How Making a “Cringeworthy Pact” Hauled Me Back to Consistently Exercising

Midway through this year, after many failed attempts at getting back into my running regime, I invited my friend Didi to a Sunday morning nature reserve walk. With branches crunching beneath our feet, a herd of blesbuck grazing in the distance, and birds chirping above a treehouse in the center of the reserve, our conversation soon settled on the fresh air, how incredible it felt to be outside, and how ideal it would be to make this a regular practice after more than a year of housing the strain of a global crisis in our bodies. Didi had previously alluded to forming an accountability partnership in the pursuit of health. But in between work, studies, and the constant lockdown adjustments in our city, we had barely moved beyond complaints over stiff joints and creaky backs from all the sitting we’d been doing.

Now that we were finally out in the sun and surrounded by the woody scent of the tree canopy above us, though, we were eager for more. As introverts, we both tended to retreat into ourselves and quite enjoyed our own solitude, but we’d also grown weary of the mandatory isolation. So the prospect of an accountability partnership held a two-fold promise: We’d find a way to stay motivated as we resumed our individual exercise routines, and we’d have a reason to stay connected—even if our social reserves were at times low—simply to check in.

In the days that followed our nature reserve walk, and inspired by a Shondaland article that coined the term “cringeworthy pact,” Didi and I entered our own pledge to exercise. The rules were simple: Complete a minimum of three sessions of 30-minute exercise every week for a month. Each session was to be tracked, and we would submit our proof to one another every Sunday evening. The cringeworthy bit on my end was that for every exercise session I missed, I would have to donate a small set fee to a local anti-choice organization. The principle here was not to be divisive or punitive toward each other, because life happens and hard things could never be predicted, but “I don’t feel like it” was not a hard enough thing, and we were there to encourage consistency.

The first few sessions were smooth, but as with all new habits, there comes a time when you hit the wall of resistance. That resistance arrived the week of my birthday. So much that on the morning of my birthday, after I had woken up to the beaming smiles of my family and wiped away tears while reading the thoughtful cards they’d prepared alongside the treats and gifts they’d left on my bedside table, I swiftly rose from my bed. I couldn't wait to get to my carefully thought-out plans for the day, but none of that would matter if I did not first tie up my running shoes and lap the neighborhood for 30 minutes straight. I was particularly excited about exercising just then, but the thought of donating even a single cent to an anti-choice organization made me want to hurl. This was not how I was going to begin another journey around the sun.

To borrow from the phrase as popularized by Carol Hanisch, my personal exercise routine had become political. I refused to make a financial investment, albeit small, into any group that dismisses and dehumanizes women. When work and studies piled up, when the pandemic blues hit, and when menstrual cramps rendered me useless, I avoided my exercise as far as the boundary of the pledge allowed. And just as I did on my birthday morning, I then laced up my running shoes again, and again, and again.

That initial month has now passed, and stubbornness prevailed. Didi and I have laughed at one another, exchanged shrieking voice notes over increased walking/running distances and personal records, and delivered words of affirmation on difficult days. What we previously lacked in virtual connection, we made up for through our exercise pledge, and became closer despite social distancing. Together, we have adjusted beyond the initial resistance that comes with habit formation and shifted in our relationships with wellness, our bodies, and communal awareness. But the pledge has evolved, too. No longer is my motivation about withholding donations from an organization I blatantly despise. Instead, for every exercise session I do complete, I funnel donations into a jar specifically intended for a pro-choice organization that does care about the health and reproductive rights of women.

I may have needed my resentment to get me started, to form the habit, but that resentment ultimately reminded me that now more than ever, wellness does not occur in isolation. While it can be an individual effort, it doesn't have to be. When I thrive, my community thrives, and vice versa. And as much as the idea of exercise used to make me groan with annoyance, even though I cognitively knew that it was good for me, I now look forward to it for all the ways it serves me, my relationships, and my community. Because I now get to show up with mindfulness, kindness, and consideration, and still contribute to something important and beyond myself, even when my movement and involvement would otherwise be restricted.

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