After another exhausting year that has seen more people than ever experience depression, many will still feel the new year’s pressure to kill it in the gym and snap back to our pre-pandemic selves.
While mental health experts agree that exercise can help combat low mood, all too often, fitness is overly focused on personal bests and calories burnt. Some might find that motivating, but the majority of us are held back by that negative spin on movement. It’s no wonder so many give up entirely and let their gym memberships gather dust (studies have shown that by February, over 40% of people have given up their resolutions).
Caroline Harper, mental health lead at Bupa UK, says that while perfectionism can keep you motivated, it can “leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted”.
“Perfectionism burnout happens when you feel emotionally and physically fatigued, and the pressure you’re under exceeds your ability to cope,” she tells Stylist.
“Signs of perfectionism burnout include not being able to perform or complete a task until it’s done perfectly, excessive list-making, avoiding situations that you feel have a risk of failure, and repeatedly checking over your work. If you repeatedly set yourself impossible standards, you’re at risk of experiencing perfectionism burnout.”
My own perfectionism has stopped me from attempting new hobbies because it’s frustrating not to master things very quickly. After picking up an injury during the London Marathon, I was reluctant to take up new sports – despite wanting to be more active again. I knew that I wouldn’t be as good at cycling, dancing or climbing as I was at long-distance running, so couldn’t understand the point in bothering.
But in recent months, I’ve started to wonder if that kind of defeatist thinking has been holding me back from having new, fulfilling experiences. What if we learned to love doing new things imperfectly in order to stave off ‘perfectionism burnout’ in 2022?
Instead of setting impossible new year’s resolutions to beat my old PBs, this year, I decided to embrace trying new sports in the hope of finding something I love, rather than seeing the gym as a chore. Here’s how I got on.
I prepared myself to fail at bouldering as I have very little upper-body strength, but the climbing centre’s induction made the beginner’s wall feel pretty achievable, and I was even onto the next wall in my first session.
You fall off a lot at the beginning, but the rush of reaching a boulder you didn’t think you could, and the problem-solving element of figuring out your route left me feeling accomplished. There’s also a camaraderie on the walls that I relished after years of solo running – I looked stuck at several points, and more experienced climbers showed me tricky moves that I wouldn’t have thought of myself.
It wasn’t long before muscles that I didn’t know I had started to really hurt. How the hell do you stretch out forearm pain?
My second class got off to a rough start, because it turns out that ‘level one ballet’ doesn’t mean ‘beginner’ – it means around one year of experience.
I felt out of my depth surrounded by gorgeous, stretchy women, but I quickly made a friend who let me copy her, and I was way too focused on getting the steps right to care that I was the least experienced there. Ballet was a fun class with a great teacher, but barre work felt too technical for me, and despite being there to avoid perfectionism, I felt a bit under pressure to get things right.
The women I was intimidated by were actually lovely, and their encouragement freed me of my self-consciousness. Overall, I’m glad I took the leap (or jeté) into ballet, but the search is still on to find a sport I love.
I had a feeling I would like martial arts, as it can be a great way of channelling your energy and improving discipline if, like me, you have ADHD.
The class was a challenging workout without leaving me exhausted, and I felt strong and empowered after kicking the hell out of the instructor’s pad. The first class also felt like a solid foundation as the instructors made sure you knew each technique well, so I felt like I learned something even if I don’t continue kickboxing.
A downside from this class? A surprising amount of every gym-goers worst enemy: burpees.
I went into class expecting a leotard-clad Eric Prydz Call On Me experience, but aerobics is no joke. It’s essentially an hour of jumping with the odd weight thrown in. I was past my fitness comfort point before the warm-up had finished.
More than anything, exercise perfectionism keeps me from going to group classes, as I’m afraid of being embarrassed if I can’t keep up, but this was a huge class, and I definitely wasn’t the only one who had to break for a breather.
While I probably won’t try aerobics again until my fitness is in a better place (I had a major stitch for most of the class), it did a great job of shoving me out of my comfort zone – I didn’t entirely manage to keep up, but my red, sweaty face was proof enough that I tried my best.
This class was by far my favourite and was a fantastic way to end this challenge.
Set to 80s bangers, we shimmied and freestyled through the songs and I’ve never felt freer while exercising. I’ve never really danced without a couple of drinks in my system, so I’ve always felt hesitant to join a dance class, but this Zoom lesson felt so fun and silly I actually felt myself let go.
I’ve always thought of exercise as something to force yourself into or to win at, but bopping to Kylie felt like the opposite of that; it felt joyfully imperfect, and something I can see myself continuing – not for toning or sculpting, but because I enjoyed it.
Overall, I feel like 80s dance may be my calling. I’m not quite at the legwarmers stage, but the feeling of letting loose was the perfect antidote to nearly two years without much spontaneous fun. Hopefully in 2022, you won’t find me slogging away in the gym (which I personally never enjoyed), but shaking my bum to Whitney.
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Images: Emily Chudy