Lazy and Unmotivated, or In Need of a Rest Day?

I don’t often write about exercise philosophy because it’s a little bit stressful. People get irritated. Food is a fairly safe topic, but discussing exercise habits among health-minded, exercising people (you know who you are) is fraught with tension and judgment and subtle defensiveness. Almost like the way we choose to parent our children, we guard, nurture, and protect these exercise habits – and dare I say it, with a bit of icy vengeance at times. Am I right? Encourage fit people to re-think their food choices and they will at least offer their polite attention. But ask them to reconsider how they think about exercise and I find most times that hearts beat a little faster and neck hair starts to stand on end. Why is this?

I think in some ways the way we exercise becomes part of our identity. We ARE swimmers runners, bikers, triathloners, Crossfitters, gym rats, or the general label I most identify with – athletes. When someone begins prodding and poking at those labels, it’s almost like an attack at the very core of who we are. There are definitely benefits of being invited, accepted, and immersed into these cultures. Namely the camaraderie and friendly accountability. But I think there is a downside too. When our circle of fitness friends adhere to the same, or very similar, beliefs about exercise, our views can become a little myopic, and we become less willing to entertain ideas that challenge what we believe to be true. I know I am very guilty of projecting my beliefs and experiences onto others at times, and I appreciate my readers being patient with me as I figure out how best to generate healthy discourse on this topic rather than tension and division. After all, we are all pursuing the same thing – good health! 

I’m keeping the scope narrow with this one, and simply want to peel back a layer or two surrounding one question:  When we are having a stressful day (or string of stressful days), how do we know when it’s appropriate to push through the negativity and go for a hard workout, versus sit out a day or two or more, and just allow ourselves to rest? When is our lack of motivation a symptom of uncommitted laziness (because none of us want that label), and when is it a wake up call to just take a break? Is there really some way to tell?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and although I don’t have any hard and fast answers, I do have a few thoughts that might help us make this distinction. (And it’s an important distinction to make, by the way – because exercise, as wonderful and therapeutic as it can be, can also be a very damaging stressor to the body, when used improperly. And you don’t have to fit the mold of obsessive-compulsive exerciser to be doing some damage). When we manage a stressful morning of parenting, followed by a stressful commute, followed by a stressful interaction with a co-worker on the job, compounded with the stress of illness, finances, poor sleep, no outside time, and an at-best mediocre diet, and then think a 60 minute interval or cardio workout is going to relieve all that, we are terribly misled. Under these circumstances, exercise just ADDS to the stress load and leaves us worse off than when we started. Our minds might feel some temporary relief, but our bodies sense an ongoing, all-out attack from which it simply cannot recover.

I was hoping some amazingly profound wisdom would come to me as I pieced together my thoughts on this subject, but what I’ve concluded is this: Deep down, we all KNOW when we’re being couch potatoes. And we also KNOW when our bodies are begging for rest. The problem is that we often don’t listen to what our bodies are saying, or we don’t think it’s important enough to care. Bodies don’t talk, of course, but they do send very clear messages by way of mental, physical, and emotional symptoms – things like soreness, apathy, exhaustion, foggy brain, forgetfulness, irritation, sadness, depression, headache, tension, stomach upset, inflammation, anxiety, and the list goes on. These symptoms are the body’s way of getting our attention and demanding that we stop what we’re doing and care for ourselves.

So – Why wouldn’t we listen? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it might get you started.

  • We think we can handle it. After all, we’ve always bounced back and recovered before.
  • FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. Bands of exercise friends are incredibly nurturing and supportive. We don’t want to miss the social time, even if we know in our hearts that we’d really rather skip the workout.
  • We are stuck in a rut. If we miss that adrenaline high, our day just feels a little “off.” (Don’t assume that an “off day” is a bad day, or a wasted day. Those feelings of agitation might just be evidence that you’re stuck in a cycle that isn’t serving you).
  • The prevailing fitness industry mantra has told us that being consistent with exercise is proof of our commitment, and an indicator of good health. Thus, we often push through a grueling workout experience when really the very BEST and HEALTHIEST thing we could do for ourselves is invest our energy into gentle self-care, like maybe a big fat nap.
  • We think we will get fat. (No explanation needed).

Next – Why don’t we think it’s important enough to care what our bodies are saying? Um, google “exercise motivational sayings” and you’ll have plenty to consider!

  • No pain, no gain.
  • Pain is weakness leaving the body.
  • Obsession is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.
  • When you most feel like giving up is when you most need to be persisting.
  • If it’s not important to you, you’ll make excuses. When it’s important to you, you’ll make it happen.
  • The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen.
  • Sweat is fat melting.
  • Your legs are not giving out. Your head is giving up.
  • Definition of a really good workout:  You hate doing it, but you love finishing it.
  • I exercise because somehow completely exhausting myself is the very best part of my day.

There are hundreds of these, folks. And while there might be an aspect of good intention in each of them, I’ve come to recognize the very subtle and very destructive underlying messages that we buy into, consciously or not. Let me know if anything here sounds vaguely familiar:

Have you forgotten what you ate last night? Shall I remind you what you plan to eat this evening? You are weak if you don’t do this. You are uncommitted and unmotivated. You are lazy. You are less than. You’re a sissy. You’re a wimp. You’re a quitter. You’re giving up. You don’t care about your health. You don’t deserve to rest. You want to stay the way you are now. You’re not serious about those goals. You are a failure. You aren’t trying hard enough. You aren’t good enough. You’re setting a poor example for your kids. You’re letting yourself and other people down. People are watching you. Quitter. Fake. Poser. Lazy sack of … YOU.DON’T.MEASURE.UP!

Or is it just me?

Give this some consideration, readers. I mean, take time to really let it sink in. Talk about it with people you trust. And then, if you care to, please let me know your thoughts. Am I totally missing the mark here, or have I struck a nerve?