How I Improved My Well-being by Exercising Less

run with water bottle

What is your go-to coping mechanism when you are feeling overwhelmed?

Dessert?  Potato Chips?  Wine?  Shopping?  Netflix marathons?

My “drug” of choice used to be exercise.  I get that this may seem like a perfectly healthy response to feeling overwhelmed, but my intention behind exercising was not healthy.  It took me many years to realize that my inflexible workout routine was actually a way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings.

Allow me to explain.

Numbing the Pain.

We all have an emotional tool box that we resort to for dealing with the ups and downs of life.  Some of us have very small tool boxes, and some of us have robust tool boxes.  No matter how many tools you have to cope with the chaos of life, at some point you are going to get pushed outside of your ability to cope and you will try to choose something to numb the pain.

Whether you reach for chocolate or your credit card, the intention of your action is to stop feeling pain.  This doesn’t mean that every time you have chocolate or charge something on your Visa card that you are trying to numb yourself.

Brené Brown, in “The Gifts of Imperfection,” explains this concept wonderfully:

“Again, after years of research, I’m convinced that we all numb and take the edge off.  The question is, does our _____________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? … Are we using _____________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?”

When I first read this passage, I didn’t automatically connect this with my compulsive exercising.  It wasn’t until a health issue in 2013 reduced my intense workouts to short walks, that I realized how much I had been depending on my rigid workout schedule to escape the pain and uncomfortable feelings.  A leisurely walk did not give me the same numbing effect.  I now had to face how I was feeling.

It was really challenging to ease up on my expectations of myself for the amount of exercise that I am getting.

Wait.  How can regular exercise be BAD for you?

The simple answer is: It isn’t.

However, when we start ramping up the intensity and frequency of our workout routines, with the intention (consciously or unconsciously) that we avoid feeling pain, we start venturing into dangerous territory.  Why is this?

According to Brené’s research, “there is no such thing as selective emotional numbing.  There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.”

So by choosing to numb with intense exercise, I was limiting my ability to feel joy.  Definitely not what I had been aiming for, but it makes sense.

We don’t get to selectively feel our feelings.  If we resist feeling certain emotions, we close ourselves off to the ability to feel other emotions.  This means that if you are using that glass of wine at the end of each day to numb the anxiety, you are also inadvertently restricting your ability to feel joy.

Does this mean I have to stop my numbing activity, cold-turkey?

Not at all.

For me, it was a mindful decision to maintain my physical health with a brisk walk most weekdays after lunch (I work from home) and often I will go for a 5 K walk on the weekend with my husband.  I don’t use my walks to numb, I use them as an excuse to clear my head, breathe deeply, get my heart pumping and enjoy living so close to the ocean.

This is a stark contrast to my previous workout routine of 6 day-a-week sprint intervals on my commercial grade elliptical trainer, that had to happen no matter what.  During these sessions I would punish my body so that I didn’t have to acknowledge the painful emotions.

So you don’t have to stop completely.  You just need to examine your intentions and decide if there is a way that you can engage in your activity (eating, drinking, shopping, exercising, etc.) with a healthy intention.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about the compulsive behavior of addiction.  If you suspect that you might have an addiction, I would strongly encourage you to seek professional help and find a support group.

What if I don’t know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings?

Not to worry!  That used to be me.

I chose to see a therapist regularly to learn how to embrace all emotions, but I understand that you may not be willing to commit to this.  You could start by journaling, going for a walk, talking with an empathetic friend, or reading a book (“The Whole-Brain Child” is an excellent book if you need to re-parent yourself regarding a healthy perspective on emotions).

No matter what, it is important to celebrate when you are making the healthiest choice that you can possibly make when you are feeling overwhelmed by life.  Don’t beat yourself up if you “slip up” and do something to numb yourself.  Choosing to be compassionate to ourselves as we grow and learn is essential to your emotional wellbeing.

If you need some help in increasing your self-awareness in order to break through some negative patterns, visit me at Secondhand Therapy for more information about the 1 hour “Introducing You” eClass series.


