With five kids I can’t always hear myself think, but it has been worth the effort to learn to listen to my body.

Pull your core together and breaatthheeee… ” the instructor said, demonstrating her own forceful exhale with pursed lips.

Standing over top of me, she paused and placed a hand on my still-mushy stomach. Sensing my frustration, she smiled and gently encouraged me.

“You’re getting there,” she said. “Your abs are coming together.”

I laid my head back on my mat, letting my air go in an undignified whoosh. Was I really getting there? Because honestly, most days, it didn’t feel like it.

Since having my fifth baby almost 6 months ago, I’ve stumbled into the humbling and eye-opening realization that everything I thought I knew about exercise was completely wrong.

Before this pregnancy, I admit that I was an “all-in, all the time” type of exerciser. In my mind, the harder the workout, the better off I was. The more my muscles burned, the more effective the exercise. The more I woke up, too sore to even move, the more proof I had that I was working out hard enough.

Being pregnant with my fifth child at the age of 33 (yes, I started early, and yes, that’s a lot of kids) didn’t even stop me — at 7 months pregnant, I was still able to squat 200 pounds and I prided myself on my ability to keep lifting heavy weights all the way through to delivery.

But then, my baby was born and just like my ability to sleep through the night, my desire to step foot in any type of gym completely disappeared. For the first time in my life, working out didn’t even sound remotely appealing. All I wanted to do was stay home in my comfy clothes and snuggle my baby.

So you know what? That’s exactly what I did.

Instead of forcing myself to “get back in shape” or “bounce back,” I decided to do something pretty drastic for me: I took my time. I took things slow. I didn’t do anything that I didn’t want to do.

And for perhaps the first time in my life, I learned to listen to my body and in the process, realized that it took having a fifth baby to finally, finally develop a healthy relationship with exercise.

Because despite the process being a frustratingly slow one, re-learning how to exercise has finally opened my eyes to a hard truth: I had it all completely wrong.

Whereas I had always thought about exercise as an accomplishment and a celebration of how much I could do — how much weight I could lift, or squat, or bench, I finally realized that instead, exercise is more about the lessons it teaches us about how to live our lives.

The “old me” used exercise as a means to escape, or a way to prove to myself that I was accomplishing something, that I was worth more because I could reach my goals.

But exercise should never be about beating our bodies into submission, or driving harder and faster at the gym, or even lifting more and heavier weights. It should be about healing.

It should be about knowing when to take things fast — and when to take them excruciatingly slow. It should be about knowing when to push and when to rest.

It should, first and foremost, be about honoring and listening to our bodies, not forcing them to do something we think they “should” do.

Today, I am the physically weakest I have ever been. I can’t do a single push-up. I strained my back when I tried to squat my “normal” weight. And I had to load my bar up with a weight that I was embarrassed to even look at. But you know what? I am finally at peace with where I am in my fitness journey.

Because even though I am not as fit as I once was, I have a healthier relationship than ever with exercise. I have finally learned what it means to truly rest, to listen to my body, and to honor it in every stage — no matter how much it can “do” for me.

Chaunie Brusie

Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of five. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her here.