Hi Swole Woman,
This is a weird! time!
I’m really, really struggling with how to not beat myself up for not being able to go to the gym. I’m doing in-home workouts and going outside and doing some cardio but I feel terrible about taking rest days because I feel like I’m not *doing* anything (even though I know that’s wrong but my brain isn’t behaving). I also feel guilty if I don’t workout because I’m stuck inside, not moving all day. It’s tricky! Do you have any tips for working out at home in the age of pandemic?
OK, a) of all: If you’re working out at all in general, you’re a champ. Exercise is really important for a number of reasons beyond how you look or being an accomplished athlete: it’s great for your mood, mental health, general health. Working out is for everyone. B) of all, it is not an understatement to say we are, culturally speaking, in a crisis right now. That’s not even due to the literal fact of the virus going around, but more so due to the weight of having a political system and economy that folds like a napkin in a situation like this, as well as a political leadership that is too stupid and narrow-minded to rise to the occasion in any meaningful way. That’s a lot to have going on on top of worrying about also taking proper care of yourself, let alone being mean to yourself about not working out every single day. Should you be exercising to some degree, which can including even going out for a walk? Probably. Should you be worrying about it? Absolutely not.
Given the weight of the situation we’re in right now, it’s especially hard to work out. I know many people are struggling. I’m even struggling for the regularity I was achieving (three days a week) when I theoretically had less time. This is mostly due to the fact that when my couch is right there, it is super tempting to lie down on it, instead of doing something that requires more effort than lying down on it, particularly when the world is bad. I know many, many people are having this related problem, and I will get to this more in a minute after I’ve answered the question you’re actually asking.
Pandemic emotions aside, the couch-is-right-there problem is a big reason working out at home has never worked for me long term, in addition to the fact that most home workouts are marketed based on pretty drastic results that feel incredibly unlikely (“get abs”, “build a butt,” “get a boyfriend,” “win at the stock market,” etc). Despite being a perpetually anxious person and maybe the most working-outest person you know, my drive to manage my anxiety by doing a few pushups or squats is also pretty sparse. When you can’t do all that you once did when the world was normal, that’s no reason to despair, and especially not a reason especially to hate yourself. This is an extreme time, and you’re making extreme adaptations and need to meet yourself where you are right now.
Even walking is good, but it's also a nice time to take some pressure off and get creative
I know a lot of people are afraid to even go outside right now, but taking walks or running outside is still considered to be safe, as long as you’re not colliding with other people while you’re doing it. (Even in New York on our narrow little sidewalks, we’re all doing a pretty good job of staying six feet away from each other.) While I love to be down on cardio in principle and think, as with home workouts, we tend to lean way too hard on it as the One Perfect Form of Exercise, getting outside and propelling yourself around for a bit in our current circumstances is really important. It’s particularly important if you don’t have a backyard or somewhere you can move around privately.
I’ve been walking a mile or two most days and keep saying I’m going to get back into running in tandem with my at-home workouts. I haven’t made it there yet, on the semi-excuse that I’m still building the habit of working out at home, without a gym, with only a single dumbbell and a pullup bar and my body weight to work with.
I had truly forgotten how uphill the challenge can be of figuring out what is within your power to do, in situations like this. I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time looking around at the objects in my house, figuring out what I can pick up and put down. (My partner so far refuses to let me squat with him on my back, but I am efforting this initiative.) I’ve literally been squatting a planter full of water that weighs, to my best guess, 50ish pounds, and just doing more reps and sets than I would for a heavier weight. Here are some of the full workouts I've been doing:
Fortunately, the fitstagram sphere of people who are normally huge gym rats has absolutely blossomed with creative solutions over the last few weeks. People are doing inverted rows with the undersides of tables; using bands to invent new ways of doing pull exercises; squatting or deadlifting suitcases full of heavy books. I found this absolutely incredible pistol-squat progression that I’ve never seen before elsewhere (hard to overstate how terrible I am at pistol squats).
Below are embeds of examples of this stuff, a lot of them from some of my favorite accounts that I’d highly recommend following for innovative at-home solutions right now. If you don’t have their exact same weights, try getting creative with what you have in the house: bags filled with books, gallon jugs filled with water, heavy furniture (literally in this moment, I just had the idea to half-tire-flip my couch, and honestly, I might do it), all the extra beans and rice you stocked up on, tolerant pets and children, whatever you can find.
