How I Improved My Well-Being by Exercising Less

As Published in The Zeit on February 13th, 2015.

You might be doing more harm than good to yourself with your exercise regime.
What is your go-to coping mechanism when you are feeling overwhelmed?

Dessert? Potato Chips? Wine? Shopping? Netflix marathons?

My “drug” of choice used to be exercise. I get that this may seem like a perfectly healthy response to feeling overwhelmed, but my intention behind exercising was not healthy. It took me many years to realize that my inflexible workout routine was actually a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings.

Allow me to explain.

Numbing the Pain.

We all have an emotional tool box that we resort to for dealing with the ups and downs of life. Some of us have very small tool boxes, and some of us have robust tool boxes. No matter how many tools you have to cope with the chaos of life, at some point you are going to get pushed outside of your ability to cope and you will try to choose something to numb the pain.

Whether you reach for chocolate or your credit card, the intention of your action is to stop feeling pain. This doesn’t mean that every time you have chocolate or charge something on your Visa card that you are trying to numb yourself.

Brené Brown, in “The Gifts of Imperfection,” explains this concept wonderfully:

“Again, after years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off. The question is, does our _____________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? … Are we using _____________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?”

When I first read this passage, I didn’t automatically connect this with my compulsive exercising. It wasn’t until a health issue in 2013 reduced my intense workouts to short walks, that I realized how much I had been depending on my rigid workout schedule to escape the pain and uncomfortable feelings. A leisurely walk did not give me the same numbing effect. I now had to face how I was feeling.

It was really challenging to ease up on my expectations of myself for the amount of exercise that I am getting.

Wait. How can regular exercise be BAD for you?

The simple answer is: It isn’t.

However, when we start ramping up the intensity and frequency of our workout routines, with the intention (consciously or unconsciously) that we avoid feeling pain, we start venturing into dangerous territory. Why is this?

According to Brené’s research, “there is no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.”

So by choosing to numb with intense exercise, I was limiting my ability to feel joy. Definitely not what I had been aiming for, but it makes sense.

We don’t get to selectively feel our feelings. If we resist feeling certain emotions, we close ourselves off to the ability to feel other emotions. This means that if you are using that glass of wine at the end of each day to numb the anxiety, you are also inadvertently restricting your ability to feel joy.

Does this mean I have to stop my numbing activity, cold-turkey?

Not at all.

For me, it was a mindful decision to maintain my physical health with a brisk walk most weekdays after lunch (I work from home) and often I will go for a 5 K walk on the weekend with my husband. I don’t use my walks to numb, I use them as an excuse to clear my head, breathe deeply, get my heart pumping and enjoy living so close to the ocean.

This is a stark contrast to my previous workout routine of 6 day-a-week sprint intervals on my commercial grade elliptical trainer, that had to happen no matter what. During these sessions I would punish my body so that I didn’t have to acknowledge the painful emotions.

So you don’t have to stop completely. You just need to examine your intentions and decide if there is a way that you can engage in your activity (eating, drinking, shopping, exercising, etc.) with a healthy intention.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about the compulsive behavior of addiction. If you suspect that you might have an addiction, I would strongly encourage you to seek professional help and find a support group.

What if I don’t know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings?

Not to worry! That used to be me.

I chose to see a therapist regularly to learn how to embrace all emotions, but I understand that you may not be willing to commit to this. You could start by journaling, going for a walk, talking with an empathetic friend, or reading a book (“The Whole-Brain Child” is an excellent book if you need to re-parent yourself regarding a healthy perspective on emotions).

No matter what, it is important to celebrate when you are making the healthiest choice that you can possibly make when you are feeling overwhelmed by life. Don’t beat yourself up if you “slip up” and do something to numb yourself. Choosing to be compassionate to ourselves as we grow and learn is essential to your emotional wellbeing.