Jill Dahl The Zeit

Jill Dahl: founder and teacher for Secondhand Therapy. Contributor at Vancity Buzz, Huffington Post and co-creator of the BC Women Lead conference

Jill Dahl is the founder and teacher for Secondhand Therapy, an online resource designed for people who wish to engage in their emotional wellbeing, but aren’t yet willing to commit to a licensed therapist.  She writes a bi-weekly Secondhand Therapy column for Vancity Buzz, is a Huffington Post contributor, co-creator of the BC Women Lead conference and teaches various eCourses through her business.  She offers a free eBook on her website titled, Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing: 25 Practical Tips to Help You Move Beyond Survival Mode. @2ndhandtherapy | www.secondhandtherapy.com | jill@secondhandtherapy.com

37 thoughts on “How I Improved My Well-being by Exercising Less

  1. Pingback: 15 Tips to Gain Weight and Change Your Mindset | The Zeit
  2. Loved this read! Agree, anything in excess is not healthy. I wish I could say I have an excess of energy lately.. instead it’s been replaced by an ‘excess’ of 24/7 anxiety. So, I finally reached out, found a therapist and will be heading there to meet with him on Friday. Wish me luck, this has been on-going for almost 9 months now. I have hope though! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Good post. Last summer I quit my 3-4 day per week running routine due to the heat and humidity and decided to focus on stretching and yoga for a couple of months. I was surprised that when I started running again I actually shaved time off my runs. There’s no question that anyone can maintain a high level of fitness as we age but there are some cavetas and time to heal it one of them. I simply need more time to heal but I find that I feel much better and run faster (faster being relative here!) by taking more time off. One of the seemingly conflicting rules of aging.

    • So glad to hear that you gave your body time to heal. Pushing through exhaustion and injury is not helpful. Happy running (and stretching!) Dennis 🙂

  4. Two days ago, from two separate sources, I heard that one minute of intense exercise (playing fiercely with your pet, chasing after your runaway vehicle, etc.) is actually more beneficial then hours of blood, sweat, and tears. That’s great news for me, especially considering that I already get plenty of the later as it is. Now I read your post, and I am further convinced of the long range effectiveness of moderation…on many levels. Cool.

  5. The interesting thing for me is that identical behavior could have different motivators. For me, spending an hour a day at the gym five or six days a week is part of what I need to do at age 60 to maintain a healthy lifestyle and attempt to secure some quality of life as I get older. And yet, five or six days at the gym could sound outrageous to someone else. Working out is a habit and it is important to me, but only to take the place of a sedentary life which many people my age settle for. Rather than seeing my age as something that limits me, I view it as a challenge to see how far I can go in achieving goals in physical and emotional health. I believe you are saying, it’s not just what you do but why you do it.

    • Great insight James! Yes, it is the “why” behind your actions. Sounds to me like you have created a very healthy and balanced approach for yourself. When I was working out at that same pace as you, it wasn’t coming from a healthy intention.

  6. Pingback: Leading A Healthy Lifestyle & Weight Loss: A Personal Account | Eat2Health Blog
  7. Pingback: How I Improved My Well-Being by Exercising Less
  8. Looks like we’re on a similar journey. Your words resonate with me and the steps I’ve begun to take to stop numbing. Scary, exciting and vital it’s not to see someone else along the way and that my post Lent may have resonated with you as well. Thank you for your contribution to my education.

    • Yes!! I had people accuse me of being “addicted” to exercise before…but it really was that I was attached to the numbing. When I moved past that unhealthy attachment, I was able to exercise without the intention to numb.

  9. Pingback: Stress part 1 | Better Year Better Me
  10. Exercise is for the release of stress and acids, and to produce micro-tears so our bodies heal better into better form—not full tears, overexertion, added stress. 20-30 minutes/day of moderately building performance should be enough.

  11. Insightful article! There’s no doubt that, at times, throughout my love affair with fitness, that it was an escape mechanism, as well. I am quite happy, though, after all these years, that I’ve grown fond of the concept of moderation – – yes, even in exercise!

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