The day I really, truly fell in love with moving my body was the day I realised that there’s more to movement than my body; that there’s more to exercise than sculpting a six pack, toning my inner thighs, beating lower belly bloat and looking like a Victoria’s Secret Model. It sounds simple, but it was a revelation after years of reading articles on ‘the top stomach flattening exercises’ and ‘how to get a slimmer waist.’ Exercise didn’t have to be a form of punishment and it could be done from a place free from self-critique. A place of self love.
There’s no denying the health benefits of being physically active. Improved cardiovascular function, reduced risk of bone loss, relief from anxiety and depression, the list goes on. However, escaping the associations between aesthetics and exercise is not easy, especially when the messages endorsing them are inescapable in the current media climate, and so what can be a hugely positive thing for our wellbeing can also turn into one of the most damaging.
For some people, stepping away completely from intentional activity is a powerful process for repairing a broken relationship with our bodies, but, for those who want to build exercise into part of their life without negative intentions, it’s really important to overhaul our entire mindset and come at it purely from a place of self-love. Here are some tips I believe really help make exercise a positive and health-promoting experience.
1. Stop trying to change yourself
First things first: stop approaching movement as a mission to change yourself. Your body is amazing. Your body is not an indication of your worth, and no amount of exercise will ever bring you the mental peace and freedom that unconditional self-acceptance does. This allows you to stop defining exercise as a means to an ends, i.e. physical results, and start using it to celebrate your body.
2. Choose exercise for health
Alright, I know how vague and unhelpful this sounds; about as useful as ‘exercise to be strong, not skinny,’ right? ‘Exercising for health’ as a concept is thrown around a lot these days, but often it’s done in a way that relies on problematising our bodies to encourage movement. ‘You’re not healthy now, but you can look and feel better if you do X hours of exercise each week, follow this fitness plan, do squats, do heavier squats, run or cycle to and from work every day, and always add a little more time, intensity or weight to challenge yourself every session…’ As a result, exercise is dictated by a pressure to be healthier, healthier, healthier, forcing us to work harder and harder and harder…
Two years ago, I was part of the Instagram ‘army’ putting myself through those horrendous Kayla Itsines workouts at 6am five to six times a week. The dread I used to get before every one of those sessions paralleled how I felt before an exam… I NEVER looked forward to them and certainly didn’t enjoy them. I felt like a total failure if I had to pause that timer to catch my breath, rest days were the highlight of my week, but I kept telling myself that I was doing it to be healthy, so kept it up for months. The problem here? My mindset and attitude towards exercise were anything but healthy.
Exercising for health in this way is a prime example of how we justify exercise addiction. You often see people forcing themselves through torturous sessions early in the morning or late at night, skipping outings with friends because a date with the gym is far better for you than a couple of cocktails, and trying to compensate for overindulging through additional workouts. Of course, this approach doesn’t account for mental wellbeing at all.
There’s strong evidence to suggest that stress and anxiety are associated with an increased risk of heart disease among other inflammatory conditions, and so pair the dread of smashing out hundreds of burpees (and in my case seriously pissing off my downstairs neighbours) with the actual physical assault of repeated high-intensity sessions, you’ll find you’re doing a lot more harm to your health than good. The government physical activity guidelines for adults recommend 2 1/2 hours of moderate intensity activity (brisk walking or cycling) a week, with two days of weight bearing physical activity. It’s not much, so if you really are looking to exercise for health, it doesn’t need to involve multiple HIIT sessions a week.
Exercising for health requires a level of honesty with yourself and acknowledging whether you are moving because it feels good or because you feel like you should. If it’s the latter, then taking some time away from exercise will probably be of more benefit to you. Give yourself some space to figure out what kinds of movement you actually enjoy without any conditions. These days, I generally don’t plan what I do with my sessions and just go with how I feel like incorporating movement into my day. Sometimes, this may be a high intensity workout for a short and sharp burst of endorphins, others can be a walk around the park and some light stretching. There’s no pressure to do any of it or give a certain level of effort, it’s simply about enjoying a little activity.
