“I have to start exercising”
“I should really work out”
“I need to hit the gym”
It’s very likely you’ve heard these statements before. The person telling you they ‘need to hit the gym’ is not suggesting they need an endorphin boost, and the person telling you they ‘have to start exercising’ does not mean they want to feel more energetic – they mean they ‘need’ to change themselves, to lose weight or look different.
These are examples of how exercise is thrown into discussions of self-hatred, and it happens far too frequently. We’ve transformed something that’s good for us into something that makes us feel terrible. We talk about it as though we’re not supposed to enjoy it; it’s a horrible thing we’re obliged to do. Or something that if we don’t do, we’re supposed to feel guilty about instead. Either way, it makes us feel bad.
But it shouldn’t. Working out to the point of exhaustion, beating yourself up for not working out, spending the day dreading working out, or not eating your favorite foods because you haven’t worked out, isn’t ‘healthy.’ It’s making you feel awful – the exact opposite of what it’s intended to do.
These toxic thoughts all come from Diet Culture, the ingrained belief that focuses on and values weight and shape over wellbeing. It’s the underlying idea that we need to change the way we look to be acceptable, and it’s changed our relationship around two things that we inherently enjoy: food and movement.
Instead of a harsh focus on what we “need” to become, let’s reframe exercise as the good thing that it is. Exercise prevents illnesses, strengthens muscles, releases endorphins, builds stamina, and increases energy – and we deserve all these things.
Self-acceptance, unconditional respect, and complete acceptance of ourselves as we are, at this moment, can help us move exercise away from the toxicity of Diet Culture. Instead of “I need to exercise (because I should hate myself the way I am)” think along the lines of, “I want to exercise because I deserve to feel good and healthy, I deserve to feel calm and energized, and because I am good enough as I am, to treat myself well.”
It’s hard to move exercise away from Diet Culture, but there are some behaviors that can help you find a better source of motivation to get moving:
Find What You Enjoy
Exercise is a big umbrella term for so many activities: running, kickboxing, martial arts, yoga, HIIT, dancing, football, ice skating, surfing, and million other things. If you’re moving, it’s exercise.
And so, saying you don’t enjoy it is taking a narrow group of activities that you don’t enjoy, and assuming you won’t enjoy anything else. But there will be some form of movement that you like — maybe you just haven’t even tried it yet.
Once you find something you love doing, you’ll get the image of ‘exercise’ that once made you think you hated it out of your head and find that it can actually be fun. And if it starts to feel like a chore at some point, try something new again!
Stop Comparing Yourself
People have different schedules, energy levels, bodies, minds, and needs. Yet people always want to follow influencers or celebrities and do the same type of exercise for the same amount of time on the same days.
Instead of that, focus on what you’re doing, how it fits into your day, and more importantly, how it makes you feel. Know you’re good enough as you are without becoming ‘them’.
Pay Attention to Your Talk
Think about how you talk about exercise, and whether you’re framing it as something negative that you have to do to be better, or a positive that you want to do because you respect yourself, just as you are.
For example, watch out for language that implies that exercise is something you do to give yourself permission to eat: “I earned” or “I deserve” that meal because of my workout. You deserve to eat foods that you enjoy regardless of whether you work out or not, and you can enjoy working out regardless of the foods you are eating.
I’m not even a massive fan of “rest day” as it implies that your life should revolve around a fitness regime, with approved days off here and there, but I know it’s a helpful reminder for some people to ease off.
Challenge the meaning behind the language you use about exercise and identify whether it has a positive or negative effect on how you feel.
Loosen your grip on a strict routine, a strive for perfectionism, obsession, and control. Don’t stop yourself from fully living your life.
If you find building exercise into a routine helps you break up your day then great, but don’t forget to have fun, try different things, and adjust to other opportunities and events that come up in your life.
Listen To Your Body
Fitbits be damned; the best gauge for tracking your fitness is your own body – the thing you’re doing it for in the first place. Take notice of your energy levels, your mood, and how your body feels; let this be your guide.
Self-awareness is a big part of self-acceptance and can help you find what activities are most ‘healthy’ for you that day.
Try changing the way you think about exercise and start from a place of self-acceptance, rather than the desire to change. See the effects it has on your own motivation, self-esteem, and mental and physical health.