Learning to love sport again
December 4, 2011 10:41 AM   Subscribe

How do I get over my feelings of fear and shame with physical activity?

I used to like sports, including skiing, running, weight lifting, basketball and was fairly active throughout my childhood. However, after high school I stopped doing most of my sports, excluding skiing and hiking and am now in terrible shape. I would like to fix this, but there's a problem.

There were times where I loved doing all those. Skiing, the feeling of freedom when on skis and diving through powder. These times were overshadowed by how I was pushed into doing different sports by my parents, and how sports became a source of shame in my childhood. I never found a team sport that I clicked with, and went through years of teasing and bullying with sport (and life in general). It was hell on earth.

To top it all off, my emotionally abusive father would hold my lack of natural ability in sports over my head, and I was too young to understand that him shaming me was not my fault. I sucked at doing them, it was never good enough, and because of that I would stop "trying" to get better, at practice, and the physical conditioning needed to become better at all the sports I did.

Fast forward to today, and I still have a frustrating lack of motivation, commitment, and ability to push myself in sport (and in life in general). I understand this was a coping mechanism developed to serve a purpose, but its getting in the way of me enjoying things I used to love to do. Whenever I try and get back into sport, the old part of my brain takes over and my internal dialogue is really ugly (you suck, why bother trying, it hurts, its just like before when you sucked, etc). This has resulted in me not enjoying things I have tried and not being able to push myself to improve my fitness level.

I've made some decent progress with being gentle with myself in other areas of my life (I can be fairly self critical) and learning to get over what happened. I would like to get back to the things I used to enjoy, try new sports, become more active and improve my fitness level.

So the question is, any suggestions on how to enjoy fitness and sport again? Where should I start will all of this? How do I change from my natural state of sitting around to becoming more active? Any ideas on how to disassociate the shame and fear from physical activity?
posted by snowysoul to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I do two things regularly (not counting running - I run purely for the brunch after races, and hardly train at all.)

1. Weightlifting. I love weightlifting. And it's only partly because I like the actual physical process - the best part is the regular, measurable improvement. I keep a notebook and I can flip back through it and see that hey, I'm lifting more weight for more reps than a month ago, even though I felt like ass in the gym today! I'm not competing with anyone but myself, and I consistently kick myself's ass.

2. Karate. This is much less about the actual activity and more about my school, which is women-run, progressive, and non-competitive, and really really focused on getting non-athletic women comfortable with their bodies as powerful things in general and with hitting things specifically. Our instructors frequently admonish us that of course you're doing it wrong, that's how it works - if you don't make mistakes you can't know when you're doing it right! We have a lot of students that are Type A and super self-critical, and they get called on it when they get into those mental cycles. It really does help a lot.

So I'm not suggesting so much that you take up a martial art specifically, but find a class that has the right kind of instructors - yoga would probably be a good target too - that will force you into that more meditative, less self-critical mindset while you're practicing. It's a good way to learn those skills that can carry over into other things.

And start lifting weights! If you want tips, AskMe has quite a few questions about getting started, or feel free to memail me.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:07 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you tried taking up an activity you never really did when you were younger? Possibly something like swimming, which can be less numbers-driven. Basically, I'm suggesting the opposite of restless_nomad: acknowledge your brain is being stupid here, but don't try to fight directly against the pattern. Instead, choose an activity that's intensive and that you can do every day (or every X days) to increase your physical conditioning, but that doesn't feel like you have a huge hurdle to climb before you feel like you're "doing it right." I have a hunch that may be one part of why you kept hiking and skiing, and dropped the rest.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hello there! I could have very easily written this question myself, right down to the skiing. Now I'm afraid I'm just going to hurt myself. So, for starters, know that you're not alone.

I've recently taking up swimming for exercise, which for me seems to be the best of all possible exercises for me right now.

Try something new, and try it alone so you can work outside of the equation where you're getting stuck on people seeing you, and go at your own speed. It took me a while to understand that nobody cares, and no one is keeping score.

