In my prior life as a Type A-holic, I used to hit the gym 5-6 days a week without fail. That’s not something I’m proud of, just the truth. Working out was so ingrained into my routine, I sacrificed sleep (and sanity) to cram it in every day.
And not only that, but I never missed a workout. Really, I literally can’t remember ever voluntarily skipping a planned workout day during that time. If I committed to going to the gym, I was going to get some kind of workout in, even if I had to improvise when circumstances placed me away from a traditional gym environment.
I’ll admit, this might not sound like the worst habit to have developed. Just showing up to the gym consistently is more than half the battle for most people, and I get that. But looking back, I was probably taking things to an unhealthy extreme. The act of physically going to the gym somehow overshadowed the why behind it all. I confused “never missing a workout” with my end goal, rather than feeling good and functioning at a high level. The act of going to the gym trumped actually taking stock of my body and mind. It didn’t matter how I felt, whether I was injured, tired, or sick. I was going to the gym dammit!
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I did what previously would have been unthinkable. After waking up at 6:00am to get ready for the gym, I stopped, scanned my body, then got under the covers and went straight back to bed.
Screw the gym, I thought. I’m going back to sleep.
WTF?! Did I really just voluntarily decide not to go to the gym? To skip a planned workout? Was I getting soft?
Actually, it was the best decision I could have made. After taking stock of my body, I realized going to the gym just wasn’t worth it. I had not slept well that week, was overly stressed mentally, and felt a twinge in my knee acting up. Missing one day at the gym wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and in fact, it might have been the best decision I could have made for my overall health and well-being at the time.
Look Before You Leap – The Pause
Let me clarify a couple things. It’s not that I’m less motivated than I was before, or care any less about the health benefits of working out and physical fitness. I’ve just had a change in perspective. I no longer view gym-going as an end goal unto itself, but rather as one ingredient to add to the pot of feeling good stew. I recognize that overall health isn’t just about the number of workouts logged, but rather how well the total stress load on your body and mind collectively seesaws to a healthy balance.
And while this change in perspective has been great, a resulting practice I picked up has made all the difference. I’ll call it the “Pause,” and it only takes a few seconds to complete every morning. This practice helps me assess whether going to the gym is a good idea or not, and it was during this period that I made the recent decision to get back in bed for another hour of sleep.
Here’s how the Pause works. After waking up, I get out of bed and stand up. I then run through a quick scan to assess how I feel in three areas:
- Physical health – Do I feel energized and strong? Or am I sore, fatigued, or injured?
- Stress level – Is there a tightness in my chest, or a nagging pain that won’t go away? Do I feel overly stressed? Can I pinpoint the cause and where it’s coming from, or am I just tired and in need of more sleep?
- Emotional state – Am I emotionally willing and capable of mindfully focusing on my body for the next hour? Or am I distracted by anxiety and other stressors that will impede my ability to have a good workout?
This Pause makes going to the gym a conscious choice, rather than a mindless activity performed out of habit. I recommend you give it a try. To help your decision making as you start implementing this practice, here’s my guide for when you should NOT go to the gym.
Don’t Go to the Gym IF:
- Your muscles are still sore from your last workout
- A nagging injury is acting up
- You got less than 7 hours of deep sleep last night
- You’ve gotten less than 8 hours of deep sleep for more than a week straight
- You’re ravenously hungry. Go back to bed and have a nice big breakfast when you wake up
- You have a terrible headache
- Severe cottonmouth is getting the better of you. You may be dehydrated, in which case a workout probably isn’t the best idea
- You’re hungover from the night before. Sounds like a no-brainer, but unfortunately I’ve done it
Still not sure whether you should skip the gym? Try this: Get out of bed and drink a full glass of water. Sit down on the floor, and close your eyes. If you struggle to stay awake, don’t go to the gym!
Trust me, you don’t want to make “going to the gym” your health and wellness strategy. Instead, treat it as one element among many that can help you feel good every day.