This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
It’s a cinematic trope you’re probably familiar with: A character decides to join a fitness class or audition for a dance troupe and finds herself hopelessly out of step with the rest of the group, who are gliding around as if preprogrammed to nail every new sequence on the first try.
The vicarious embarrassment I used to feel watching these scenes? Not surprising. If I were to turn my most humiliating moments into a reel, the bulk would involve a school gym, team sport or outdoor activity, and me—desperate to keep up but ultimately left behind.
Fortunately, once I learned that it’s actually beneficial to do things you suck at, the only thing left behind was the sense of shame I’d attached to my perceived fitness failures. For present-day me, engaging in workouts that are just beyond my skill level now acts as a paradoxical stress-buster, toning my distress-tolerance muscle in tandem with my skeletal muscles.
Hear me out: If you find it distressing and humiliating to do workouts that conflict with your natural skill set, chances are those feelings come up in other areas of your life too, causing you to miss out. Think avoiding a career change or putting off a new hobby, for fear of suffering an embarrassing failure (or even just a few painful missteps). This is because your brain perceives activities that aren’t your forte as a threat to your self-image. And while you might think that you’re staying poised and secure by avoiding that dance class, the message you’re really sending yourself is that you can’t handle the tricky learning phase that comes with so many aspects of life.
Feeling genuine pain over messing up a new routine (or even when you think about potentially messing it up!) does make sense. “Feelings of inadequacy and incompetence trigger the same emotional cascade as being faced with a legitimate threat to your safety,” says Inna Khazan, a Boston-based clinical health and performance psychologist. “Your fight-or-flight response activates and urges you to get away from the stimulus triggering the difficult feelings.”
That response can take shape in a couple of ways when it comes to exercise. Like me, you might resort to concealing your discomfort with perfectionistic tendencies, like practicing alone in your room late into the night or refusing to show up to class in anything other than a perfectly matched bra-and-legging set. Ironically, digging too hard into being “perfect” can further erode the cognitive flexibility necessary to confront challenges and obstacles—even those as benign as learning horse stance. Or, thanks to your own fitness-themed humiliation reel, you might play it cool behind a fixed mindset: the belief that skating or skiing or cycling just isn’t your thing; that mistakes made during the learning curve of a new workout are a result of personal shortcomings, versus simply needing more practice.
But the fact that something as ordinary as a fitness class can bring on uncomfortable feelings is actually a feature, not a bug, since that means that it can double as a rehearsal space for working through those tough emotions. “When you purposely engage in a form of exercise you’re not skilled at, the fight-or-flight mechanism gets triggered at first,” says Khazan. “But as you persist and continue the workout, the brain eventually realizes there’s no threat in what you’re doing—or how badly you’re doing it—and calms down.”
Powering through workouts you’re straight-up awful at can be used as practice swings at accepting negative emotions in real time. Those workouts are also an opportunity to try out more adaptive ways of coping. Say you’re not any more skilled at kickboxing during your 10th class than you were your first. You can beat yourself up, quit—or take the opportunity to highlight your strengths. (“Okay, so left hooks—or right hooks, or uppercuts—aren’t my thing, but at least I’m still going for it!”) The result? A stronger ability to deal with future threats in a more adaptive way, no matter where they pop up in your life.
You won’t get instantly better at dealing with stress after 10 classes—or maybe even 20. But, much like trying again and again to improve your plank pose, each layer of frustration and embarrassment you work through can help strengthen your resolve. “These feelings won’t be as uncomfortable or unfamiliar the next time they surface, because we’ve felt them before,” says Erica Hornthal, a Chicago-based board-certified dance/movement therapist and the author of Body Aware. “To work through an emotion, we have to allow it to move through us.”
And sure, you can boost your ability to deal with discomfort through all manner of activities, from trying your hand at stand-up to asking someone out in line at the grocery store. What gives exercise the edge is that it’s not a one-hit wonder. Emotions aside, hard exercise can pump up your heart rate, giving your body practice with the physiological effects of stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Trying to run 2 miles (and taking a lot of walk breaks!) can be both an exercise in working through emotional discomfort as well as regular old being-out-of-breath discomfort. Win-win.
The most important breakthrough this anti-practice has provided me with, though, is the realization that you can suck at workouts and still enjoy them. “There’s a common misconception that activities are only worth engaging in if we’re good at them,” says Khazan. Yet, doesn’t experiencing the high of aerials sound absurdly joyful?
Research suggests that leisure activities you enjoy and are mentally engaging—check and check—reduce stress levels, improve mood, and lower your heart rate, with these positive effects lasting long after the activities are over. So go ahead: Run like Phoebe Buffay. Crossrope for the sake of it and trip your little heart out. Take barre classes not to become a ballerina but to feel like one.
To maximize the potential stress-busting benefits, go with workouts you’re intrinsically motivated to engage in but have no interest in mastering. And don’t push yourself too hard too fast. “The workouts should provide a physical and mental challenge that requires you to push beyond your comfort zone but not put you in a negative headspace,” says Meredith Van Ness, a Colorado-based licensed psychotherapist. If you’re not a fan of heights, then rock climbing wouldn’t be the best fit, but bouldering could work since it’s low to the ground.
As you decide which workouts to start with, the current status of your emotion regulation skills should be as much a consideration as your fitness level—especially if your ultimate goal through this process is to overcome a fear of failure or embarrassment. To achieve this, you might want to build out a hierarchy of emotional discomfort similar to exposure therapy, suggests Khazan: Start with jumping rope when nobody’s around so it doesn’t matter if you get tangled up at first, then schedule an online Zumba class to get used to being around others as you fumble, then progress to playing pickleball badly with a close friend, “until eventually the idea of doing something that challenges you becomes more important than whether or not you’re good at it.”
Now when I watch that character knock people over in her fitness class or botch an audition, I feel only solidarity and pride: Go, girl.