Exercise is Punishment in the Collective Unconscious and That’s a Problem
By Heather Callaghan, Editor
For the first time – during just the tiniest dot in history – most people in the Western world can afford to be leisurely. That is to say, hard physical labor isn’t necessarily the way most people are active.
Physical movement is now a conscious choice, not an act of survival.
Moving around, however, is important for a long life seeing as sitting is considered the new “silent death.” Unfortunately, the new world is all about sitting in our various cells – work, car, home, entertainment…
But when exercise feels like an obligation, written on a tablet by an authoritative figure in a white “robe” and stethoscope – everything inside of you will kick. To maintain some personal power, we may unconsciously resist healthy platitudes right up to an early burial. “Have-to’s” are rarely ever followed.
For decades, doctors and public service announcements have ordered the public to Eat Healthy and Exercise! like some kind of Orwellian two-minutes of morning activity. But these implorations have had just the opposite effect. (Could that be by design? Regardless, the abysmal results should tell us that something needs to change.)
Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, describes the vicious cycle in which women in particular find themselves. They rally up to try a fitness program with positive goals but if they don’t see results they feel like failures and quit.
A new study funded internally by the National Cancer Institute and that is to appear in the journal BMC Public Health, pondered beliefs that undermine women’s ability to get healthier via the crucial need for movement. They analyzed what women say makes them feel happy and successful, and how their expectations and beliefs about exercise help or hinder.
Both active and inactive women gave the same ingredients for feeling happy and successful:
- Connecting with and helping others be happy and successful.
- Being relaxed and free of pressures during their leisure time.
- Accomplishing goals of many sorts (ex. grocery shopping, career goals, etc…).
But this is where the paths of active women and inactive women divert:
It was the sedentary women’s secret beliefs about “exercise” that thwarted the things that made them feel happy and successful. Beliefs and goals collided to form an irreconcilable contradiction, and this pattern was distinct in the “low-active” group.
“They believe ‘valid’ exercise must be intense, yet they want to feel relaxed during their leisure time,” researchers report.
They continued listing the contradictions:
They feel pressured to exercise for health or to lose weight, yet during their leisure time they want to be free of pressures.
Success comes from achieving goals, yet their expectations about how much, where and how they should be exercising means they can’t achieve these goals.
Segar noticed (emphasis added):
The direct conflict between what these low-active women believe they should be doing when they exercise, and their desire to decompress and renew themselves during leisure time, demotivates them.
This is actually really insightful! Just think how often two different undercurrents going on in the same psyche can dissolve what we really want out of life. Of course the desire for relaxation will win in the end – it will always to be the best form of self-care compared to the punishment of prescribed exercise. After working so hard, of course we feel deserving of decompression to keep going – but not deserving of punishment in adulthood.
“Their beliefs about what exercise should consist of and their past negative experiences about what it feels like actually prevents them from successfully adopting and sustaining physically active lives,” she explained.
The Collective Unconscious Belief of Exercise as Punishment
We’ve all been socialized to exercise and be physically active for the last 30 years. The traditional recommendation we’ve learned to believe is that we should exercise at a high intensity for at least 30 minutes, for the purpose of losing weight or improving our health. Even though there are newer recommendations that permit lower intensity activity in shorter durations most people don’t know or even believe it. – Michelle Segar
I nod with Segar’s comments but think we could do better by eliminating words like “permit” and even “recommendations” or “guidelines” coming from the so-called experts that we refer to as the mysterious “They” in conversations. As the above quote shows – exercise is more of a social phenomenon that is externally imposed on us in the absences of hard labor.
Ultimately, the University of Michigan researchers concluded that punishing workouts should be replaced with movements that make you happy. And that’s a good thing. We forget that we are allowed to be happy even in the midst of our obligations.
“This traditional approach to exercising might actually harm exercise motivation. Our study shows that this exercise message conflicts with and undermines the very experiences and goals most women have for themselves,” she said.
High-active women, on the other hand were much more flexible about it. They didn’t flog themselves with the idea and actually looked forward to their active lives. But, if they couldn’t exercise – it wasn’t the end of the world. Low-active women perish the idea of exercise because it is punishment and a potential for failure.
Seger wishes to “re-educate” women that all forms of movement are exercise and it can help us connect more with others. She emphasizes that movement can relieve exhaustion and needs to be prioritized. Again, maybe we should stray from using the word “re-educate” so that women don’t feel like they are still in an internment camp.
See, women might actually have trust issues here because the bad advice they previously received came from the scientific community – just something to think about.
One thing this panel doesn’t address are the many variables that deal with the groups’ health. Energy levels, metabolism, pre-existing health problems, income and/or stress, and whether the diet contains enough complex carbs to allow the energy to exercise in the first place – these things need to be addressed. Caloric restriction for instance, will also undermine attempts to get up and move.
But let’s put that aside – what do you see yourself doing that ignites you? What would be fun? Did you know that cleaning is a form of exercise and you can make it fun with essential oils and some groovy music? Gardening is a great low-impact activity that lifts the mood. Volunteering is a physical activity that we aren’t conscious of because we are engrossed in the act of helping others.
Can you hit the beach or a wooded park? Can you take your family to an orchard? Again, you’re not really conscious of all the bending and stretching – plus, you get to take home a lot of awesome food.
How about peeking into the underworld of line-dancing? Dancing is not only fun, but a challenge that also increases brain function – it’s like the body’s version of learning a new language and it hardly feels like drudgery to see the quick achievement in skills.
All of these things are gentle, fun forms of movement that make us lose track of time – perhaps that should be the point!
Not to be so overly conscious of the “have-to’s” we’ve imposed on ourselves or had imposed on us by past recommendations.
- Michelle Segar, Jennifer M. Taber, Heather Patrick, Chan L. Thai, April Oh. Rethinking physical activity communication: using focus groups to understand women’s goals, values, and beliefs to improve public health. BMC Public Health, 2017; 17 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12889-017-4361-1
University of Michigan. (2017, May 23). Rethinking exercise: Replace punishing workouts with movement that makes you happy. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170523104343.htm