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Why Work Out When You Want to Set Fire to the World?

Today, I want to address why you should take the time to workout even though everything is a nightmare hellscape right now. Then, next week, I’ll publish resources for some pandemic-proof ways you can work out and invite you to remotely attend a Fitness for Feminist workout in support of Until Freedom, an “intersectional social justice organization rooted in the leadership of diverse people of color to address systemic and racial injustice.” Because institutionalized racism is real and we all have to do everything in our power to bring it to an end.

When we see the world around us falling apart, it can be difficult to make time to take care of ourselves. But not working out isn’t going to save the world. It might, however, make you too sick to fight. Right now, the best reason I can give you to work out is to complete the stress cycle. Before the pandemic hit, I read the book Burnout by Emily and Ameilia Nagoski (and I highly recommend it). I’m going to condense a little bit of the information I learned in the book stressors, stress, and completing the stress cycle.

Stressors are things outside your body that make you want to rip out your hair. We are currently in a world with a lot of stressors that are well beyond the norm for many of us: a worldwide pandemic, social distancing, widespread protests. These stressors are impossible to avoid and they are in addition to our normal stressors: work, school, taking care of our families, and (for too many) the chronic stress that comes from surviving the racism that exists in our country.

Stress is the way we react to those stressors inside our body: fight, flight, and freeze. Physiologically when we encounter a stressor, our hormones shift, our blood pressure increases, our digestion slows down, and we become hyper-vigilant. And those are just some of the ways our bodies respond to stress so that we can survive our stressors. The list is way too extensive to get into here but the short of it is that if your body is constantly experiencing stress, your blood pressure will be chronically high (which is bad for your heart), you won’t digest your food (which is bad for your nutrition), and you’ll have trouble concentrating and sleeping (which is not conducive to changing the world).

To complicate things further, as the Nagoskis explain, getting away from a stressor is not enough to complete the stress cycle. I’m going to paraphrase a really great example they used to illustrate what this means.

Say you’re an early human who’s being chased by a lion. You’re running full speed back to your village because you know you can’t beat the lion yourself, but your community can help you beat the lion. You make it home and they hear your screams, coming out to help you slay the lion. Together, you butcher the lion, use its meat and fur, and dance around the fire to celebrate. You’ve completed the stress cycle and you sleep easy that night.

Now, imagine that you’re running from the lion but instead of making it to your village, the lion is struck by lightning and killed. Even though the lion is gone, your heart is still beating a mile a minute, you’re still searching in every shadow for more lions. You’re not ready to celebrate because even though the lion is dead, your stress cycle hasn’t completed.

Removing the stressor does not remove the stress.

The Nagoskis explain that chronic stress, which we’re all living under at all times and which is especially prevalent right now, becomes a problem when “the stress outpaces our capacity to process it” (Burnout, p. 9). See above re: heart, stomach, and brain.

In order to process the stressor, it’s vital that you turn away from the stress and physically burn if off. Dance. Run. Throw around some kettlebells. Get your heart pumping, get sweaty, and spend a half hour completing your stress response. Take some time and work out like your life depends on it. Because it truly does.

Also consider this: white supremacy wants us too stressed to fight. It needs us weak. So let’s work out as an act of rebellion. Let’s work out so we can stay centered, sharp, and powerful. Let’s complete the stress cycle so we can wake up every morning ready to crush white supremacy.

Say it with me, kids: get strong (not small).

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