Our fitness editor reflects on her favorite children’s book and what it can teach us about heeding our bodies’ intuition in the gym.
Do you remember the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? It was my favorite picture book as a child: the tale of the little mouse who requested a cookie — and the ruckus it caused after he got it.
As the story goes, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk, then a straw, a nail scissors, a broom, a nap, a story read to him, supplies to draw a picture, space to hang it on the fridge, another glass of milk, and, finally, another cookie.
Oh, how this resonated with my 6-year-old self — to want one thing was to want so many other things!
Inspired, I heeded my inner mouse-voice, a squeaky little thing. I asked for what I wanted and pointed to this literary example when my mom cocked an eyebrow to give me her signature “look.” I’m sure she was amused that her first-born was becoming her own person: It’s a powerful feeling to recognize what you want and then ask for it, even when there’s no guarantee you’ll get it.
Somewhere along the way, my instinct to ask for what I want in life got mixed up with the message that there was such a thing as wanting too much. The message in the story of the mouse became muddled. It was no longer an empowering and magical tale. Rather, it was the story of a rodent — a nuisance — causing trouble. What a hassle to keep giving the mouse what it wanted!
I began keeping quiet when I wanted something, and in time stopped hearing the little voice that imagined my wants and needs. By the time I was a teenager, the intuitive vocabulary of desire was replaced by the much headier should.
I should lose 25 pounds. I should measure my thighs every Saturday. I should skip breakfast and lunch. I should skip dinner, too. I should be better at this. I should be better at everything.
If my inner mouse really wanted a cookie — both literally and figuratively — there was no way I could hear her.
My mouse began to find her voice again in the unlikeliest of places: the gym.
After an initial phase of “newbie gains” — the swift improvements that many people experience when they begin exercising — it became clear that I’d have to be intentional to make future progress. My coaches guided me to listen to my gut; this terrified me because I feared that my gut would tell me to stay home on the couch eating chocolate sandwich cookies.
But I’m a direction follower and well versed in heeding shoulds. If I was supposed to listen to my gut, I’d do it.
At first, there was silence. Then I listened more closely: pain. I could discern a little voice that whispered ouch when I pushed too hard or let my form fall apart. When I used pain as a marker for adjusting my training, I was hearing the whisper and taking action in response.
I gave my mouse a cookie. And lo and behold, she asked for a glass of milk.
The more I listened, the stronger I became and the louder my mouse grew. She never led me to the couch-and-cookies binge I had imagined.
It turns out that my desires are more fun and a lot better for me than my fears had warned. She asks me to deadlift and squat, to swing kettlebells and swing from a trapeze line, to take salsa classes and spend a morning in PJs dancing around my apartment. Sometimes she asks me to eat a (literal) cookie or two. In life, she asks me to set boundaries in relationships and take risks at work.
My mouse — my intuition — has not steered me wrong.
Still, there are times when I hear my mouse and ignore her, listening to that other voice that said “should” for so long. That voice, I sometimes think, will never be fully silenced.
Now my mouse’s voice is practiced enough that at least I don’t have to strain to hear her. She’s not a nuisance, I remind myself when she beckons. It’s not asking for too much to listen to my gut and give my body what it needs. When my mouse asks for a cookie, I do my best to oblige.
When was the last time you gave your mouse a cookie?