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How I turned exercise from torture to therapy

For the first 40 years of my life, I tortured myself with exercise.

I did it so I wouldn’t get fat. I did it so I could gorge myself on ice-cream. I did it because I thought I had to, because I thought it was imperative for me to fit into some unrealistic expectation of what beauty looks like.

Back then, the only way I could think of to stave off obesity, to keep my food-obsessed brain in check, was to become a fitness trainer, and even then, I struggled. I had chunky thighs and E-cup boobs and I knew, deep down, I would never look like a supermodel … no matter how many aerobics classes I did my friends would still call me Dumbo. It didn’t stop me from trying.

As a young woman, I often risked cat callers, flashers and bruised ribs going running. Why bruised ribs? Well, I had to wear two underwire bras under my T-shirt while holding my boobs “discreetly” by strategically supporting them with my forearms. I did this to take away the pain without attracting attention, but it didn’t often work. It was awful.

Moving our bodies is crucial for health, but the message about exercise needs to change. It’s time to put an end to the notion that Lycra-clad bodies sweating it out in the gym is the best way to get fit and happy.

This week’s survey of women’s health proves that things have gone from bad to worse for Australian women who are too tired, too busy, too broke, too frightened and too isolated to exercise. The survey of 10,000 Australian women, conducted by Jean Hailes, found that 60 per cent of us aren’t active enough, and 40 per cent of us have anxiety or depression.

Most people know that exercise is good for physical and mental health, so if almost half of us are anxious and depressed, the message to get off our arses and into the gym isn’t working. In fact, it might be making things worse.

A close buddy of mine, who has anxiety and depression, explained it like this: “I know exercise is going to make me feel better. I KNOW. But I just can’t. If I’m having a bad day and can’t even get out of bed, can’t even shower, the idea of going to the gym or a yoga class is just … totally incomprehensible. It’s enough to send me into panic.”

Even for those of us who don’t have a mental illness, a workout can feel like hard work. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s cold. My activewear is in the wash. I’m tired. And oh my god does my butt really look like that? Stuff it. Mad Men on the couch sounds much more fun.

If we eventually make it to the gym, it sucks. Am I wobbling? Is that guy watching me? Are these squats too provocative? Is this an exercise machine or a torture device? Which way should I face for my downward dog?

If you feel like this, you’re not alone. In the same way that seeing unrealistic bodies on Instagram is bad for our body image, seeing unrealistic exercise routines can be bad for our fitness. If the only way to work out is to smash yourself in the gym or take up running, many people won’t try.

Approaching 40 I had a “mid-wife” crisis. After a complete melt-down, and quite by accident, I discovered a kind of physical activity that I loved. I discovered hiking with women. And the with women part was crucial. 

Why? Because it was fun, I felt safe, it helped me contain my weight, I could chat the whole time and I could do it with the kids in a back pack. And most importantly, it made me feel not just happy but joyful. Research now shows why. According to a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, nature-based movement can “prevent, delay or alleviate the mental health components of chronic disease”.

I started using hiking regularly as therapy. Whenever I felt like crap, I’d go for a walk. Every time I went I felt better. Sometimes I felt so crap I couldn’t motivate myself, so I got my friends together and we motivated each other, often by planning an epic adventure.

Now, exercise is part of my life. I do it daily, and it’s not a chore. I hike, climb, swim, cycle, kayak, handstand, do yoga and occasionally even jog. I no longer exercise because I hate my body, but because I love it. I love the natural exhilaration I get from moving in nature with friends. It totally lights me up.

So if you’re one of those women who is finding it tough to “work out”, take exercise off your list. Forget the gym. Instead, go adventuring. Incorporate fun-filled movement into your day by dancing, laughing, exploring, cycling, gardening, swimming, roller-blading, surfing, skipping, kayaking, canyoning or climbing. Or just grab a friend, go outside and walk. You don’t even need to wear Lycra.

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