Why I Tell My Clients To Stop Exercising (And Why You Probably Should, Too!)

“I think you should stop exercising”.

Kylie looked at me strangely. “But I thought exercise was good for depression?”, she protested.

“It is – but not the way you are doing it”, I replied.

Kylie was one of my coaching clients. She was an elite rower, but had lost all motivation to row, or even train. She was feeling overwhelmed at work and starting to exhibit signs of burnout and depression. She knew that physical exercise was good for depression (there is loads of research to support this) and was forcing herself to go to the gym, lift weights and struggle through an ergo a few times a week. She wanted to lose weight so she didn’t let the team down. But she hated every minute of it. And hated herself even more for not doing it.

Kylie was caught in a negative loop that I see a lot of my clients get caught in. The harder she pushed herself, the more unmotivated she became.

I created a metaphor to help people like Kylie understand what is happening for them. I call it “The Heart And The Hole”.

Deep inside, Kylie felt empty and broken. She was burned out by the unrelenting pressure of her corporate job – exacerbated by beliefs that she was inadequate, and a longstanding habit of desperately trying to compensate for this inadequacy through success and achievement. She had been pretty good at that in the past, pushing herself to work long hours, avoiding asking for help, and anxiously trying to avoid making mistakes. But it had taken a toll and she was no longer able to keep it up, which triggered a deep sense of shame and unworthiness, and a lot of anxiety.

Kylie was in The Hole.

Everything she did was an attempt to fill this hole. She was seeking validation through doing a good job at work, volunteering and rowing. When she had been able to keep this up, she experienced momentary relief, temporarily feeling “full” and ok. But I helped her to see this was an unwinnable battle. After all, how much success do you need to have to prove once-and-for-all that you are not not-enough (hint: you’re never going to do it).

Once I helped her see this, she could see how she was even in The Hole when she was exercising. Trying to “fix” her depression with exercise was continually reinforcing the unconscious story that she was broken and inadequate. Do you see what I mean? And then on top of that, she was beating herself up about not cutting weight and going to training, caught in a story about how she was letting down her team. All of this killed her motivation. So in the end she was feeling bad about not doing 45 minute ergos every day – and doing zero actual exercise.

And that’s why I told her to stop exercising. Sounds like strange advice for a psychologist to give, right? But actually what I wanted to do was get Kylie to stop digging herself further into the hole. To put down the shovel for a moment and stop reinforcing her sense of inadequacy.

Once she had done that, I asked a different type of question: “If you weren’t trying to fix yourself, and in fact if you knew that you were fundamentally ok and didn’t need ‘fixing’, what kind of physical activity would your body like to do?”

I encouraged her to sit with this question, asking her body rather than trying to work it out. At first, no answer came. This is normal when people aren’t in the habit of asking this type of question. But eventually Kylie realised that she actually wanted to just take a walk by the ocean for 20 minutes, maybe once or twice a week. This became her homework task. And guess what? She did it. In fact, she enjoyed her first walk so much she extended it to an hour. And then a couple of days later went for another walk. So suddenly, instead of feeling bad about not doing 45 minute gym sessions every day, she actually did two hours of exercise. And she did it not out of a sense of needing to fix anything (The Hole) but out of a sense of compassion and love for her body.

This is being in The Heart.

Kylie found that when she exercised in this way, her motivation returned. She realised that her passion for elite rowing had passed – and that she had always done it as a way of trying to prove herself (The Hole) anyway. And her motivation for self-care started to spread into the rest of her life. She started working differently, reaching out to friends again, and getting everything back into balance.

Of course, we needed to do some work to get her unstuck from her beliefs around inadequacy. And we had to take a long hard look at certain aspects of her life. But even looking at things through the lens of “The Heart & The Hole” can be very powerful. I literally just draw a heart and a hole for my clients and ask them to consider which one they are in in each moment.

If you want to apply it in your own life, just start being curious about whether you are in The Heart or The Hole in each moment.

How does it feel in your body when you are in The Hole? Can you feel the sense of emptiness inside? Can you sense the insecurity and sense of inadequacy? What are the thoughts and beliefs that go with that way of being? Can you notice the drivenness – the frantic, anxious attempts to “fill” this hole? Can you see how this motivates all of your unhealthy, unbalanced behaviours?

And what about the heart? How does that feel in your body? Can you feel the sense of completeness, the calm that comes from knowing that you are enough? What is it like to feel complete and then for what you do to be an outpouring of this surplus?

Most people (myself included) go in and out of both parts all throughout the day. We might wake up feeling good, and then we make a mistake or think about some problem and suddenly we are in The Hole. The important thing is that we keep track of it. We can use mindfulness to step back from the whole process so we can to work skilfully with it – letting go of the stories that get us in The Hole and asking ourselves Heart questions like “What do I need right now? What do the deeper parts of me that feel complete want to express in this moment right here?” When we do this, life starts to flow and feels richer. And anything we do becomes sustainable and joyful.

What is it like for you when you are in The Heart? How do you get yourself there? What is it like to act from a place of completeness and surplus in the world (rather than trying to fill an unfillable sense of emptiness with success and praise and external validation)? I would love to hear your experience of this on my Facebook page.

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Hi, I’m Dr Richard Chambers – clinical psychologist and internationally recognised expert in mindfulness.

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