86-ing the Running Guilt Complex

Erin O’Dea Halford and I were recently comparing notes about exercise at a staff gathering. We noted the types of exercises we like, don’t like, etc. At one point, however, she expressed how she’s now at a stage in life when fitting exercise into a horrendously busy work and family schedule is simply impossible. And this is coming from someone who has taught barre fitness and frequented spin and yoga classes for years. There’s no lack of willpower; it’s simply a problem of time when you’re a mother of small children and working full-time. So, what is she doing? She’s creating better eating habits and innovatively building exercise into her day.

I want to stay with exercise for a moment. Erin depicted a season of life that many of us have encountered or will encounter. The best we can do during these seasons is exactly what Erin offers: build on existing good habits and incorporate exercise out of seemingly mundane activities. Here’s an example that she offered in our email exchange following the staff gathering:

To increase our steps, my colleague (Meredith Gerber) taught me that we could make the most of our bathroom breaks by extending each trip by an extra five-seven minutes and gain almost 3,000 steps over the course of the day!  Instead of walking straight to the usual restroom on our floor, we opted to do a “tour” of the building.  We’d head down two flights of stairs, across the building to the restroom, then up three flights of stairs and back around to our office. It is a small adjustment, but it really adds up by the end of the day!

To any of Erin’s colleagues reading this blog: give her a high-five for grit and grace.

Erin’s strategy is a perfect example of a mindset fully cognizant of both current responsibilities and current solutions to exercise needs. But the real upshot is that it provides a perfect response to what I dub the Running Guilt Complex (henceforth, RGC). I encounter it often primarily because I love exercise and frequently talk about it, especially when I encounter someone who shares my enthusiasm. Sometimes, however, my enthusiasm gets in the way. Interlocutors will hear me talk about running and feel compelled to say, “I need to start running.” Which is unfortunate. Exercise is so rewarding that I take for granted how protective I am of my schedule. If I can’t run over lunch, I’ll swap my 4:30 am writing block for exercising. But running isn’t for everyone. It’s hard on the hips, knees, ankles, and arches if you’re not careful. You can overdo it easily. You can trip and fall, twist an ankle, yada yada.

So, here’s your “Get Out of Jail Free” card: if you don’t like running, don’t.

My first question for those with an RGC is whether they like running. If they like it, great–we continue talking about where our favorite trails are or–in the case of Charleston–where our favorite destinations are. A certain colleague never takes the same route twice; I never deviate from mine. I find the route from Johnson-Silcox over to East Bay and down to South Battery a perfect 23-25′ run second only to my favorite trail of all time: the pathway next to the River Thames across from Richmond in Twickenham. But the really interesting conversation for me is when I hear someone reply, “No, I hate running.” At that point, we get to talk about more innovative types of exercise. And I learn a lot from these folks.

The remedy for the RGC is a healthy cocktail of innovation with a chaser of grace. Exactly what Erin is doing. Slowly but deliberately, she is gaining some traction so that she can return to spin or barre when she does find herself with fewer child-rearing responsibilities. It’s by far the healthiest response I’ve heard because most who set out on an intense training program that they previously didn’t have a smidgeon of in their routine experience burn out. The change is too abrupt. We need to follow Erin’s example of moving with our routines so that we can intensify them–viz., keeping the long-term goal in mind, building on the present, and, most of all, enjoying the process.


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