weights like an Olympian, too; I wanted to kick-box fear into the hearts of creepy man-shaped punching bags; I wanted to run a marathon so I could put a “26.2” sticker on my bumper.
But did I really? Finding motivation was never effortless, and “no pain, no gain” was never my mantra.
In our Instagram/CrossFit/before-and-after culture, exercise is a thing we push ourselves to do — to earn treats, to prove worth, to change our bodies.
Joyful movement is something different: It’s supposed to feel good. With joyful movement, the focus of physical activity is on pleasure instead of results.
When I learned about joyful movement, I asked myself, “What activities are fun? What do I want to do?”
Then a miracle happened. I found activities that felt good — that I craved — and it opened my mind to how many different ways there are to move that aren’t punishing.
Movement that’s powerful just because it feels good.
1. Remember a favorite childhood activity
I have a minitrampoline in my home office. I used to jog on it, but wow, that was boring.
When someone told me all of the great things rebounding (the grown-up word for jumping on a trampoline) can do for the body, I was excited to try it again. I had no idea I could just bounce on it like a kid at a trampoline park and feel happy, warm, tired, and clear-headed all at once.
Was there something you liked to do as a kid just because it was fun? Running through the sprinklers, dancing with music videos, or bouncing a ball off the side of your house? Channel your childhood self and give it a try again. Think of all the fun things you could do if feeling old and silly didn’t get in the way!
2. Get a friend involved — even long distance!
In 2019, my friend L. and I will mark 25 years since we met. Unfortunately, we’ve spent most of that time living in different states and saying, “If we only lived in the same town, we would walk/swim/try new things together every day.”
Friends have a way of amplifying motivation while mitigating self-consciousness. Even though there are 1,053 miles between us (San Antonio, Texas, to Athens, Georgia), L. and I do our best to walk “together.” We share pictures from the trail or sidewalk, commiserate when one of us has bad weather, wax poetic when the skies clear.
We remind each other as often as possible how good it feels to be grounded on the earth so we’re motivated to keep getting out there.
Would a buddy give you the courage to try something new? Pick a friend and make a plan. If you don’t have fun, on to the next thing!
3. Find something that feels liberating
Running behind a stroller was one of the most empowering, freeing experiences I’ve ever had. I got so used to pushing a stroller that I felt off-balance without it. Where do my arms go? My water bottle?
Those stroller days are behind me, and so is running for now. I don’t get the same joy from it now as I did when I was learning the streets of my neighborhood, showing the world to an infant who thrived on the rhythm and sunshine.
New motherhood, a new job, a precarious financial situation: So many life events can leave you feeling out of control or stuck. Sometimes we’re even bogged down by a lack of change.
Running took me out of my house and out of my head when I felt trapped at home with an infant and postpartum anxiety.
Is there a way you can create some space around you? Look for fresh air, sunshine, and enough space to scan the horizon. Then move freely.
4. Yoga is everywhere and for everyone (including kids)
I literally do yoga with Joy — she’s been my yoga teacher on and off for the last five years. Even when yoga hurts, when it brings up anger and trauma, I have a built-in reminder that “joy” is still part of the formula.
A few years ago, I discovered a new element of joy in yoga: my daughters’ curiosity and participation. I’m not a playground type of parent, playing chase or going down the giant slide. But I do try to sneak in some yoga while my children are underfoot, and they naturally join in. You don’t know cute if you haven’t seen a wobbly 3-year-old in Tree Pose.
Children are proof that yoga isn’t just something you learn in a studio. The way you sit on the floor, the way you stretch after a nap, the way you broaden your stance to invoke power — you’re already doing yoga.
If you don’t have money or confidence for a class, but you still feel drawn to the practice, get a book from the library or find a video on YouTube.
5. Swimming without laps
I spent high school in my friend’s backyard pool, but we weren’t “swimming.” We were horsing around, floating, disregarding sun protection, doing flips off the diving board. If I could recreate those days right now, I’d do it in a second.
But swimming for exercise? I thought if I wasn’t doing laps with a perfect crawl stroke and breathing rhythm, my swimming didn’t “count.” It felt indulgent to float around the pool on vacation, staring up at the sky.
It was indulgent. And what’s wrong with that?
Recently, I discovered a new joy in swimming — splashing in the kiddie pool with my small children. We all pretend to be Moana characters and end up happily drained and resting in the late afternoon.
Feel at home in the water but aren’t sure what to do with yourself? My advice is to do what you want: play, float, bob, do a headstand.
It’s been a lifelong challenge to do the activities I was supposed to do — for health, fitness, weight loss. I’ve accepted a new challenge to do things that don’t suck joy from me.
When you find what those activities are for you, you can borrow my new mantra:
… is fun.