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Exercise as a Foreign Language

So how is that New Year's resolution going - you know, the one about Getting Fit? If you are like most people, you place the emphasis on the "fit" and not the "getting." We walk around with "before" and "after" pictures in our heads, as if "fit" was a destination (probably in California). Once you are there, you've made it and can finally relax! So most of us start off our efforts with a bang in January and by now we are feeling like failures, reinforcing our identities as "couch potatoes."

But "getting fit" is more like "becoming fluent." It takes a long time to integrate physical activity into your life and have it feel natural. It takes a long time to see yourself as a speaker of the language, and for other people to see you that way. And in real life, fluent speakers have fluctuating opportunities to use their language, and it can go dormant and come alive again. The good news is that anyone who loved recess has physical activity as her native language! 

Spend some time thinking about what your life would look like if you were "fluent" in physical activity. You would have an athletic identity for yourself. You would see yourself as the "sort of person" who can't sit inside and let a beautiful day go by, who notices when she feels a "hunger to move," and who exhilarates in the feeling of her body's muscles carrying her along like a beloved horse. That sort of person can come in any physical package at all, contrary to our cultural images of "athletes." 

So do you have to spend hours of boring practice to become "fluent"? Language lab, dialogue sentences, endless reps of  "la plume de ma tante"? You might think so if you only looked at the mindless drudgery taking place in many gyms and PE classes. But what if movement was more like traveling to a foreign country? What if you were set down to explore this new territory, its colors and smells and sounds and your own body's reactions to it? 

You might feel overwhelmed at first, but probably not bored! You'd make all kinds of mistakes, and have to really concentrate sometimes. You could not have perfection as a goal! And yet really being in the experience would be like being carried along in a river current. 

So here's the first question: Where do you want to visit? Ask yourself what kind of movement interests you. Does your body yearn for something graceful and deliberate like Tai Chi? Something raucous and wild like slam dancing? Something in the water, with music, accompanied by other people, or not?  Thinking about making a change in your life is the all-important first step, and it counts. Try the "Hunger to Move" meditation for inspiration.

The next step is to explore. Become a world traveler and try different kinds of movement. You don't have to fulfill your New Year's resolution by buying a gym membership and limiting yourself to 400 square feet of weight machines. Instead, take your money and a good friend and try some new movement adventure every week. You won't like everything you do, but you will learn what you like, and want more of it. 

Bon voyage!

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Take a moment to think about the kind of movement experience your body is hungry for, right now.  You might try the Hunger to Move meditation first.  Is what you identified something you already routinely do or not? What will you do to make it happen?


Here are reader comments from over the years:

"Whenever I hear Latin jazz I want to move and dance in a really sexy way. I wish I could dance properly! I never try to dance in front of anyone else in case they laugh at what I'm trying to do. In fact I have been laughed at and told I've got no rhythm. It made me really self-conscious. I can only do it on my own, at home to the stereo."

"I hate moving. I hate exercise. I hate sweating and jiggling and having my thighs rub together. I don't think people who exercise, especially people who like it, are morally superior or anything, like they seem to. Exercise isn't a moral issue. Some people like to and some people don't. Sure I know it's good for me but it's always been a struggle and probably always will, because I just like being sedentary."

"I want to go to Egypt, India, and swim with dolphins, so I'm starting belly dancing and yoga classes and riding my bike by a beach in California where there are frequent dolphin sightings!"

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"I want to stretch and feel my body become more elastic and I want it to become stronger, more defined. I want to know all of my muscles to feel them moving inside me. So I know they're there working, becoming stronger."

"I have a gym membership and have gained a lot from going. Lifting weights twice week has improved the way my body looks even though my size hasn't changed (that's not my goal). I feel stronger, not in the sense that I want to go to the nearest sports bar and arm wrestle someone but in an internal, self-accomplished sense. I like walking into the weight room (where there's also cardio equipment) because it isn't completely comfortable. I attract attention - curious eyes follow me through my routine sometimes - and I'm not a natural attention seeker. But because I go anyway and do my thing, I win. It's an emotional rush that's even better than the adrenaline I feel after finishing a workout. I would love to become a fit and fat person, someone who can go anywhere and try anything because I know I'm physically capable. That's my dream goal."

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Last updated: March 05, 2011.