Running with Joy: Reframing Exercise for Emotional Healing

In my last blog, I promised to write about a specific technique that can help you reframe your exercise experience. Reframing is a borrowed term from psychology and it basically means shifting the context for the better. For example, saying, “I have an injured knee so I can’t run and that stinks!” That deflating way of looking at an injury can be reframed: “I have an injured knee, but I can walk and do strengthening exercises to further speed my recovery. I’m grateful that I can walk, even if I can’t run right now.” Yes, it’s a “glass half full” instead of “half emptry” approach, but oh, it does help you stay positive in the face of limitations.

So, now for the specific technique, which I developed spontaneously in 1992. That fall, I lost a really good friend to a car accident, and I was stricken with deep grief. My friend Martin, however, had been such a wonderful person that I was pretty determined to do something positive with my grieving process. For me, I made the decision to start ski racing (cross-country) so that I would have a lot of fun and some goals to meet that winter. It was instinctual, really. I just thought it would help–and it certainly did. But my first goal was to get moving and get in better shape.

Back injuries had kept me away from running for a while. I needed to start running, but I was pretty out of shape. I was doing okay, but I noticed that I called myself all sorts of negative things when I got breathless running. “Out of shape” is the only label I can share with you now. I just wasn’t being nice to myself. So, spontaneously, I stopped running and stood still, and said to myself, in my mind: I’m going to stand still until I start saying something nice to myself. I tried, “I’m getting in shape. I’m happy I can be here outdoors today. I’m lucky to be alive.” That sort of thing. I was pretty instantly cheered up.

And I started to run again, slowly. I felt a little lighter. The positive thoughts continued, briefly, then I started crabbing at myself again. I stopped, stood still, and forced myself to think of something positive. “I’m getting stronger. I’m in great shape to get stronger. I like running.” I started off, running again, trying to keep a positive thought train in my head. Eventually, all this stopping and starting led me to want to run along with a mantra or simple repetitive thought in my head. I don’t know, twenty years later, what those first mantras were, but I can tell you, I was a different person after switching my mentality, during training, from a harsh inner critic to a soothing, encouraging voice.

The sports psychology people call it “positive self-talk”. I don’t care what you call it, but if you are recovering from cancer and you are trying to do some exercise, I hope you will consider also training your mind to be kind to your body. You can applaud yourself for taking steps to be healthy. You can eliminate negative self-talk–by using my start/stop method or by using a positive mantra.

Eventually, I ski raced, that year. My results were not impressive on paper, but at every start line I said a little prayer that I could race with a good attitude of joy and gratitude at being alive and healthy. That attitude saw me through my grief and other obstacles in life. I sometimes had race goals that were secret at the time, such as to be the the most joyful racer or to have no negative thoughts all throughout the race. In a long ski race, that might be four hours or so, so you have plenty of time to either encourage or discourage yourself. I knew which I liked better.

To be honest, training with a positive attitude helped me not just go on to be a competent strong 50-km ski racer, or to run up mountains well, it helped me in my whole life. And it certainly helped me to thrive during cancer treatment. I’ll write more about my mantras during chemo in my next blog.

My advice? Start where you are and be nice to yourself. Don’t just exercise your body. Exercise your mind in a positive way at the same time, and you might get more than double the positive effects. Have your exercise hour become an hour of joy, an hour of renewal, an hour of peace. It might just become the favorite part of your day.

Peace, Nancy

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