I can hardly name all the new things I’ve seen out there, to the degree I can only imagine people whose one true wish was to work out at home are deeply side-eyeing us all for keeping this stuff in our back pocket. But necessity has really been the mother of invention here, and there’s never been so many of us actually, permanently, unequivocally locked out of our gyms and wanting to protect some of our jacked-and-tan normalcy.
It’s best to think of a time like now as one for cross-training: You can work on rehabbing nagging injuries, building up better activation in your weak muscles (I hardly know anyone who works a desk job and doesn’t have fully-asleep glutes), load up on more yoga or stretching. A looooot of people are dancing, and there’s no end to the dance instructors livestreaming seshes right now (DanceChurch, Ryan Heffington), or the number of TikTok dances you can learn (I did my best with the Savage challenge a shot the other day, and it was a great warm-up).
You can also take this time to shore up the rest of the picture of your health, and that includes outside of the gym; for instance, are you still unsure what a “macro” is, or how much protein you need? It’s a perfect time to build that knowledge base. My own gym has done some great nutrition-oriented Instagram stories, and I love @thephysiofix for all kinds of stretches and mobility work.
If it feels like too much right now, it might be
But now I want to get into the tension some people are feeling about the pressure to polish this turd of a time into Being Their Best Self. It’s important not to underestimate the gravity of what a person goes through in extreme circumstances like this and how it can affect you.
While I’m personally weathering this pretty OK, so far, I know emotional circumstances like this can manifest in extremely difficult ways for a lot of people. In my lowest moments, I will simply sit on my couch and spiral, knowing intellectually there are a number of things I could or should be doing, but feeling none of the agency or power I need to do them, and then feeling guilty about that, and then I just go through that cycle for hours until it’s time to move from my couch to my bed and do that some more. On occasion, this has gone on for days until I literally exhaust myself from all of the thinking and feeling and can finally sleep a little, but then it begins again.
If that’s the place you’re in, then of course you can’t simply go do a workout. Working out can be incredibly important for mental health, but you also need a relatively safe place to start from that you would be correct to feel you do not have.
A thing to keep in mind is that nothing lasts forever, and it’s quite possible you just need some time and space to adjust. It’s normal and healthy to feel feelings, even extreme ones, when extreme things happen (death, divorce, betrayal, sudden job loss, a global pandemic; the sources of suffering and anxiety in life are many!).
The American/capitalist drive to nearly immediately “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” and treat bad situations and feelings like a problem-solving challenge to be addressed with action items (Get a “revenge body”! Buy a new dress! Go to a spa! Sleep with someone! Go out with friends and dance!) is, uh, I guess admirable in certain cases, but wrong-headed. There’s a time for that stuff, but the time is not always “as soon as physically possible,” because sometimes what is physically possible is not mentally or emotionally possible, for now.
If you’re feeling this way, particularly for extended periods, it may mean it’s time for outside help. You don’t have to have a complete picture of what that help is going to look like or an entire plan of how you’re going to cure yourself, but you need to recognize it for what it is and reach out to a doctor, a therapist, a friend, a family member. I’ve often said I wouldn’t wish the process of finding a therapist in our byzantine health care system on anyone but especially not someone experiencing a mental health crisis, but there does exist relatively low-cost therapy, there are support groups, and I know some states have built out more public mental health offerings during this time. Someone you trust might not be able to point you straight at a therapist, for instance, but may help you look and figure it out.
I have surprised myself many times with how much better I manage bad situations in the long run when I make my world small during crises. I focus on getting through the day; I focus on taking an occasional deep breath; brushing my teeth; eating once in a while. I know I’ll be ready to reintroduce the more complex aspects of life (working out, relationships, finding a new job, moving to a new city) in time, in a way that is slow, deliberate, and iterative. I might try and add a thing into my routine, and it might be too much, so I put it aside, and I can try again later. (The “seek help” advice comes in when attempts to do the things you know you want to or should do continually fall apart.)
Feeling generally motivated to work out is a different issue than “feeling motivated to work out at any time” or “feeling motivated to work out as a proactive response to a bad situation.” I’m sure there are such people who are the latter case, and frankly, I’m not sure if they’re OK.
There is surely nothing wrong with not moving around constantly or not coping with anxiety through physical activity; likewise, no one should feel guilty for being too overwhelmed to turn being trapped at home into some sort of personal-development journey. Be gentle and honest with yourself in this moment; now is not the time to beat yourself up because you didn’t work out at all today, or worked out six days this week but not seven. (Rest is important and #nodaysoff is a menace.) Do what constitutes taking care of yourself, and hold the pressure to “make the absolute best” of this scenario at an extreme distance.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org .