7 Ways to Heal Your Relationship With Exercise and Movement

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As a trainer, one of the things I’ve been seeing a lot—especially in the context of the stress of the past year and the uncertainty going forward—is people wanting to heal their relationship with fitness. Many people are looking to move away from extreme, all-or-nothing behaviors or using exercise punitively, and instead find a way to simply feel good and enjoy what they are doing.

For over a decade, I’ve seen clients frustrated with the empty promises of unrealistic outcomes, diet culture, and black-or-white thinking. You might be wondering, what does this have to do with exercise?

A lot.

Diet culture often plays the catalyst in dismantling our joy for movement by driving “all or nothing” behavior—starting and restarting diets often goes hand in hand with going all-in on exercise right off the bat. Diet culture has transformed exercise into something loaded for many of us. For some, it recalls school-age torment for being larger or lacking in athletic ability. I’ve noticed that many of my clients’ unwillingness to move their bodies often came with the onset of poor body image in adolescence.

For many years, I would engage in dieting and extreme fitness behaviors that were never sustainable, so I would often quit. This created a cycle of low self-worth, making me believe I would never follow through with anything.

The joy of movement, though, is inherent in us: Remember when we were little kids, playing tag, riding bikes, building forts, or swimming? Remember how fun it was? It was simple joy for us. The key is finding that again.

If you relate, I am writing this article for you.

We can’t really enjoy all the good things about exercise when we carry what I call “fitness trauma.” Recovery is an effort, but you can work on rewriting your fitness story anyway you like. Here are some ways of thinking or reframing that I’ve found helpful. (One note: While these tips can bring some perspective and help, sometimes our relationship with our bodies and movement has become seriously, chronically negative. In that case, there’s deeper work to be done that may require the help of a professional, particularly one experienced in disordered eating and exercise and/or body dysmorphia.)

1. Develop and write down your own fitness vision.

Our fitness culture is often driven by the idealistic imagery and messaging leading us to believe that fitness has one set of rules, one look, one hardcore vibe.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can create your own vision. One thing I’ve found helpful in doing so is analyzing what you want out of your fitness routine.

Take out a pen and paper and write down the things that are most important to you when it comes to your fitness and health, including your mental health. What values do you think of when you think of health and well-being? How are you best motivated? Think of a time when you really enjoyed exercise (or even just moving) and reflect on what was going on. Start to develop your vision so you have a clear understanding of what works for you and what doesn’t.

For many businesses, developing a mission statement helps keep them on brand. It can do the same for you. What is your wellness mission and brand?

2. Reflect on what feels good and brings you joy.

We must enjoy the movement we are doing in order for it to be sustainable. We can’t hate running and expect for it to stick. But because of fitness idealism—what kind of workout you think you should be doing—many of us have participated in things we don’t enjoy.

If you’ve lost your joy for exercise, think back to your childhood and recall your favorite ways to move back then when it may have felt less loaded.

Maybe you loved team sports. I just joined a soccer team this year in my 40s! Maybe you loved swimming. A few years ago, I took adult swimming lessons to improve my stroke for a triathlon. You can find activities or workout types that mimic the same things you loved about physical activity as a kid. There may be some trial and error, but take note of how you feel after each activity and do more of what makes you happy and excited to do it again.

3. Establish your “why.”

There is definitely a honeymoon period to most fitness routines, where it’s all sunshine and unicorns. But then the fitness reality sets in, and we start to understand that establishing a routine means suiting up even when we may not really want to. The idea is to stay consistent.

Establishing a solid “why” or motive to your action is essential for those days when it’s tough to get going.

Think about what is motivating you to start. You may wish for the confidence to say yes to a hike or a kayaking trip and trust your body will be able to do it. On the other hand, it can be watching a parent in poor health that motivates you or wanting to be able to keep up with your kids. Maybe you just want to feel good in the skin you’re in. What is it that drives you to move?

4. Understand that our bodies evolve.

We can’t turn back time, no matter what Cher wishes. Our bodies are evolving, expanding, shrinking, birthing, and aging, and that is okay.

In order for us to have a healthy relationship with movement, we have to stop putting harsh demands and expectations on our bodies if they don’t perform or look as they used to. It’s unrealistic and unfair to ourselves. Our bodies are amazing and deserve their due respect.

I’ve found that simply telling yourself to understand this, though, isn’t the most effective way to drive it home. But these actions have been helpful:

  • Follow social media accounts of people with similar body types and ages as yours. Get inspired by people who are killing it who share a likeness to you. Learn to celebrate your body as it is now.
  • Write love letters (positive affirmations) about your body and post them where you can see them daily. They can be as short as one word—“strong,” “warrior,” “capable”—or longer in length, you decide.
  • Take a moment at the end of each day to reflect on how your body moved that day. Give thanks and gratitude for your body for showing up.

5. Celebrate non-scale victories.

You don’t have to “earn” food with movement—it’s not a nourishment reward system. It’s important to not make weight loss the goal of starting or sticking with movement. It can create a fleeting relationship with moving our bodies, and that’s not what we want!

So take some time to reflect on the non-scale victories your exercise may bring.

Wins don’t have to be drastic. Perhaps you are sleeping much better, you have more energy, you’re more motivated and feel happier, or you have made some new active friends. There are endless benefits to exercising that don’t involve standing on a scale that may or may not move.

6. Identify your triggers—and loop in a professional if you need one.

For some of us, improving our relationship with exercise means being very mindful of our thinking about moving. For me, diet culture created punitive behaviors with exercise. If I thought I had been “bad” for eating or drinking too much, I would go hard in the gym and use that workout to punish my body.

It’s important to recognize our triggers so we can repair these areas, whether through our own work or with a professional. One thing that’s worked for me is this: Take a moment to list out any behaviors that felt “wrong” or uncomfortable surrounding exercise. Then get to know what triggers them. For example, being in intense group exercise could trigger a need to push and perform beyond your abilities, creating a negative experience. If you do decide it makes sense to seek professional help for this kind of issue, here are some ways to find a therapist that fits for you—and how to find one that’s actually affordable for you… (If you believe you are dealing with something like compulsive exercising, you can contact the Helpline at the National Eating Disorders Association.)

7. Be patient.

Repairing your relationship with exercise takes time to figure out what feels good to you. Dance, run, swim, bike, heck, even join a circus class once it’s safe. But most importantly, be kind to and patient with your evolving body. Pay attention to what feels good and makes you want to keep coming back, again and again.

If you can achieve that, you’re on your way to the golden ticket: sustainable, healthy movement.

Related:

  • A Reading List for Anyone Who Wants to Learn More About Body-Positive Fitness
  • A Pep Talk for Anyone Who Feels Too Self-Conscious to Exercise Right Now
  • Here’s How the ‘Health at Every Size’ Movement Made Me a Better Trainer

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