Many of us struggle to exercise. Between packed schedules, family demands, lack of motivation, or even access, exercise is a habit we all strive to incorporate into our lives. To add, it’s often hard to steal time for yourself. I acknowledge this struggle for a healthier body and a healthier you. I drank that tasty Kombucha of a mantra just like everyone else. But upon taking a closer look, it hit me that exercise played a very different role in my life during my years as a blocked creative. I prioritized it, but not for the right reasons. And I’ll tell you why.
“You need a hobby that’s not working out” my friend K stated. My intuition perked up, hearing this tidbit. She’s right, I heard her whisper. We were munching on pastries on Granville Island and I had been telling her about my demanding workout schedule, abiding to a strict regimen of doing weights three times a week, running twice a week and a thirty-minute brisk walk on my ‘rest day’. I was proud of myself for executing it with military precision.
What an odd thing to say I thought. I wasn’t sure what she meant. Exercise wasn’t a hobby. Hobbies are activities like arts and crafts, I thought ignorantly. But then, I realized that they’re essentially things we do for fun in our spare time (to emphasize, fun being the operative word). So I suppose she was right, it was a hobby of mine if we were to get technical about it.
I’m sure there are many of you who know that girl or guy who’s obsessive with physical activity—their runs, weights, yoga practice or insert whatever-in-here. You find them annoying but inspiring at the same time and they are nonetheless, passionate about it. I used to include myself in this lot, yammering on about how long I spent on the treadmill. Have I become the people I make fun of? A Vancouverite health freak? I wondered with a mental cringe. I thought back to all the times I talked about exercising to my friends. Damn, my friends are patient creatures.
I always knew that there was something missing in my life but at that time I couldn’t pinpoint it: I would be walking on Commercial Drive or downtown Vancouver on a beautiful day and saw people who seemed happy and content, enjoying the sunshine with a bottle of beer or an ice-cream cone. They were simple pleasures, which I also enjoyed but…should this be enough? I asked myself. My brain racked for an answer but nothing jumped out at me, so I made an educated guess and concluded that fun physical activity was the way to address this void. Physical activity gave me a sense of purpose and was a practical, and sometimes-fun way, to spend my free time.
Sure, I enjoyed exercise, but was it my passion? Did it give me energy, so to speak? Why did I do it so much? I knew I wanted to lose weight and was feeling the frustration of it not coming off as quickly considering the crazy amount of hours I was putting into it. But…that’s a lot of fucking time to dedicate to something that was just a means to an end—during my spare time to boot. Come to think of it, I was putting a lot of work-ing out (pun intended). Exercising was more of a chore. A fun chore, yes—but still a chore.
My life was stagnant in Vancouver: I was (misleadingly) content but actually bored. And after a while, boredom turned into anxiety. Anxiety is a bitch of a mental full-time job and I dealt with it by exercising, which created physical and mental yet satisfying fatigue.
After any long day of just, mundane life, the jogger’s high I experienced after a run at Olympic Village in Vancouver, or a lush demanding trail at Buntzen Lake was addictive. And because Vancouver had the most temperate weather in Canada, as long as I didn’t mind getting wet in the winters, I could run all year. Endorphins relax the mind and the body, making you more present. It was an effective coping skill that really calmed my racing mind. It helped keep me sane for all the years I lived in my weird, blocked vortex.
With endorphins running through my bloodstream, the idea of doing anything, let alone anything creative, seemed like a mountainous yet unimportant task after I got home from the gym or my outdoor run. Instead, I rewarded myself with sugar and Netflix (major players in the creative block game—those of you that know, well, you know), creating a mental and physical comfort zone.
Shit, I thought. It finally hit me like a tonne of bricks one day after I completed a 30-day summer challenge of exercising every single day: exercise perpetuated my block. I would catch myself making an excuse to exercise just to avoid writing or brainstorming a new idea or project. Where would writing get me whereas exercise would boost my mood and nourish my body? the inner blocked creative voice would claim. It was an exasperating feeling. Fast forward a few months later, when moving out of my apartment, a thumb-thick layer of dust gathered on top of my watercolour paper pad (I exaggerate…or do I?).
We all have non-seemingly addictive distractions that stop us from creating, and it’s easy to justify them if they’re healthy habits, like exercise. I loved working out but it was the perfect excuse for me not to be creative.
I dare say that even my workouts became mundane and unchallenging since the thought of feeling more pain, after having to go through anxiety during the day, didn’t make me want to add those extra 5lb weights during my squat workouts. A boss once told me: “sometimes the goal is survival. Aim to simply make it through the day.” But what do you do when daily survival becomes your default mode, and not just a temporary strategy for dealing with a one-off bad day? Well, you continuously survive, not thrive. That’s all that exercise did for me -–it kept me in comfortable, unnervingly blissed-out survival mode. Ha, I guess endorphins are a (natural) drug after all.
Letting go of obsessive exercising was one of the most difficult things I had to do—because it was a healthy block to my creativity. Today, I strive to limit my workouts. I would not let exercise control my free time. Or, I do something not so physically strenuous that I collapse at the end of a session. Instead of a grueling 1.5-hour interval run, I go on a brisk 30-minute walk. I would take that free time to check out a poetry slam event, or paint that gorgeous flower I saw on Pinterest, or work on this blog post.
Once I adopted the gentle exercise mindset and swapped it for creativity, the internal void started to fill. And I mean Godiva full, not cheap Easter egg chocolate full. Brush stroke by brush stroke, word type by word type, and flamenco class by flamenco class. For a creative soul that was starting to actively create, it felt better than completing my run or going nutso on the stairmaster. Creativity was my bliss point.
There are still times when I con myself into a tough workout, especially if it’s a creative project that I feel intimidated to start and that inner-goblin tells me I can’t do it. But I shut it up and day-by-day I’m learning to discern between needing a sweat session and just getting down to a creative activity.
I know many creatives who use physical exercise as a tool to fuel their creativity: it clears their head and they come up with their best ideas. It makes me jealous that I’m not at that point…yet. I’m successful sometimes, and some days not so much. But what keeps me motivated is to be ok when I make the wrong choice. As a creative, I know that it’s all part of the process and I don’t think I could succeed if I didn’t fail more than a handful of times.
How about you? Have you ever used exercise as an excuse not to do anything creative? Let me know in the comments below!