Have you ever felt like as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) you just aren’t cut out for physical exercise? It’s intense, exhausting, and draining, and you can’t seem to “make” yourself do it. Plus, trying to force yourself to fit something else into an already busy day just doesn’t seem possible, or even healthy.
As HSPs, we are prone to overwhelm, due to our finely-tuned nervous systems that process everything more deeply than non-HSPs. Cramming in a 30-minute workout might seem like exactly the opposite of what our bodies and souls need when we’re already so stimulated.
And yet, we also know that HSPs in particular benefit greatly from physical exercise. Let’s dive into why that is.
Why do HSPs benefit from exercise?
HSPs benefit from being physically active because movement helps regulate our nervous system, which for HSPs is genetically predisposed to being more reactive and prone to overstimulation. In addition to the general health benefits of exercise, HSPs benefit from our nervous systems being soothed, and feeling more centered, grounded, and anchored in our bodies.
Have you ever taken a walk during the middle of your day, especially if you noticed you were either especially stressed or especially low-energy, just to “get out of the office” or “get away for a minute”? What was the experience like for you? I’m guessing it was rejuvenating and/or calming – that’s an example of feeling your nervous system regulate itself.
I’m just not a “sports” person.
OK, so we know exercise is good for us. But it’s hard to feel like exercising when it comes at a cost – namely, exhaustion and overwhelm. Plus, the kinds of exercise that are popularized in our society are often very intense, and might not be appealing to us as HSPs.
Why is this so common for HSPs? Well, unless you’re High Sensation Seeking (more on this to come in a future post), the experience of participating in intense activity likely sets your nervous system off to a degree that’s uncomfortable or even anxiety-inducing – and that’s not surprising, as one of the key traits of highly sensitive people is being prone to overstimulation.
Emotions Surrounding Exercise
In addition, there can be emotional baggage we’re carrying around exercise. Many HSPs have had less-than-fun experiences in sports or with exercise in general growing up. Maybe we were pushed too hard by a coach, yelled at by a teammate or the crowd, or just simply overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. We might have wished we could be playing with a butterfly in the outfield instead of catching the ball.
We may also have deep emotional layers around what exercising means, and why we should do it. Those layers aren’t necessarily pretty. Perhaps we were shamed for our bodies’ appearance by doctors, family members, or friends, and so exercise took on a whole different meaning. Understandably, engaging with all of that could be the definition of unappealing.
But still, deep down, we know that some kind of movement is necessary for our well-being, so we often keep trying new things. Maybe we’ve gone to workout classes, bought expensive home equipment, or joined gyms with the hope that we could find what’s right for us. Sometimes these work, and sometimes we’re left feeling more hopeless than before.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to engage in physical movement that supports us without the overwhelm and emotional stress that comes from forcing ourselves to do something overstimulating?
Gentle Exercise Options
Many HSPs have found that, while they simply don’t enjoy the intensity of fast-paced sports, they feel rejuvenated and peaceful while doing things like gardening, walking, swimming, or doing yoga. These are all wonderful options – I highly recommend trying each of these to see if they fit for you. It’s important to say here that different things work for everyone, and what works for me might not work for you. It’s completely valid if you find the perfect form of activity for you – whether that be HIIT workouts or yin yoga!
But if you haven’t found your “thing” yet, or if you’re game to consider something new, I want to suggest that there’s another kind of exercise out there – one that’s perfect for HSPs, and that you’ve probably never considered:
Wait, don’t leave!
I can bet you are scoffing slightly, maybe shaking your head or laughing, imagining yourself sprinting up some remote trail on top of a mountain, panting for breath and sweating profusely. I bet you’re thinking, “well that’s clearly not for me,” and moving to click away. But hear me out – I’m an HSP who has experienced all of the struggles of finding an activity that works for me, and I’ve been a trail runner for the past 5 years. This might be just the thing you’re looking for!
Okay, so to start off, the name “trail running” is kind of a misnomer for the often gentle, always incredible, deep, spiritual experience that this sport has been for me, and is for so many others (including non-HSPs!). Let’s get into why I think it’s so perfect.
Here are 9 reasons why trail running is perfect for HSPs:
1. It doesn’t have to be about speed
Probably the biggest reason that trail running is perfect for HSPs is because of one huge factor: it doesn’t have to be centered around actually running.
Seriously? You’re probably thinking. Yep – believe it or not, I’m here to tell you that lots of my time spent trail running hasn’t actually been running at all!
If you spectate a trail race, you’ll notice that the majority of runners you see will have been walking – yes, walking! – for at least some of the race. They have big smiles on their faces, and are tired, but coming into aid stations (tents set up at regular intervals along a course with volunteers handing out food and drinks) ready to pause, sit down, chat for a bit, and eat some snacks before carrying on.
Sure, lots of folks run most of the time, but that’s not the point – or, it’s not the only point. There’s so much more to this wonderful activity than how fast you can split a mile.
2. The community is extremely supportive and kind
Building off the point above, from the last place finisher to the world champion, the trail running community is extremely non-judgmental, supportive, and kind to anyone who wants to participate. I believe this comes from a shared sense of struggle – everyone who chooses to trail run is exerting some kind of effort, whether it be physical or mental, and that bonds us all together.
I’ve met some incredible people on trails, during a race or on a training run, and frequently marvel at how inclusive the sport strives to be – it’s definitely a deep part of the culture!
It’s common to find trail running clubs that wait for every member, no matter what your pace might be. I think this is a beautiful example of the community feeling that trail running is steeped in.
