12 minutes, 48 seconds. That’s how long it took me to run the mile in middle school. Afterwards, I huffed for minutes on end while my peers easily moved on to other PE activities. I was so embarrassed that I begged my doctor for a note so I could be medically excused from running in class ever again, blaming my acid reflux. (It worked.)

I’ve never enjoyed exercise. Whereas my colleagues, friends, and husband relish strenuous mountain hikes or weight-lifting at the gym, I consider myself more of an “indoor cat,” feeling stressed and anguished at the thoughts of being that out of breath again. But I’ve been left feeling less-than in comparison and endlessly hoping to find a physical activity I liked.

“Over the years, I’ve tried it all: Indian dancing, digital Zumba classes, yoga memberships.”

Over the years, I’ve tried it all: Indian dancing, digital Zumba classes, yoga memberships. I purchased a bike during the pandemic, hoping to get in on the “at-home cycling” trend. I paid $400+ for a premium gym membership, telling myself that the fee would incentivize me to get my money’s worth. Narrator voice: It did not.

None of these activities gave me joy. “Working out” became synonymous with dread, and for every new activity I disliked, I checked it off my running list of shame (pun intended).

I lamented on this—and my worsening self-esteem—with my therapist, wondering why I couldn’t keep up with seemingly everyone else in my world. Where I had been berating myself, she instead tried to encourage me. In one session, she suggested starting with the bare minimum. What if my only goal was to put on activewear for the day? To throw on sneakers even if I don’t go anywhere?

Most importantly, what if I focused on movement rather than burning calories, counting reps, or clocking mileage? This was the most resonant suggestion of all; it immediately brought me back to my childhood days playing baseball in my backyard, Four Square with my best friends, and building a mini-fort up high in a neighbor’s tree. In those days, I had found joy. No focus on outputs, weight loss, or goals…just being outside and having fun.

Inspired by her suggestions and feeling motivated to move, I took out my three-pound dumbbells that had long been collecting dust and queued up the Peloton app. Having heard that Cody Rigsby was a favorite instructor—particularly for his non-fitness-related rants, so you forget you’re exercising—I tried his five-minute arm “warm-up.”

I immediately regretted starting with the heavier dumbbells instead of the one-pound weights. It was impossible to keep up with the high reps or long holds, but I allowed myself to pause as needed, following along with Cody’s encouragement to rest and to do my best, rather than try to keep up with him—someone whose entire career is devoted to working out.

“Afterwards, my arms were on fire, immediately expelling the notion that five minutes of exercise couldn’t make a difference.”

Afterwards, my arms were on fire, immediately expelling the notion that five minutes of exercise couldn’t make a difference. Emotionally, too, I was incredibly proud of myself for following through. Knowing that the first time is often the hardest, I felt encouraged to try again—at my own pace, without counting reps or noting the calories burned.

The next day, I tried again. Then again. Within a few weeks, I began taking Cody’s 10-minute classes, feeling intrinsically motivated by the Peloton’s exercise badges but more so by my own tenacity. I wouldn’t say I found joy in those moments, though pacing around and loudly grunting while doing 30 reps of shoulder presses was pretty comical.

But I did feel a sense of accomplishment; I couldn’t have completed the workouts weeks earlier, and now I could easily do them with the three-pound weights. I even began feeling baby muscles within my biceps, which I excitedly showed to anyone who asked (or didn’t). It was almost like the saying “it’s about feeling strong over losing weight” had some substance to it.

Nowadays, I’m less focused on getting back to those specific arm exercises—oh darn, I miss those tricep extensions (a lie)—and more about moving my body. In a culture that puts so much emphasis on intense HIIT or Crossfit classes, physical fitness, and body transformations, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the idea of movement—especially when, for many of us, we’ve never enjoyed “workouts.”

The reality is, it’s not all progress pics and transformations. There have been weeks where I’ve “fallen off the wagon” because of travel, life events, or simply because I didn’t feel up to it. Yet beating myself up and seeing these breaks as regression only focuses on goal-oriented workouts again, rather than caring for my body through movement, and in the way that works best for me.

“The reality is, it’s not all progress pics and transformations…what’s best for me is movement I enjoy.”

And what’s best for me is movement I enjoy. It may be a 20-minute walk with my dog, soft stretches on my living room floor to unlock my hips, a leisurely stroll with a friend from the parking lot to the car, a slow-and-steady uphill walk to Santa Barbara’s downtown, or bouncing my legs up and down as I work.

I may not see physical results or experience a heightened heart rate, but I feel good knowing I’m meeting myself where I’m at, getting my blood moving, and—as momentum to continue on—feeling accomplished. And that has done more for my self-esteem than any workout ever could.

When I think back to running those laps on our school’s soccer field—slogging through muddy patches and feeling the burn in my lungs—I realize now that 12:48 (or six minutes or six hours) wasn’t anything to feel bad about. A mile run was a mile run, no matter how it got done.

Henah Velez (she/her) is the Executive Producer at Money with Katie at Morning Brew, as well as a writer at The Good Trade. She holds a Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and is a proud Rutgers grad. Originally from NJ, Henah’s now in the Bay Area where she loves shopping small, hanging with her pets, or traveling. Say hi on Instagram!

Featured image includes model Norrine Maupin wearing dress by Shaina Mote; jewelry by Apse