My work is really relevant right now and I hate that.
Maybe that sounds weird, but I am a movement-based trauma practitioner, and coronavirus has brought with it a shadow pandemic of psychological and societal trauma. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a poll in late April that found almost half of Americans said COVID-19 is affecting their mental health, and nineteen percent say it has had a major impact. A federal crisis helpline, The Disaster Distress Helpline, saw an 880 percent increase in calls and a 1000 percent increase in texts since this time last year. Many of us need support right now.
In response, I created Movement@Home, a curated directory of movement practitioners who offer thoughtful, holistic, and balanced approaches to exercising at home. Everyone listed is trauma-sensitive or Health At Every Size (HAES) aligned. Movement@Home includes a diverse group of practitioners from a wide range of modalities including strength and conditioning, weightlifting, play, yoga, and pilates all of whom have a holistic view of movement. I hope it will have something for nearly everyone.
I felt specifically called to create Movement@Home because during the first two weeks immediately following New York On PAUSE, New York State’s response to COVID-19, I scrolled through my social media feeds and worriedly watched as many of my friends and colleagues began to train excessively. They were taking on every social media fitness challenge they were tagged in, and doing nearly every free workout that flooded the online market.
Curious if what I was seeing reflected what was going on, I began to ask people via different social network groups how the stay at home orders impacted their exercise routines. Before COVID-19, Kat played tennis and strength trained regularly to manage chronic hip and back pain and to “feel strong and capable.” After we were called to stay home, Kat said, “I actually felt a lot of pressure to increase my workouts. With the extra time at home, it felt like a “no brainer” to be more active and to lose the extra weight, finally.” Kat, like many Americans, initially saw coronavirus as an opportunity to get more fit because she no longer had a commute, client lunches, or obligations related to her child’s participation in track. But what initially felt like opportunity, became another stressor. “I felt so much anxiety to do online pilates classes, bike for miles, run again even though I am a terrible runner, and to be some incredibly fit person. I even did a five-day Prolon fast, which was horrible and agonizing. Never again.”
While exercise is great for coping with stress, a sharp increase in exercise can have a deleterious effect on your overall well-being. It can lead to disrupted sleep, suppressed immune system function, and an increase in stress hormone production, which will leave you feeling worse for wear. For about three weeks, Kat experienced heightened anxiety, a loss of muscle mass, and no weight loss. Worst of all, she was unable to hold onto one of her primary reasons for working out — she no longer felt strong. Fortunately, around week four of the pandemic, Kat was able to find “a happy medium” that she describes as “Just active enough. No pressure. And gets the wiggles out.”
I also answered direct messages and emails from former clients and loved ones who felt completely paralyzed by not knowing how to adjust their practices to do them in their homes. Some of them had little or no equipment and or they had no idea whom they should trust for balanced and thoughtful online instruction. Others were completely overwhelmed by the pandemic and the calls to start working out at home were making things worse.
Pat, a former client wrote, “I have been seeing SO MUCH in my feed and I have been feeling tired and annoyed by it all. I have been working so damn hard on self-compassion and I’ve been trying to just notice, and get curious about my feelings. I realized that I have been solo in my apartment with BOTH kids for nearly a solid week. I have been doing all the regular parenting plus homeschooling and trying to manage my own anxieties about the virus, my exposure, my kids’ exposure, and I don’t have anywhere to escape because I live in a one bedroom! I’m tired even before we factor in the thyroid issue I have and haven’t gotten treatment for yet. I don’t need to get all of the workout at home hype too. I need a nap!”
I asked around, outside of the world of fitness professionals, and I found that a lot of people did not know how to get their instruction needs met — not because there wasn’t instruction out there — but because there was too much. Stephanie, a fifty-one year old runner and yoga enthusiast from Maine, was both overwhelmed by all the options, and also felt there was nothing for her. “I felt overwhelmed by the online yoga market. I also feel like it does not cater to the 50+ crowd.” Fortunately for Stephanie, she was able to go back to her Ashtanga roots. But not everyone has resources like Stephanie does to fall back on.
However, everyone would likely benefit from some thoughtful exercise, especially people who feel anxious or depressed. Engaging in regular exercise has been proven to have beneficial effects on anxiety and depression. When you exercise, your brain releases dopamine and endocannabinoids. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger that delivers messages between nerve cells, and endocannabinoids deliver messages from the nerves to receptors throughout the body. When your brain releases these chemicals you experience a reduction in pain, stress, and worries — all three of which seem to be prevalent issues for lots of folks right now. And people seem to either know this or intuitively get this. Nearly everyone I spoke to who has been working out — whether they are Peloton enthusiasts, yogis, runners, walkers, or weightlifters — said that they turned to exercise to help them cope with the stress of life during the pandemic.
But some people aren’t sure how to navigate workouts without access to their usual routines. Heather, a runner and curler who until March was training for a half marathon and a curling tournament, suddenly found herself without access to curling, or the support of a coach or teammates to run trails with. Running with the support of others gave her a sense of safety that she needs while training for longer distances on trails. And while she solved that problem by training in her Columbus, OH neighborhood instead of on trails, she now has other problems to manage. “It’s difficult to stay away from everyone else walking on the sidewalks, so I wind up in the streets, which has its own share of anxiety.”
As we cope with a global health crisis that has left many of us feeling isolated and afraid for an indefinite amount of time, it is paramount that we be even more intentional with how we tend to our mental health and wellness. The diverse group of practitioners listed have approaches that are holistic and emphasize overall health and wellness as opposed to aesthetics or athletic performance.
I reached out to a couple of the practitioners listed on Movement@Home to see what they had to say about this. Helen Phalen, a Brooklyn-based pilates instructor and integrative health coach said, “so many of my clients have been coming to me saying they have no energy, they can’t find motivation to move their bodies but they know from experience that they always feel better when they do. So I’ve been really encouraging people to lean into their intuition — taking my classes might feel right one day, but a long walk in the sunshine or a rest day might be what they need the next. Given the constantly changing nature in the news with COVID-19, I know at least personally my ‘routine’ is nothing like it was, by design. I need to be able to support what’s going on with me relative to the specific instance and energy of the day, not just because it’s a Wednesday. Moving more intuitively relieves some of the pressures of traditional, diet culture-y fitness and just living in NYC puts on us to feel motivated and productive 24/7, all of which is exhausting for the nervous system.”
Personally, I have not remained unscathed by the shadow pandemic. I am a little frayed at the edges, startling easily when I see movement out of the corner of my eye. My attention span is diminished. I catch myself bracing my trunk and leg muscles when I don’t have to. My dreams are vivid and weird. But I have followed my own advice and I am much better off for it. I engage in intentional movement daily. I am thoughtfully strength training twice a week, which is less often than before. But I am also doing yoga and taking walks. Historically my back pain flares up under prolonged stress but no such thing has happened and I have been sleeping a solid night’s sleep nearly every night despite the weird dreams and history of anxiety-related insomnia. I don’t think that this is just because I exercise prioritizing my mental health, but I am confident that my movement practice helps and that is reason enough for me.
If you are one of the many Americans out there trying to figure out how to use movement to take care of your whole self — body, mind, and spirit — I hope you will take a look at the different offerings from the practitioners listed on Movement@Home. Let’s get moving thoughtfully!