3. Tune out of channels that promote exercise for weight loss
All those transformation photos, calorie and macro counters, workouts for fat loss – get rid! Even if you know that your personal intentions are not about losing weight, it can be really hard to cultivate a positive relationship with your body when you’re receiving an influx of messages from places and people who have not reached that point in their journey yet (Related read: how self-loathing harms others).
It’s in our nature to compare and so it’s very easy to start thinking ‘maybe I should do more weight training to tone up, maybe I should cut down on carbs, focus more on building my glutes, work harder to reach those goal abs.’ All of these messages detract from moving for wellbeing, and the easiest way to release yourself from focusing on weight is to not allow those thoughts in.
Admittedly, this was such a tough one for me as it involved removing a lot of the connections I’ve made in the health and wellness industry from my social feeds and burning a couple of bridges in the process. But I really believe it’s been such an important part of redefining why I exercise and reminding me that actually, when exercise isn’t about changing me, it’s easier to really enjoy it.
4. Learn to be okay with not exercising
Even when you want to exercise and enjoy moving your body, there will be times when you shouldn’t or can’t. When you’re injured, unwell, when you’re overtired, busy, stressed… During these times, trying to workout may not be the best thing for your health, and if you find yourself getting anxious about taking a short or long break, it’s a sign that you’re not moving out of self love. Rest is also an important part of taking care of yourself, and if you can’t also allow yourself downtime without worrying about your body, it’s probably more beneficial to take an indefinite break and learn to be okay with not exercising.
I get it, if you enjoy exercise, stopping isn’t easy. I’ve been there. When I’m ill, travelling or too busy to fit in regular sessions, I get an itch to move. I sit through Instagram story after Instagram story watching everyone else document what they did to stay fit each day, and I start to think ‘maybe I could do a light session, perhaps just a short workout…’ It’s at this point that I check back in and make a conscious decision not to do any intentional exercise for a while, to remind myself that taking time off is okay and necessary.
Learning to be okay with not exercising is about removing associations of guilt from movement.
5. Visit shame-free studios
I’ve been to a number of workouts in London where the instructor was, quite frankly, the worst. Calling out people who weren’t running fast enough, lifting heavy enough, not sweaty enough, not sore enough. I’ve heard trainers say ‘If you’re not putting in your max effort, then get out. You’re wasting everyone’s time.’ I’ve seen people forced to do extra reps if the instructor thinks they’re slacking for taking a rest. Needless to say, I never went back to any of those gyms again.
At times, the fitness industry can be absolutely toxic, using shame as a motivational tactic. Only, of course, this doesn’t work and is incredibly off-putting. Fear of failure and embarrassment is one of the biggest deterrents from positive health behaviours, and it’s a problem that certainly hasn’t been helped by the rise of boutique fitness using competition, comparison and insult to justify results. Many people think that having someone to crack the whip is a top way to make us work, but our self-esteem can only be attacked for so long before we decide that cash per class is better spent on things that actually make us feel good.
This of course isn’t true of every gym and if you do prefer exercising in a group setting, I recommend using social media to gauge the vibe of that class. You can generally tell the attitude of a gym by the level of diversity of instructors and clientele they showcase, plus what sort of messages they promote. If a feed is plastered with ‘excuses are for the weak,’ and ‘better sore than sorry,’ interspersed between photos of young men and women flashing their very obvious abs, don’t even go there.
One of the reasons yoga is such a popular form of movement for self love is because it prioritises finding what feels good. It’s without pressure or expectation. We’re all about shame-free movement!
6. Get out of the gym
Another problem with visiting gyms can be other exercisers themselves. Unfortunately, with the way our society is geared to perceive exercise primarily as a goal for weight loss, many of the people you encounter at the gym are there in a punishing way, trying to work off weekend guilt or fix their imperfections. If you’re still in the early stages of cultivating self love, being around these attitudes is not helpful for your mindset.
If this is true of the people at your gym, the best thing you can do is not be there and find alternative ways to exercise. Moving outside, Youtube videos at home, anywhere that keeps your headspace away from others’ and doesn’t allow the innate insecurity of a gym environment to become yours.
Do you have any other tips for moving from a place of self love? Share them in the comments below and subscribe to my newsletter for more weekly nuggets on self-care.