Just keep experimenting with lots of different things and situations and environments. You'll find out what works for you, and just the process of experimenting is useful and fun.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2011

(Not that restless_nomad's suggestions are bad ones, but if you just can't get there yet...)
posted by deludingmyself at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2011

Oh, no, swimming is fantastic too, as is running if you're into that - you can certainly use either of them the way I use weightlifting, as a totally personal thing that you can see measurable progress is to counteract the negative self-talk. I like metrics for this sort of thing, because although you can feel incompetent, you can't argue with the numbers.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:15 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing weight-lifting and swimming. I have some similar issues, although not due to my parents, and I also really enjoy riding a bike. I realize that riding a bike is probably not considered a sport where you live, but it's a physical activity that makes me feel good and free, not bogged down by stupid competition and feelings of inadequacy. Finally, you might enjoy something like yoga or Pilates. I have to really fight my self-critical impulses, because I'm extremely inflexible and feel self-conscious about it, but I've found it's helpful to do a kind of exercise that makes me really focus on what my body is doing, rather than on accomplishing some concrete goal.
posted by craichead at 11:35 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you might try focusing on activities that encourage non-competitive angles and that incorporate activeness as a lifestyle rather than this bounded and separate thing, such as biking or walking to places that you would normally drive, or hiking/x-country skiiing as a means to enjoy the outdoors. Perhaps in the future you might decide you want to get into something where there's a focus on continuous improvement. But for now, I think the best activity might be something that is difficult to quantify and hence get self-critical about, and where the exercise element is linked to or secondary to some other non-fitness goal.
posted by drlith at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2011

Here are some of the tricks I use with people on ski lessons who struggle with negative self talk.

1. Make sure you make as big a deal out of your successes as you do of your failures. Make sure you notice what you are doing right!
2. If directed practice is frustrating you, put it away and either practice something else or do a session with no other purpose than to have fun. Find some children to practice with if necessary - they are usually experts in having fun.
3. If you're really trying to train something, switch between working on small physical elements (your gait, your cadence, your ski rotation, whatever) and working on big picture stuff (speed over 1k, flowing movement on skis)
4. If you are cold, tired, hungry, thirsty or otherwise miserable, stop.
5. Have short sessions. Don't go and do an all day marathon, do something even for just half an hour or an hour. Stop before you are fed up. If you're close to the end of a practice session and you get a hole in one, stop right then.
6. Start and finish sessions by doing something you know you can be successful at. So, if you're working on your five ball juggling, start and finish by practising four balls for a short time.
posted by emilyw at 12:37 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love yoga. It can be a pretty good strength workout once you get the poses down (not muscle-building, but toning), your flexibility improves, it's terrific for your back, and even in a class setting, it's an individual pursuit.

The key, though, is sticking with it long enough to master the poses. It can take a while, and in the meantime you're struggling there doing something that looks so ridiculously easy, but hang in there. It's a lot like riding a bike--your body finally kind of figures it out on its own.

When I am too unmotivated to do anything else at the gym (like, uh, the past four weeks?) I can usually manage to amp myself up for a yoga class.

I think as long as SOMETHING is getting you into the gym a couple times a week, you'll start to feel more comfortable doing other things.
posted by elizeh at 12:41 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was a math and video game nerd in high school. I lacked physical coordination and sports just didn't interest me and I hated gym classes because I never felt confident playing team sports with other people. I started weight lifting when I was 17 and it's been my hobby ever since. I'm still a math, computers, and video game nerd, but I look physically attractive. I'm fairly good at ultimate frisbee (and I was good at curling, but I'm a sub this year and I'm having to adapt again).

Weightlifting is a solitary activity where no one is really going to notice if you're overweight and everyone is in their own space just trying to use the equipment, just like you. Focus on some area each day. If you're doing more than 10 repetitions on your first set of any exercise, increase the weights. Do cardio afterwards, not before the weightlifting component.
posted by DetriusXii at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2011

My parents similarly put me under a lot of pressure to succeed in sports as a child and teenager, and made me feel bad when I didn't.

