Unchained Melody: Adventures in exercise

By Melody Thomas

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Exercise is as good for our head as it is for our heart, but this is something we often forget. Melody Thomas investigates why so many of us fall out of love with movement and how we can relearn to enjoy it.

On the list of things I didn’t see myself taking up in my lifetime, lifting weights is right up there. Yet here I am, before 7am, surrounded by muscle boys and women with thighs that could crack walnuts, in an equipment-filled warehouse with “Welcome to the Grind” emblazoned on one wall.

Even stranger: No-one made me come. I haven’t had to bully myself into the room, pushing against dread or shame or angst. Two or three times a week I come here enthusiastically, eager to push well beyond my comfort level, chasing nothing but the feeling that pulses through me for hours afterwards: of a body put to use and found sufficient.

As it is for so many others, my relationship with my body – and with exercise – is complicated. I was a chubby teenager in the 90s and 2000s, when body hatred was basically compulsory. By 14 I had come to associate movement with shame, forging my parents’ signatures to escape PE, skipping school on sports days, and failing with exaggerated purpose to catch or pass any ball when forced to be part of a team.

But I wasn’t always this way. As a child, my strong little legs powered me over the rolling terrain of our farm, through riverbeds and gullies, and up over the steep, pine-covered hill where you could still find musket balls from Te Rangihaeata’s stand against the British. I could climb to the top of any tree, my balance sure, never overestimating the strength of a given branch. I pushed myself forward to bat in cricket and T-Ball, revelled in the aggressive physicality of netball on a cold court. I scored the first try of the season for the Under 8 Sharks! And I didn’t really think about my body, in the same way I don’t really think about my brain or my lungs now, because they are a part of me, so close that it’s impossible to get a good view of them.

In order to work off a single M&M, you need to run the length of a football field.

I know this useless fact because I read it in a magazine at 14, and it burrowed down into a part of my brain that information never leaves, taking up space I’d much rather have used for the plotlines of books or the names of people I’ve met at parties. This was a time when diet culture flourished unchecked, and as well as being told that certain foods were ‘bad’ and that we were bad for consuming them, we were also told that the only penance (aside from restriction and purging) was exercise. In ads for Tae Bo, the Abdominizer, and Buns of Steel (lol), the message was loud and clear: exercise to burn fat, to lose weight, to get toned, to rid yourself of those pesky calories (never mind that weight loss is rarely achieved by exercise alone). There was never any mention of positive mental health outcomes, or the joy of getting stronger, or just moving your body because it felt good; or if there was, it sounded like a consolation prize, like being told someone likes you for your personality.

And so over years of dieting, body monitoring, and the inevitable internalisation of our culture’s toxic messages, the body I had once lived harmoniously with became an object outside of myself: something to hold aloft and assess, to pick at and put down. I became so over-focused on how my body looked that I lost the ability to tell how it felt.

And then exercise came along.

When I first began to exercise with any frequency, years ago, the result I was hoping for was still weight loss. And for a while the cycle of shame continued, because the weight never came off, or if it did it wasn’t for long. Gyms also did some damage. In one pump class our instructor enthusiastically yelled for us to “work off those muffin tops, ladies!”. I didn’t go back.

Then I found yoga. The first time an instructor asked me to place one hand on my heart and one on my stomach, to breathe love in and love out, I rolled my eyes then promptly burst into tears. Such was my disconnect from, and disdain for, my body. Over years of practice, my yoga mat has become a place of great safety and reward, my focus less on “getting toned” or even flexibility, and more on the remarkable power of the breath. I have learned to choose peace, to wring out my spine like a sponge, to settle into the still waters of my self.

Then came jogging – for which I wholeheartedly blame Anika Moa. God damn that incredible wāhine and her inspiring Instagram page! I started by signing up for the Couch To 5K app, and over a couple of months went from not being able to run for more than a minute, to running for 30 minutes without feeling like I was going to die. Let’s be clear: my short, solid body will never glide like a gazelle, and every minute of every run is difficult. And yet I love it. As I jog, I repeat a old Buddhist mantra to myself that I read in Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It sounds dire but boy does it get me through! I doubt I will ever run marathons, and my running practice comes and goes now, depending on how I’m feeling, but I know that it’s there for me should I need it: this wonderful tool that gets me outside, out of my head and into my body, the satisfaction echoing in my cells for the rest of the day.

And finally, lifting weights. My entry point to this was the strength training classes at Elevate Plus in Lyall Bay, led at the time by a baby-faced muscle boy who was the perfect combination of kindness and toughness, who pushed my good friend and me past  “I can’t do that!” through to “hang on, maybe I can?” to the victory over our personal bests. Through these classes we were introduced to the revelation of bodies worked for the purpose of strength, which I had never known positioned as something a woman might like to achieve.

