WHEN WE METABOLIZE THE CRIES
By: Lauren Anderson
One thing that I don’t think gets talked about enough is how emotional a workout can be.
And I know what you might be thinking:
But wait Lauren, isn’t that like, the ONLY thing you talk about on this blog?
And yes, you are correct about that. I talk about the emotional side of my fitness journey the most because I think it’s the most fascinating and the most complicated. And yet somehow, still the LEAST talked about by the industry at large.
When we talk about exercise, we (and by ‘we’ I mean society) are usually focused on the body benefits like strength, body composition, endurance, skill.
Everyone still tells themselves that this will help my energy levels, and my lung capacity and my overall heart health…Stuff like that. When we say stuff like, “I need to get in shape” we are rarely talking about our emotional selves.
And then I end up crying at the gym.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had emotions bubble up at the gym. Anger, fear, grief, elation, sadness, self-doubt, panic, joy– you name it, I’ve felt it. We affectionately call them “gym feels” because they are real thing–that still rarely gets talked about.
And yet we all have them. So why doesn’t it get talked about by the industry? Why are we still so focused on only the body benefits of working out?
Because if I think about it, the emotional benefits from my fitness journey are the ones that have changed me the most. For the better. And the emotional benefits are still the BEST reason I have found to engage my body.
All the other good stuff that’s happened has been gravy!
So I did a little research… Okay. That’s a lie. I watched a very cool Ted Talk about depression, and it got me thinking about why we might be experiencing so many “feels” when it comes to the gym.
The author that gave the talk is named Johann Hari, and he proposed that while medication is an effective way *for some to treat their depression, it really only deals with the body. And there are something like 9 different causes of depression, and only 2 causes are from a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Meaning really only 2 of the 9 reasons can be helped by medication.
He said it’s more likely that we (me being one of them) might be experiencing depression from loneliness, or any wide range of human needs that are not being met. Anywhere from feeling like you don’t fit in/have community, to mastery/imposter syndrome, inactivity and isolation, or even a lack of being out in nature!
Then he said that often the first instinct when our needs are not being met, is to purchase new clothes or pretend that we are something that we are not. It is an outside-in approach to “fixing” what is missing.
I slink down in my chair. GULP. How many times have I experienced “retail therapy” because I was feeling sad or lonely? Well… I don’t think I have to show you all my bank statement to convince you that I am guilty of this.
And then I thought about this in terms of the gym. It’s SO EASY to only focus on building your “delts” or “sculpting our butts” or whatever because that is a tangible goal that might make us feel better! Because we can SEE the progress, and we may even get praise because of it.
But ultimately, it’s a house on stilts.
Sure! The body benefits are important. And can directly impact your mood, hormone levels, etc which can help alleviate depression. But the body is only part of it. It’s just the first line of defense in multi-part strategy to overall health.
Only focusing on the body is like obsessing about painting your walls the perfect shade of lavender, but neglecting to do something about the black mold creepin on your sheet rock. Ya know?
* * *
Or, if I may, lend another example. Here in Minnesota where I live, the campaign to make gay marriage legal took a powerful turn when people stopped focusing on all the “logical reasons” why the state should allow it. Like sharing healthcare, adoption, buying a home etc. All benefits of marriage to be sure, but not really the reason the issue was important. AKA, the outer stuff.
Instead, the campaign started to answer the question “Why do people who are gay want to get married?” with the very human answer of “because they love each other.”
When lawmakers were given this perspective, they were forced to answer the REAL question about why people want to get married. And it’s not because you can be on someone’s healthcare plan. It’s because you are in love, and want to share your life with someone.
Now suddenly, it’s not just a question of legality, it’s a question of, “ARE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS BEING MET HERE?” And boom. Gay marriage was legalized.
I think this law was successful, because for once, we focused on fulfilling real human need, as opposed to getting bogged down in the political/over-intellectual/outer/extra stuff.
* * *
So back to Gym Feels.
The Ted Talk guy goes on to say that depression isn’t something wrong with you, It’s a signal telling you that something is missing. That one of your very basic human needs are not being met.
And then I started to cry again.
Because this makes a lot of sense right? But we never talk about depression OR exercise this way.
When I first started working out, I had a lot of gym feels. They came up in waves, and they were plentiful. But I can recall feeling an overwhelming connection to my body that I had never known before. As if I was meeting a long lost twin after being separated at birth or something.
And YES, it was THAT dramatic.
I realize now, this many years later, that I was fulfilling a very basic human need that I had gone without for most of my life. I was meeting my body and connecting to it. Just thinking about it now is making me misty… so you can imagine what those early days are like.
And if I look at where I am now, I can feel a similar ache to get back into my body on a more deep and meaningful way. I had to focus my energy elsewhere for a while now, and now it’s time to re-commit back to the gym and my gym feels.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately, when the other day I stumbled onto something my friend Danna posted on her Face book page. With her permission I will share it with you now. It read:
Basically, she had a tough workout and found herself crying at the gym.
When I read that, I was like, “OH BOY DO I KNOW THIS.” I have felt something similar to how she felt so many times. I was so thankful that she posted this, and let her feelings be known! Every time we’re willing to do this, I believe we come closer together.
And I was excited to see so many people reach out and comfort her, and share that they too, have experienced that kind of thing. I know I have. Right down to the inhaler bit.
I responded of course.
And then I thought about the Ted Talk I watched, about depression being a signal for something missing, and it clicked!
My therapist talks about feelings in terms of “metabolizing your emotions.” She uses the words, “Metabolize” to talk about the way we process. I really like this imagery, because it’s a good reminder that feelings pass through and are not a state of being. Meaning, just because I feel sad, doesn’t mean I am a “sad person”. I am not defined by the feelings I have.
I like thinking about feelings like how we metabolize food. Like the body converting food into nutrients and energy, we can metabolize our feelings to help signal what we need.
And the amazing thing is, the gym can do BOTH.
When we shake out our bodies, we inevitably shake out some emotions too. WE METABOLIZE THE CRIES TOO. It’s natural, normal, and I think an undervalued benefit of working out. What a great reminder for me that when I work out, I am metabolizing all sorts of things. From the actual hot dog I had for lunch, to the feeling of guilt I had about being late to meet a friend for that same meal.
It all can be processed! And the more I do it, and use it to acknowledge and identify what my real needs are, the closer I am to overall health, and overall understanding of my place in this world.
And that is a truly beautiful thing indeed.
So join me in having a good cry at the next workout my friends! Because it is good for us.
I never want people to feel embarrassed for a good gym cry.
Cause to me, being honest about where you are and what you need is the biggest flex of them all.