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Strong Body, Strong Mind: How to Trust Yourself at the Gym

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Charting Your Own Course

Our fitness editor shares her struggle to find a fitness regimen — and mindset — that’s effective and fun.

“Just tell me what to do.”

When it comes to fitness, most of us have high hopes and big aspirations. But when it comes time to get to the gym to do the work, it can be daunting. It’s a challenge to know what to do, how many times to do it, and for how long and how often.

The feeling of being lost, for me, is often compounded by one of intimidation when it seems like everyone else knows exactly what to do. “Just tell me what to do,” I’ve pleaded with countless trainers. And for a long time, my requests for black-and-white “do this, not that” guidance garnered decent results.

Following exercise programs diligently and wholeheartedly led me to meeting weight-loss goals, completing two half-marathons, and hitting a 300-pound deadlift. I found success thanks to my unwavering dedication to plans laid out by other people.

On the flip side, though, were the in-between periods when I felt aimless. As one program wrapped, I’d worry about what came next. I feared losing the fitness I’d gained and hesitated to repeat routines. The stress detracted from my feelings of pride and satisfaction.

I wanted exercise to be effective and fun. Over time, I understood that reaching my goals wasn’t satisfying if I was miserable along the way.

With this understanding, I began to rely less on what people on the outside told me to do. Instead of looking for a boss, I sought out teachers. I looked for opportunities to learn new things and relearn what I already knew from different people. I learned to swim and climb and paddleboard and fly on a trapeze. I took dance classes — salsa, house, and hip-hop, to name a few. I enrolled in workshops on powerlifting, kettlebell training, and martial arts. Some activities inspired a desire to delve deeper, to keep learning. In other classes, I absorbed what I could and happily stepped away. Not forever, but for the time being.

At the nexus of this changing mindset, in early 2013, was my introduction to biofeedback training. It’s founded on the idea that no choice is absolutely neutral — that everything you do moves you along a spectrum of better-for-you to worse-for-you. “Better” is not necessarily the same thing for me and my workout buddy; in fact, it’s likely that better looks different for each of us.

I learned to use range-of-motion testing to assess what were the best exercises, weights, and rep ranges on a given day. At times, it meant deviating from a program; taking a day off when I hadn’t planned to; pushing harder than the workout called for. (Learn more about biofeedback testing and training in “Body Talk.”)

All this learning about different types of movement — and about listening to my body and respecting what it’s asking for — altered how I viewed myself. Whereas I was once a clumsy and nonathletic woman who needed to be told specifically what to do, I suddenly saw myself as someone with a sense of agency over her fit-life. I could take information and make a choice about what to do based on what suited me best in the moment.

The word “empowerment” is buzzy these days and, for some, has lost any oomph it once had. But I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the more I learned, the more empowered I felt. My worry about failing transformed into wonder — wonder about where I could go from there and how I could keep growing. My coaches and teachers were no longer drill sergeants, but mentors and collaborators.

My refrain is no longer a plea. Now, I proclaim to anyone who is willing to hear: “I want to play.”

In this new column, our fitness editor looks at both the latest research and anecdotal evidence for movement as a tool for self-care, self-discovery, and connection. She’ll explore the important intersection of the body and mind, and how it affects how we approach our health and fitness — and our lives. 

This originally appeared as “Charting Your Own Course” in the January/February 2018 issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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