Proprioception, or how to exercise when you hate it and you aren’t any good at it.

The last month, when my leg has been mostly ready to go, I have been struggling to get back into martial arts training, which isn’t really great for a martial artist! But I was reading a question on a chat community from someone who wants to exercise but feels like they are just no good at sports, never have been, never will be and I wrote a response that I think is actually to myself.

I was that kid, for sure. Looking back I’ve realized that I loved to move my body. But I wasn’t “good” at most sports, and my family’s approach to exercise, as I have joked throughout the years, was pretty much “walk to the library or bookstore, get books, walk home.”* Reading is great, and has given me very much joy indeed. But I wish I had discovered martial arts or something equivalent as a kid. Instead, in elementary school I was picked last for teams (remember that tradition?), ended up holding the skipping rope more than jumping, and was bullied for a lot of things including being really clumsy.

The emotional why of how that changed is pretty complex and would take a few blog posts, but the steps I went through aren’t.

Issue 1: Out of breath no matter what I do. A lot of what I hated about exercise was that out of breath feeling. When I get out of breath, I can start to panic, and when I start to panic, all I want to do is go hide somewhere and possibly eat chips. I read a blog post waaaay back by DoctorMama which changed how I approached aerobic exercise, and that worked for me. Go slow. Super slow.

Issue 2: Lack of coordination/clumsiness/”I’ll never get my body to do this, ever”/How come everyone else can do that? There’s a magic word for this, besides the usual practice/try harder/do more, and it is proprioception. I learned this word in physiotherapy and it was an aha! moment, because about 4-5 years ago, I suddenly became confident that if I took an exercise class it would be okay. I never, in 40 years, had that sense before. Looking back I think it’s because I had started to improve my proprioception. The Wikipedia article talks about how to do this, but I of course recommend martial arts. Or yoga. Or, frankly, a few sessions with a physiotherapist.

Issue 3: Mental space. So let’s pick your favourite friend or young person and ask them to learn a new skill. But while they are learning this new skill, someone is going to stand behind them and tell them they are no good at it, never going to get good at it, and basically be the bully that I had in elementary gym class. How quickly do you think they will learn and how much will they enjoy it? Right? Well, this is what I did to myself every time I went out for a bike ride or to run or to try aquafit or whatever. It’s hard to stop. I banished mine mostly through listening to podcasts while running (I started with the New Yorker fiction podcast because then I was a writer who happened to be running while thinking about literary greatness, rather than someone trying to run) but if you have a way to banish negative self-talk, please comment.

I also worked with a trainer at Venice Fitness for a while who was great at talking against the talk. But that’s probably another post. It helped a lot but didn’t stick for a while.

Issue 4: Anxiety while exercising. Besides that issue where when I got out of breath, I panicked, I also spent a lot of my adult life in fitness classes, which I would sign up for and go to twice and then abandon, waiting for the bullying to start or someone to touch me inappropriately. Last fall I went to a Parent Council conference that introduced me to Dr. Stuart Shanker and he did a talk about anxiety in children and teens and how that shuts down their brains so they can’t learn. That was eye-opening about learning.

But it wasn’t until last week when I took a bad step on my injured leg in martial arts class, and then couldn’t get through a set of basic blocks, that I realized that it wasn’t just self-critical thinking or lack of coordination that made exercise classes so hard for me, it was anxiety. Which is highly ironic, because I was there in part to try to address anxiety and stress. Anyways, again I do not have a solution other than the one I found which was to stick with a particular class (in my case it was yoga) for over a year, twice a week. By the end of the first year, out of sheer boredom I think, my self and my body (the last probably being more important) finally accepted that no one was going to come up to me in class and bully me.

I mean the reality of most adult classes is that everyone is there for themselves, fitting in it as time allows, and they don’t care about other people but…even with my brain knowing that, it took a year of going to the same place and the same movements and the same routine and the same changerooms to start to be able to learn freely.

(Weirdly while I was writing this post, my gym called my home number. I didn’t get to the phone in time so I have no idea why, but that’s odd, isn’t it? Considering they don’t call. I just noticed the time and if I scoot quickly, I can get to a martial arts class, so here I go.)


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