Sticking with your exercise routine requires discipline – but it can also be joyful, fun and flexible.
“Once you’re disciplined, you have to regain your capacity for play and wide-eyed wonder,” wrote Emilia Thompson, a strength and nutrition coach, in a recent tweet. It resonated with me, someone who has spent 2021 finding joy in their movement.
This was an unintentional achievement for the year, mainly because I already loved exercising. But like many relationships, you don’t always notice that the spark has gone out.
In April, when lockdown finally lifted, we were faced with overwhelming choices with our fitness. We finally had the freedom from lockdown fitness routines that could only consist of home workouts or running, but we also had fresh knowledge of diversity and flexibility that came from time away from our old, planned routines. After five years of training in a specific way, I realised that the routine I’d been repeating week after week, month after month, was simply that: a routine. And while I loved it – genuinely, I couldn’t have gone without the mental, social or physical benefits it had bought me – it wasn’t bringing me huge amounts of pure joy.
It’s something I think many of us suffer from. Perhaps that’s because people who are drawn to, and stick with, health-promoting habits are those who tend to be a bit more ‘type A’. They often enjoy being in control and find it hard to be flexible – that’s me all over.
Science would agree: a 2014 study published in Psychiatry Research found that those who are most likely to be addicted to exercise have higher scores of perfectionism, asceticism (self-discipline) and impulse regulation. They also have higher scores on extraversion (with the assumption that they seek activity for excitement) and a lower score on agreeableness (meaning that they lack trust, straightforwardness, and altruism).
A quick think through my exercise-loving friends and this does ring true. While none of us are people who deal with exercise addiction, we all have movement as part of a routine that helps us to feel great and thrive. But the truth is that it doesn’t leave much room for intuition or experimentation. It can mean things become a little regimented and stale – always focusing on improving in the same skill by doing the same things over and over again.
And it can also mean that we don’t give ourselves enough time to enjoy things out of the gym (one friend of mine was so adamant that her new relationship wouldn’t ruin the routine she had spent years crafting that she’d still get up at 6am, leaving her boyfriend in bed, despite staying out until past midnight on dates with him).
But you know the saying: variety is the spice of life. And coming out of lockdown with loads of exciting classes, gyms and training styles to try was a reminder that there are so many ways to feel the benefits of moving and feeling strong without being so strict on routine. I’ve gone to reformer pilates, gymnastics and HIIT classes, laughing with friends over how bad we are at the new workout. I’ve also skipped training some days for the simple reason of wanting to or having a better offer. I still feel better when I move, but I’m happily swapping an early morning gym class for an hour-long walk with my boyfriend on the days it suits me.
Thompson goes on to write about why this freedom is important: “Find your habits that support your health, then find enjoyment, experiment and intuition with it. It’s the joy in life, when you work so hard to find a life that brings you success in what’s important to you, then have the best damn time being present and enjoying it. It’s this relationship between our child-like play and adult-like discipline that allows a messy, wholehearted life.”
In that, she’s right: getting to grips with a routine often does take discipline. If you have never exercised before, starting to exercise requires some serious determination, and it might be more beneficial to have some strict guidelines. But once you have nailed the ability to get up and out of the house for your session, it doesn’t require such rigidity. So if you’ve managed the discipline, let the joy into your workout routine. That might be trying something outrageous and wacky, allowing yourself to skip a workout for a dinner out with friends, or broadening the horizons of what you see as ‘training’.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).