Progress in Fitness is Overrated
Ever since experiencing persistent pain, I’ve believed that the fitness industry focuses too much on progress as its measure of success. Certainly if you look for fitness on social media, you’ll see a ton of progress stories, and a huge amount of tips and suggestions for how you too, can make progress.
Eight years ago I was dealing with whiplash (and other injuries) from a car accident. I also have hEDS, a connective tissue disorder, which affects healing… making it a slower process than typical. It was through that frustrating experience that I began to really let go of the idea that exercise should focus on progress. Instead, I started to see it more as an offering of love to myself.
I started asking myself… if I were to never progress beyond what I’m doing today… would I still choose to do this? And the answer was unequivocally yes.
However, I do see the benefit in the progress that I’ve made and that my clients have made through our Pilates and Essentrics practices. That progress often means that we notice improvements in how we feel (both physically and emotionally), and how we interact with our environments.
Because of these opposing thoughts, I try to be very mindful about how I talk about progress and share about progress on social media.
Then this year happened.
On April 29th, I was out biking with my (then) 10yo. That month, biking on her breaks from virtual school became a routine for us. We were really enjoying the time together, and it was nice to feel the weather shifting, getting warmer each week.
On that particular day, I had a fall, and my eye struck my handlebar (at least that’s what we think happened… I can’t quite remember). I was treated in the ER for a laceration on my eyeball and a torn eyelid. By the following week, I was being assessed for an mTBI.
Since then I’ve been in outpatient rehab, where I was confronted again by this tension between wanting change and wanting the peace that comes with acceptance.
One of the things I’ve learned (or re-learned) this year?
To focus on progress or to expect change strips us of joy.
It’s not wrong to want something to change or to be different. It’s just human.
It would be weird if I didn’t miss the things that I used to do… I did them because they brought me joy… it makes sense to want to experience that again.
And, if all I ever did was think about all the things I used to do with ease, comparing how difficult things feel now, or wondering if I’ll ever be able to do that thing again? It causes suffering. It robs me of the joy that can be found right now.
Now, don’t get me wrong, grieving the loss is essential, and something I have needed (and continue to need) to create space for. And, I also make time to water the plants of acceptance and hope at the same time.
What does that look like (for me)?
It means working towards accepting things as they are today, trusting that if this is how things are for the rest of my life, I will be okay. To know that I will never let myself down, and that I have the ability to create a life filled with meaning and joy.
It also means stepping up and providing myself with an environment in which my body can learn and heal. It means asking for support to make this possible, and accepting help from people who are willing and able.
It is to create an environment where change is possible, while loosening my grip on change as essential.
If water was the thing I wanted so badly, and I were to hold it in my hand, if I hold it with the care it requires, it stays, but if I hold it too tightly, the thing that I want so desperately slips away. (Side note, I’m pretty sure I’ve read this somewhere because it is far too clever for me to have just made it up… but I can’t remember where).
When I loosened my grip on expecting change, you know what I found?
The first day I joined a Pilates class was 2 weeks after my accident. I had a balance pole with me, I often did only 1 or 2 reps before pausing for a break. It was evident how much I had “lost,” and for a while, on days I joined the class, it was the only thing I could do that day.
But, the experience of being in that class was the same. I joined a group of familiar faces that I’ve seen multiple times a week since 2020. They welcomed me and expressed care and compassion, letting me know that they were happy to have me in class again. I felt a sense of belonging in the community. I noticed my body. I noticed my thoughts. I breathed deeply. It felt like a moment of stress relief. I could be playful. I could cheer myself on, and offer myself the compassion I deserved.
What I realized was that when I released the idea that I was doing it for change, when I let go of my expectations, the benefits were the same. And I began to ask myself, is it progress or is it the benefits we need?
Progress is fun, sure. It can (and should be) celebrated. But we should celebrate it for what it is, something that we don’t have a lot of control over. We can do everything “right” and not have the changes we hope for. We can dedicate our energy towards change, observe change, and then we can fall off our bikes and find ourselves starting all over again.
Either way, we’re not bad at being humans, we’re not doing it wrong, and it’s not for lack of effort. It’s just a part of being a human who is doing the very best they can with what they have.
And our value? It’s the same… because we don’t gain value through progress.
We can celebrate our progress big and loud, and we can acknowledge that our efforts and some chance went into it. That way, when we don’t see progress, we can shift our focus away from how to force that change, and instead, focus on how we can provide ourselves with an environment that might make change possible.
Why am I sharing this with you today?
Because this is it! This is life.
Have you ever met a marathoner who has fallen out of love with running and can’t figure out how to enjoy it anymore?
Or a child who loves a sport so much that they end up on a competitive team, only to discover that it’s no longer fun?
Maybe you know someone who set a goal to meditate every day, only to discover that it was adding stress instead of being a stress reliever? (P.S. that was me in 2019, lol!).
Our expectations can rob us of the joy that we experienced the first time we ran, played a sport, or meditated.
So, as you consider your fitness goals for next year (as so many do), maybe instead of setting a goal you might try asking yourself: if there was a guarantee that nothing will change, would you still choose this? Is that the thing you want to use your precious time and energy on?
For me, that question has me trading gym time for nature time. I’ll choose a hike because if hiking never makes me any stronger or never reduces my pain, I would still choose it because of its benefits.
I’ll skip my weights if it means I can run through the snow laughing with my kids.
I’ll decide that today, even though I’m still hoping for more change, I will just read, and that is it (shout out to my fabulous PT who guided me towards this glorious a-ha).
And hidden in all of those choices are the necessary things that make up an environment that allows us to bloom.
What things will you choose for 2023?