"You're almost there!" my CrossFit coach yells out to the class. "One more minute!"
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I'm furiously pedaling on the Assault AirBike (a fan-powered exercise bike found in most CrossFit gyms), trying to reach 15 calories before time runs out. This is the last part of the workout — rounds of thrusters and burpees came before.
The clock on the wall of the gym counts down: 3 ... 2 ... 1. The workout is over. Everyone in the class, including myself, slowly gets off their bikes and lies on the ground, sweating and panting, seeking some much-needed rest before putting all our equipment back.
This is the type of exercise I'm used to: Going as hard as I possibly can, waking up incredibly sore the next day and then doing it all over again. That's because I've always thought in order for a workout to "count," it had to be this intense.
But I recently got an Apple Watch (yes, I'm late to the game), and it's changed my perspective on what "counts" as exercise. And surprise: It all counts.
Growing up, I did a ton of competitive sports: gymnastics, swimming, diving, horseback riding, you name it. All of these sports required tremendous strength, and the practices I went to and workouts I did were filled with rope climbs, core workouts, HIIT sessions and more — and stopping to rest was frowned upon. In my mind, exercise was supposed to be hard.
Post-college, I got into running, and the track workouts and long runs I logged weren't easy on my body. My mentality was still the same: If the workout felt too easy, I didn't think it counted. If I stopped to walk during my run, I no longer thought of it as a "run." Somewhere deep down, I knew I was being too hard on myself, but it was difficult to undo years of thinking this way.
Then, in 2017, a runner friend of mine started doing CrossFit and invited me to come along. I immediately fell in love with the feeling I got after a class. If you've ever looked at a CrossFit workout, your first thought is probably: "There's no way I can do this." But when you do complete the workout, you feel untouchable, like you can achieve anything in the world.
And while I still love CrossFit, I've realized I still seek out activities in my adult life that are incredibly taxing.
It's fairly easy to figure out how my history with sports has led me to think the way I do when it comes to exercise, but chatting with athlete psychotherapist Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS-S, helped give me more insight.
"CrossFit and track sessions, for instance, are usually high intensity and elicit the endorphins that can be released, so you conditioned yourself to associate these intense sessions with exercise while dismissing everything else. A lot of fitness influencers can repeat these messages, too," Roth-Goldberg says.
"It's important to recognize that moving our bodies can be good without having to sweat or even structure the movement. It can relieve some people of their rigid ideas around exercise."
How My Apple Watch Has Helped Me Be Kinder to Myself
Pretty much everyone I know has an Apple Watch, and I was curious about what I was missing out on. So, about six months ago, I bit the bullet and purchased one. The first thing I noticed was how easy it was to close my exercise ring.
If you're unfamiliar with the Apple Watch rings, there are three: a red "move" ring, a green "exercise" ring and a blue "stand" ring. The "move" ring shows how many active calories you've burned, the "exercise" ring shows how many minutes of activity you've logged and the "stand" ring shows how many times you've stood and moved for at least one minute per hour.
The default setting on the watch for closing your exercise ring is 30 minutes of activity. And almost immediately, I started noticing how easy it was for me to close that ring. I had a scheduled rest day, in which I usually either do yoga or go for a walk, because these activities are "easy" for me.
I chose a 30-minute yoga video on YouTube that focused on stretching and muscle recovery, and when I was done, my Apple Watch lit up in celebration that I'd closed my exercise ring. I was genuinely surprised something that required little effort on my part counted as exercise.
I also started noticing how my "move" and "exercise" rings would start to close while I was doing chores like cleaning my bathroom, mopping my floor or doing the dishes. My mind was blown. The things I had to do around my apartment were counting as exercise?
I began putting all of this together in my brain. If I did a quick and relaxing yoga flow and tidied up my apartment a bit, it was a sufficient amount of exercise for the day. If I went for a chill 3-mile walk after work with my boyfriend to chat about our days, that counted too.
I didn't have to deadlift more than my body weight or do more burpees in an hour than some people do their whole lives for it to "count" as exercise. Of course, I still find it fun and rewarding to do these types of workouts, but I no longer beat myself up when "all I do" is a post-work walk or yoga flow that day.
It All Counts
A March 2019 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology has shown the best way to combat being sedentary is to move more, and that movement doesn't have to include a gym visit. The researchers found a link between 30 minutes of easy, low-intensity activity daily — like walking — and a reduced risk of early death.
So, improving your health doesn't always mean maxing out your heart rate or your muscular load.
"Data can be helpful to show people a wider view. Exercise doesn't have to be painful — sometimes the only exercise we get will be cleaning the house because it has to be done and we can't make time to get to the gym, but then we realize cleaning the house is also movement, which was previously discounted," Roth-Goldberg says. "It's important to recognize that moving our bodies can be good without having to sweat or even structure the movement. It can relieve some people of their rigid ideas around exercise."
While I've come a long way, I'm still working on going easier on myself. And Roth-Goldberg has some advice on how to do this.
"Tune into your intrinsic self — if you find that you enjoy less intense movements, honor that," she says.
She also recommends writing down the beliefs you have about exercise, as having them written down in front of you can help you re-evaluate if they hold true.
"Another great activity is to write down how you feel before low-intensity movement and then do the same afterward," she says. "You can often see that you benefit from those low-intensity movements and experience positive things — thoughts, energy, stress relief — from these lower-intensity movements. It's hard to discount movements that you personally experience positive benefits from."