As an adult, I'm now in quite good shape and getting more fit with time. The things I've found that worked for me was discovering a new sport/activity that I never did as a child, so it had no association with my parents or upbringing or any negative emotions, and keeping a log of my progress. My new, totally my own sport is running. My parents aren't runners, they don't know good form from bad, so they can't really chime in with words of wisdom and annoyance. You might like an individual, compete mainly against your self sort of sport like running, cycling, or swimming. While you can make these sports social activities, if you don't want to deal with a team or even a practice partner, you don't have to. You can also have total control over when and how you practice.

For logging my progress, I love Fitocracy.com (I think I still have some invites left; memail me if you want one). Before that I kept a simple notebook. I find it very affirming to see my progress, and I do use it to adjust my routines. YMMV.
posted by wansac at 1:40 PM on December 4, 2011

My parents put no emphasis on sports when I was younger, and so now the fact that I'm athletic and in shape seems like an unexpected bonus to me.

In any case, weightlifting: there's no way to fail at weightlifting-- if you keep doing it relatively aggressively, you will get better. Also, it's inherently limited: there is a fixed number of exercises you can do, amount of weight you can lift, and number of reps you can do, and then you have to stop. As to how to motivate yourself, the thing about weightlifting is that after you finish, you feel like you've accomplished something.

Which gets into the next point-- I've never finished exercising and then thought to myself, "I wish I hadn't done that." Every time I finally motivate myself to do it, I feel glad I did so. People who exercise don't view themselves as part of the club of "athletic people" or the club of "in shape people." They view themselves as part of the club of "people who exercise."

Things like running and weightlifting are relatively solitary-- you do it on your own, and not for anyone else. The fact that you still continue skiing and hiking tells me that you enjoy that kind of thing. So that might be a good place to start.
posted by deanc at 2:17 PM on December 4, 2011

I was that overweight, uncoordinated kid who couldn't do anything right in gym class. My parents tried to fix me by pushing me into tennis, etc. Also by suggesting running, which I did off and on for years but loathed deep down.

I found weight-training and fitness walking on my own as ways to outsmart the fat cells and simply to build more strength and feel better. I've stuck with them for years, not that I've made all that much progress, but working out does make me feel better and gives me a sense of accomplishment. Tennis? Feh.

I think it's possible to get past childhood concepts about anything, but the sooner you get started, the easier it will be. You have a lot of company on this issue.
posted by Currer Belfry at 4:00 PM on December 4, 2011

Start with working out alone, a little at a time. Do some push ups in your room. Go for a run somewhere where you won't bump into anyone you know. You'll get some confidence back in a few weeks, because people who work on making themselves stronger and better are seriously awesome, and that should help with not feeling ashamed.

Then try rock climbing, specifically bouldering if you have no one to climb with. Strangers at climbing gyms are so encouraging and helpful and willing to give advice when they see people struggling with a climb, and will be so excited and will cheer you on and high five you when you get it. There is no teasing or bullying in climbing, it's mostly adults who just want to climb, instead of beefy guys who like to watch themselves in the mirror as they lift.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 5:11 PM on December 4, 2011

Do something really fun - get a Wii!
posted by DarlingBri at 5:58 PM on December 4, 2011

I've found that I've taken really well to ultimate frisbee. There's lots of running, but most importantly, people who play tend to be very laid-back and welcoming. If you can find a pick-up game, especially, it may help to go play with a group of people who like just running around and throwing a plastic circle.
posted by BevosAngryGhost at 8:29 PM on December 4, 2011

Dance around your house naked?

I have a huge bias about this because I believe - like religion - that enjoying doing things with you body is mandatory (if you can use your body at all).

If you don't like dancing, maybe long long walks with scenery?

Seems like something solo that is your and yours alone is the way out of this situation.

If you don't go solo, though, I promise that if you think I am staring at you or giving you a funny look, you're wrong. I'm just in the gym/yoga studio/pool thinking my own thoughts and I probably don't even really see you.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:13 AM on December 5, 2011

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