Forget No Pain, No Gain: Find a Workout that Feels Great and Gives You a Break

For a long time, my workouts were motivated by fear, and I felt like I had to be in pain in order for it to count as a workout.

As soon as I turned fifteen, I had my mom drop me off at the YMCA so I could exercise in the gym. That was the age you had to be in order to get in, and I was there the day after my birthday.

Back then, like many young women, I had a terrible fear of gaining weight. Because at 15, it seemed like gaining weight was about the worst thing that could happen, I cranked my treadmill up to the highest incline, and ran as fast as I could to try to escape those worries for an hour. I spent a lot of time on that treadmill, trying to let go of the gnawing fear that if I ever skipped a day, I would gain weight.

During my Senior year of high school I ramped up my routine even more and signed up for a weight training class. Weight training was held in a drafty warehouse on our open campus, where a guy named Smitty taught us classical lifts (think Cleans, Squats, Bench Press, Military Press) as Metallica played at full volume. My readers Katie and Ashley will remember this! And even after all that pain, I would still go to the gym most days.

It wasn’t until I moved to Moab, Utah for the summer that I started to lose that fear. Since most days were over 100 degrees, and the house I lived in lacked air conditioning, I scrapped the workout routine I had carefully planned in my journal. I just couldn’t run in 110 degree heat. For the first time, I said no to pain. And you know what? Not much happened. My fear of gaining weight if I skipped a workout had not been reality. The thought that I had to be in pain in order to get a good workout, started to dissipate. That summer, my whole paradigm shifted.

For years after that, I worked out less fanatically: when I felt like it, when I had time, when there was a hot guy I thought I might bump into. Yet in all of this, I still didn’t pay attention to one key thing: how working out made me feel. It was always about some external goal– how I looked, who I would see, how I would be seen.

Then, I became a mother and everything changed. When my oldest son was 18 months old, I sat in a therapist’s office describing my symptoms of feeling joyless, anxious, and exhausted. Her response made me laugh out loud: “You need to take more time for self-care.” Of course I do, I thought, but who has time for that? “Do you have a kid?” I asked. She said she did not. After I stopped feeling smug, I decided to take her up on her suggestion. I’d try to figure out how to do more self-care. For me, that meant I had to find some extra childcare. The gym near my house had a kid’s club, but I hadn’t used it because I worried my son wouldn’t like it. I decided it was time to go anyway, just for the childcare. It still didn’t fully dawn on me that a workout routine could include the self-care that I needed.

On the first day of trying this routine, my son cried bloody murder for the first four visits. It made me feel awful. I literally had to pry his hands off of my legs and hand him to a childcare provider. I felt guilty. I felt like a bad mother. But I made a pact with myself that I would go at the same time every day for five days, and I was going to stick to it. On that first day, I had to get him after ten minutes; the next day it was twenty, then thirty, and on the fourth day I actually got a full workout. By day five, I was so defeated that I didn’t even suggest going to the gym. That was the day he brought me my running shoes and said, “Mini Mac, Mama?” I will never forget that moment, or his little hands holding up my shoes.

They say most people give up right before the breakthrough happens. And without my sweet boy, I would have given up, too. But that turned out to be the day my workout routine really began and it was the day that I discovered the self-care I needed could be combined into my workout. I discovered that I could get a workout while watching a show (any show I wanted!), then take a shower alone (as any mom will attest to, this is a novelty). I could actually put on make-up and do my hair, and pick up a smiling, happy kid in the end! It felt like a miracle. These were many of the things I never seemed to have time for in my new life as a mom. I drove away from the gym each day feeling healthier, happier, and so much more like myself.

But I also started to realize something. For me, working out isn’t just about how it will make my body look and it’s not about how much pain I can endure. Working out is a break; it’s one of the rare parts of my day that is just for me. And, it makes me feel good.

I’ve been going to the gym five days a week for about five years now, and I can’t imagine my life without it. Now that my kids are older, I’ve even added the sauna into my routine, which has made me love going to the gym even more! Because of all the perks of my workout, I find that I go even when I’m sick, or tired, or crazy busy. As my extended family will tell you, I go even when I have visitors in town. It may sound like I’ve just fallen back into my old obsessive habits, but I don’t see it that way. It’s no longer driven by fear or pain. I go because I love it. It’s not a punishment, or a bragging right, it’s my saving grace.

If you want to get back into a workout routine that makes you feel great, here’s an action plan with just 3 Steps:

1. Two words: Kid’s Club.

Finding time to workout with young kids can be so difficult. Find a gym with childcare you trust. If you aren’t sure, read reviews and ask other moms how they like it. Get your kids to warm up to it by going at the same time every day, so they get used to the routine. Bring a special snack they can only have at the kid’s club. Try to line them up play dates at the gym, if you can. I discovered some of my kids’ preschool friends’ parents also went to the gym, and asked if we could meet there and bring the kids at the same time. What can be better than a play-date you don’t have to supervise? Here’s a link to my gym, if you live in Seattle and you want to check it out.

2. Ask yourself what you’re currently missing and combine those things with your workout:

I made a list of the self-care that I felt I never had time to do as a new mom. It went something like this: exercise, take a long shower without a kid or husband barging in, do my hair, read, watch a show of my choice, meditate, think without getting interrupted (ha!). I realized all of these things could be combined into one lovely routine; my two hours of heaven. Find a gym with a sauna or hot tub and a locker room you like. Pack your favorite toiletries. Load your phone with library audio books, and your favorite shows, and playlists. Take ten minutes to sit in the sauna, and use that time to meditate.

3. Forget “No pain, no gain.” Make it feel good.

As a new mom, I didn’t get enough time alone, so going to classes didn’t feel good. It felt like someone else telling me what to do for an hour. I had two kids doing that all day. No thank you! Hard workouts that had the potential to hurt my already tender neck and back also didn’t suit. What I wanted was a workout that was fairly easy and gentle, for me that was a half an hour on the elliptical machine with a view of the water and a built in TV. If I felt like lifting weights after I did, and if I didn’t then I would give myself permission to do a long stretch and sauna. I’m starting to ramp it up a little here and there now that my kids are older (check out my post next week about the new workouts I’m trying!), but by and large, it is a workout that works for me. It makes me feel great, and it’s sustainable.

I hope this helps! If you like this post, please comment, share, and subscribe for weekly organizing inspiration.

Here’s to a joyful workout,

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