3. It’s a spiritual experience
There’s nothing like the feeling of connectedness to the Universe that I get while I’m on a trail run. Obviously some runs are more “cosmic” than others, but I can still call almost perfectly to memory the times when I’ve actually been brought to tears on a run by the strength of a feeling of unity and oneness with all creation.
Once, I was running just inland from the central coastline of California across lush, rolling green hills with sweeping views that went on for miles. It looked like it might rain, but the temperature that day was warm. A cold breeze suddenly blew in, bringing with it a downpour. I laughed with joy and a little exhilaration as I kept moving, feeling the cold rain tapping on the outside of my jacket as the wind pushed me slightly from side to side.
I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of basic human-ness, like someone had just reminded me that I was, at my core, an animal; a part of the natural world, just like the grass and birds and insects around me. All the things that had been bothering me and replaying in my mind about work, responsibilities, stress, and life just…melted away. None of it really mattered. And as I looked up into the sky, a rainbow had emerged directly in front of me. It was truly one of those moments where you believe that everything is meant to be – just the way it is.
4. Connection to nature is powerful for HSPs
HSPs tend to feel a deep connection with nature. While on the trail, I find myself regularly gazing around, in utter bliss, just taking in the scenery of whatever natural space I find myself in.
If it’s snowy, I marvel at the way the snowflakes glitter in the light, or how the snow crunches under my shoes as I pass over it. If it’s hot, I soak up the warmth of the sun and appreciate the energy it radiates down to the Earth.
I love running in rain, too – while warm inside a raincoat, it’s such a good feeling to have water sprinkling down all around you, nourishing everything, calming fires (inner and outer). The quiet patter that surrounds you is rejuvenating and comforting as you move along a rainy trail.
5. Trail running presents an opportunity to be mindful
Breathing is an automatic function that we don’t have to control or think about doing – it just happens. And when you’re running, your breath becomes your constant companion. You’re simply breathing, in and out, in and out, like ocean waves, or a breeze blowing through trees.
It’s the ultimate connection to what is – your breath is simply there. It’s a constant reminder of your connection to what’s all around you, as you literally breathe in the air from your surroundings. And in return, it’s giving you the gift of movement, of running.
6. Trail running helps put things in perspective
HSPs tend to feel deeply and experience a wide range of emotions on a daily basis. For me, the microcosm of a trail run reminds me that all emotion and sensation is natural, normal, and simply a part of life – it contextualizes my daily experiences and gives me perspective that’s hard to find while sitting at home, where I can tend to ruminate.
Some of the most meaningful moments in my life have been while trail running. I’ve persisted through pain and struggle, felt deeply calm and connected, laughed with others running alongside me, and stood alone in awe of nature in all its glory. It’s only natural that the perspective I gain after a trail run helps me to put aside that intrusive worry or a persistent thought.
7. Trail running helps with self-regulation
Self-regulation is how we consciously choose to help our nervous system return to its baseline – not overstimulated or understimulated, but right in the middle – calm, centered, and at peace.
Trail running can help us whether we are under- or over-stimulated – it all depends on what you choose to make of your run.
If it’s one of those days where my brain is on overdrive (i.e. I’m overstimulated), I’ll start the run listening to music or a favorite podcast to help my brain calm down by transporting myself elsewhere. Once I’m further along the trail, I often find myself turning off my music to just simply “be.” There is something so simple about moving through the woods or a field, or along a stream, or by a lake…and you’re just there, allowing your nervous system to regulate itself.
By contrast, if you’re feeling understimulated (lethargic and unmotivated), gently moving along a trail can also be the perfect way to restart your inertia. I frequently remind myself that motivation isn’t the precursor to action – it is instead the result of starting to move. I always – always – feel more motivated to take on the rest of my day if I’ve given myself the gift of time outside on the trail.
8. It can feel therapeutic
Trail running can feel extremely therapeutic in the truest sense of the word, meaning “healing.” I frequently find myself working through issues I’m having while on a trail run, as it’s a perfect opportunity to let that deep processing happen. Also, if you have friends who trail run, sharing some miles together can be a rejuvenating way to connect with someone.
That’s not to say that trail running is a substitute for therapy (nothing is)! But, used in conjunction with the other ways we care for our mental wellbeing, there is a kind of magic inherent in spending time in nature, allowing it to surround you as you notice all your different thoughts flowing in and out. There is an aspect of simply allowing things to move through you while you move your body through nature that feels deeply healing.
9. It is what you make of it
I like to say that “if you ran, it was a run,” meaning that even if I took two steps running and the rest hiking or walking, it counts as a run. But the point of trail running really isn’t to run – it’s to be on the trails!
That’s not to say lots of folks don’t train hard and complete some incredible runs. However, it is a sport that really is what you make of it. Trail running has a huge range of participation – from professional trail athletes and ultramarathoners (runners who complete any distance longer than a marathon), to casual folks who go out for a jog on a dirt path in their local park.
But one thing’s for sure: those who run on trails have one thing in common – they appreciate the inherent magic of trail running, which is given freely to anyone who decides they’d like to discover it.
I’d love to know in the comments – what are your favorite ways to move and be active as an HSP? Have you ever gone trail running? Does it sound like something you’d try?
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Written by Julianne Merry, HSP Coach, Intuitive Warrior
I was so excited to see and read this article! I am an avid walker and hiker. I have found that exercise outside benefits me far more than inside, really I can’t stand to work out in a gym. I started thinking about trail running this past spring, but I haven’t tried it yet. I think I have been a little intimidated as if adding some running to my walking needed some kind of preparation that I haven’t figured out. I feel more inspired than ever after reading your article! Everything you described is what I want out of exercise. I will go for it, thank you!