For most of my life, I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with exercise.
This was mostly due to the fact that I felt like it was a requirement and I was never any “good” at it. I loathed team sports as a kid, and I’d put more energy into pretending I was sick so I could sit on the bench rather than participating with my peers. I had very little stamina and terrible coordination. Not to mention the fact that I felt like my abilities were being measured against my classmates’.
Those feelings followed me into adulthood. I found myself avoiding the gym or fitness classes because I didn’t want people to see how “bad” I was at working out. And, like many people, I also inherently looked at exercise as a way to counter the food I consumed during the day or what I saw in the mirror.
It took me a very long time to change my outlook on working out ― to not see it as disciplinary or a way to embarrass myself but as something that makes me feel good. I read about a concept a few years ago that helped me get there: Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do.
Stop and read that again.
We’re trained to think we always have to be making gains or shrinking ourselves ― that exercise is for changing our body, not honoring how it is right now.
I spent years thinking I was never “good enough” when it came to exercise. I wasn’t good enough to play sports, wasn’t good enough to use gym equipment, wasn’t good enough with my diet to not need to work out so hard in the first place. Instead, what if I had looked at exercise as a way to celebrate what my own body could do? Even if that varies day-to-day.
Once I adopted that mindset, everything started to change. It helps on those days when I’m looking at fitness as a dreadful obligation rather than a choice.
“We’re trained to think we always have to be making gains or shrinking ourselves ― that exercise is for changing our body, not a way to honor how it is right now.”
Of course, an affirmation can only take you so far. You also need to put it into practice. Here’s some other advice on how to see exercise as a celebration of your body:
Spend time discovering what movement brings you joy.
The American Heart Association recommends that you get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, which is defined as anything that gets your heart rate 50% to 60% higher than your resting heart rate. Any movement that gets you there works. Avoid the mental trap of thinking that you have to destroy yourself in order for your workout to count; you do not have to engage in any type of exercise that you hate.
“Think of these two categories: Does it make your body feel good, and do you enjoy it?” said Jessica Mazzucco, a certified fitness trainer in New York City and founder of The Glute Recruit. “There are so many formats out there to choose from, including playing tennis, swimming, dancing, biking, weight training, boxing, yoga, running, pilates, etc. If you find yourself excited and wanting to go back and perform that workout again, then you know you have found what works for you.”
Then don’t hesitate to change up your workout routine (even if you used to love it).
I briefly got into running during quarantine. I loved that it was a safe activity that got me outside and that I was able to measure my progress. Now, I’d rather wait in a long line at the bank than even think about jogging.
I’ve gone through similar phases with strength training and cardio. There was a time where nothing could coerce me into cardio; instead, I was going to different weight-focused fitness classes multiple times a week. Today, I prefer cycling and I look forward to spending 30 or 45 minutes on a spin bike.
It’s perfectly fine to switch up your routine. In fact, it’s highly encouraged.
“Some people get bored of the same workout routine day in and day out,” Mazzucco said. “It’s a good idea to add excitement into your routine by participating in different workouts a few days a week.”
Make your workouts a social activity.
Working out with others might feel intimidating, but it actually helps when these get-togethers are a regular part of your social life. I started viewing time working out with friends as a way to catch up with people I love rather than an hour-long torture session. Make a walking date with your partner or spend some adventure time with your best friend trying out an aerial yoga class. It’s a bonding experience that takes you out of the negative mentality you might have toward exercise.
Don’t turn to exercise when you’re feeling bad about what you ate.
I had a habit of telling myself I had to sign up for a workout class or go for a run after eating a big meal. Turning to exercise when I felt guilty about what I ate or how I looked made fitness a penalty rather than a priority. (Not to mention the fact that this mentality also damages your relationship with food.)
In order to have a healthy relationship with fitness, it needs to be unlinked from food and appearance, Mazzucco said. “It’s easier to bring yourself to move each day, and fitness seems like less of a chore and more of an act of self-care,” she added.
Focus on the emotional effects of working out.
A runner’s high doesn’t happen because running itself has some magical powers ― it’s the exercise that brings the mood boost. You can get the same outcome from walking, cycling, dancing in your kitchen, swimming, using the monkey bars or whatever else you choose to do. I constantly try to remind myself that I’m working out for my mental health, and the physical perks are just a bonus.
“I love the mantra ‘love yourself first, love yourself most.’ Exercise is one of the best ways you can love yourself,” said Jennifer Conroyd, a certified fitness trainer, ironman and founder of Fluid Running. “You’re reducing your risk of disease. You’re strengthening your body and your heart. You’re de-stressing yourself and making yourself feel better. Think of exercise as a gift that you’ve been given.”
Remember that your relationship to exercise ― and how often you do it ― will change. A lot.
I’m not some jacked fitness expert who never misses a workout. There are some days that I mentally or physically can’t bring myself to sweat — just today, I set my alarm for a workout and slept right through it. This is to be expected.
“It’s important to remember that our bodies evolve and age, and we have to stop putting harsh expectations on our bodies if they don’t look or perform the way we want them to,” Mazzucco said, adding that you should “accept that you won’t always want to work out, and that’s OK. Even the most motivated exercisers have days where they do not want to go to the gym.”
It’s OK to move your body how you want to move it and when you want to move it. Anything else shouldn’t be called exercise ― it’s punishment.