Case in point: when I told my Grandad what I was doing he said, “Why do women need to be strong?”

Why should women not get to feel strong! It is an incredible feeling! To bound up the stairs, help lift the heavy thing, to challenge a boy to an arm wrestle and propel yourself across the monkey bars. Why would I deny myself these joys, and instead use the time to chase such a paltry goal as thinness? How we’ve allowed ourselves to be sold short, buying into the gimmick of shrinking when we could have been solidifying!

Here’s what I’ve noticed, since embracing exercise again.

Not only does running, doing yoga and lifting weights boost my mood and ensure the day ahead is a good one – my mind clear, body vibrating warmth – but it staves off those disembodied, critical thoughts. When I’m exercising regularly, I don’t think about my body except in terms of how it feels. Should I start to notice that negative self-talk creeping back in again, I inevitably realise that it’s been a few days since I moved my body. The reason for this isn’t because I’m working out so I “look good”, it’s because exercise is an embodying practice, and when I’m doing it, my body is being held too close to examine. It is too busy being lived in to be looked at.

There are other ways to practise embodiment, from meditation and mindfulness practices to somatic therapy. There’s also dancing, jumping in the ocean or a river, forest bathing, singing out loud, cuddling a cat in a puddle of sunshine, laughing so hard your face hurts and having sex (with someone else or alone). Any time you choose to notice and respond to the needs of your body – to pause work for a snack rather than pushing through, to let difficult feelings work their way to their climax rather than numbing them with drugs, alcohol or distraction – you are doing the good work of pulling mind and body back to their natural place of interconnection.

And it’s important. The world we live in is stressful, and that stress is relentless. With the ongoing pandemic, increasing income insecurity, wars abroad, climate anxiety made more crippling with every extreme weather event, and so much more, it can feel like there will never be a time of peace again. It can feel like our bodies, with all their pesky emotions threatening to overwhelm us, are not safe places to be.

But what you’ve been taught about your body is wrong. Your body is not the enemy. It is not a thing to be shrunk, tightened, toned or belittled into shape. Your body is your home. As the world gets more dangerous, more unsure, your body will continue to be there for you: a safe haven with all the resources of strength, self-compassion, resilience and care that you will ever need.

Treat it kindly. Be grateful for how it has continued to serve you, even as you have pushed it away. Breathe.

Let it return to you.

What I’m reading

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)

I found Piranesi on this list of best fantasy books, when I was looking for some much-needed escapism. The story is set in a world of endless classical halls filled with statues, three stories high, inhabited by an unusual character named Piranesi, named for the 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In the upper level of Piranesi’s world, which he calls the House,  is an endless sky filled with clouds, stars, a moon, and the occasional bird. The lowest level contains a trapped ocean and its unruly tides. 

The book consists of Piranesi’s journal entries, organised along a calendar of his own invention, with long and at times impenetrable date markers like “the seventh day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” I’ll admit, I nearly put it down, and there are a good number of people on Good Reads who gave up in the first 100 pages, but I’m so grateful I didn’t! Piranesi is a wonder of a book. The way the world reveals its small wonders to you, the contentment, curiosity and devotion of the solitary main character and the unfolding of the central mystery of the story all left me completely enraptured.

What I’m watching

The Menu (2022) and Fire of Love (2022), both on Disney +

We recently resubscribed to Disney + for a sleepover, when our 10-year-old requested Mrs Doubtfire (still a classic, though with a couple of jokes that haven’t aged well). While we have it, we’ve been watching whatever we can.

In “comedy horror”, The Menu a group of foodies travel to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared some killer surprises. It’s ridiculous and thrilling – and I imagine either hilarious or insulting for foodie viewers, depending on their ability to laugh at themselves – with especially good performances from Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy.

Fire of Love is a documentary about intrepid volcanologists and lovers Katia and Maurice Kraft, which some lucky people got to see at the NZ International Film Festival last year (we missed it due to illness, which is a shame because it deserves to be seen on the big screen). It’s visually stunning, with the best footage I’ve ever seen of erupting volcanoes up close (and of the brave/deranged people that venture right up inside them), and just some of the hours and hours of wonderful footage the Kraft’s captured of their lives. The score and narration (the latter by Miranda July, written in a poetic language that perfectly suits the subject matter) elevate the documentary to a beautiful testament to the Kraft’s intense and short lives, as make it a wonderful date night movie.

While you’re on Disney + you may as well check out Abbott Elementary – a mockumentary sitcom set in a struggling public school in Philadelphia, which fans of Parks and Recreation and Schitt’s Creek will undoubtedly enjoy.


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