Many of us take up fitness as a result of dissatisfaction with our bodies. We run to lose weight. We lift weights to look better in sleeveless shirts. We go to the gym as a punishment for what we ate.
The rolls on our bellies and dimples on our thighs are embarrassing and shameful. The way we are right now is not good enough.
We convince ourselves that once we look a certain way, we’ll be happy—and exercise is the way to achieve that.
When we think this way for long enough, it shapes our whole relationship between our minds and our bodies.
We don’t love working out. We just hate our bodies. So we keep going to the gym.
We may even be reluctant to let go of that hatred. If we simply accept our bodies the way they are, will we stop caring? Will we just let ourselves go, eat nachos every day, and never set foot in the gym again? Will that sabotage our long-term health and happiness?
If you look to most of the social media accounts, blogs, and Pinterest boards out there, it seems like you can have all or nothing. You can push yourself hard to get in better shape, chase insanely low levels of body fat, never be satisfied with yourself, and feel like a failure if you eat a cupcake. Or you can learn to love your body, give up striving for fitness, take up a sedentary lifestyle, and shit on everyone who cares about losing weight.
Here’s a radical idea. Shouldn’t we be able to love ourselves, even as we work to improve ourselves?
In reality, it’s possible to both make peace with our bodies and work hard to get faster and stronger. In fact, the happiest fitness enthusiasts learn to balance acceptance and motivation when it comes to their bodies.
Why adopting body positivity will improve your relationship with fitness
When we believe that fitness is a means to an end—and the end is being able to accept our new, lean selves—we’re missing out on 99% of what physical activity has to offer us. We’re depriving ourselves of all of the joy we could be getting from working out. We’re losing sight of all of the other rewards that come with a physical practice, like connecting with new people and learning new skills.
Plus, we’re setting the stakes too damn high. If we can’t love ourselves now, we’re not likely to love ourselves 10, 20, or 50 pounds lighter. We’ll find a new way to be dissatisfied, and we’ll go chasing the next goal, constantly criticizing ourselves along the way. The result is that we’ll never be content, and all of that time spent working out won’t have gotten us any closer to happiness. We’re setting ourselves up for failure.
What if, instead, we worked toward being grateful to our bodies for all the cool shit they can do? What if we learned to love the fitness journey itself, not just the results we may get someday? What if we approached fitness as a way to care for our awesome bodies, rather than a way to punish ourselves into getting leaner?
For one thing, we’d be more likely to show up and less likely to give up. It would be easier to maintain a positive mental attitude in the gym. We’d have more fun with our workouts. Fitness would become something we look forward to. We’d be patient with ourselves as we work toward the changes we want to see in our bodies. Ultimately, we’d take better care of ourselves, and it would show up in all aspects of our lives.
Why a healthy fitness practice will improve your relationship with your body
It’s one thing to accept your body the way it is. It’s another thing to give your body a serious challenge and be in awe of how amazing it is.
Listen, it is absolutely worthwhile to work on the mental aspect of body positivity—that is, addressing the insecurities you have about your appearance, and then telling them to fuck off. You have a right to love yourself no matter how much or how little you work out, how much you weigh, or what you choose to eat. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something, and they can go to hell.
But changing your mind without changing anything else is an extremely tall order. If you choose that path, there are going to be a lot of days when you feel like you’re lying to yourself. Plus, the beauty and diet industries are trying to thwart you with every ad, every magazine cover, and every “get a bikini body now” article. It is so, so hard to keep up the metal battle against a world that tells you you’ll never be enough.
If, on the other hand, you make fitness an ongoing and essential part of your life, it will enrich you in so many ways beyond simply getting in better shape. If you commit to a practice and show up consistently, you’ll develop a deep and lasting respect for your body because of what it can do. You’re building strength, capability, and confidence that are worth more than a “bikini body” any day of the week. You’re not just convincing yourself that you’re worthy of love and respect, you’re proving it, and you’re bringing your own supply.
How to deprogram the association between working out and hating yourself
1. Find a physical activity you fucking love.
Chances are you don’t love hours and hours on the elliptical. Hey, if you do, then more power to you! But most of us need some excitement, a bit of a challenge for our brains, and interesting movement to keep us engaged with our workout. If you have an activity you genuinely enjoy, you’ll be more motivated to work hard and make progress—and more likely to stick with it. If you haven’t enjoyed working out in the past, it’s possible you just haven’t found your thing yet. Get creative and try different activities to see what level of intensity, competition, and social interaction is right for you.
2. Find (or create) your fitness tribe.
It’s a lot easier to enjoy a workout if you have a buddy (or two, or twenty) to pass the time with. Group classes and team sports are super rewarding, and they’re a great place to make new, like-minded friends. If large groups aren’t your jam, then find one person you really like spending time with, and start moving together. Looking forward to seeing your friend is a great motivator on days when you don’t feel like working out.
3. Focus more on what your body can do than what it looks like.
Once you’ve found your activity and your people, you’re going to start making progress. Your body is going to get stronger, more coordinated, and better at your game. FOCUS ON THIS. Your body can already do some pretty incredible shit, and it’s just going to keep getting better the more you practice. Most body-positive athletes find this way more motivating than the number on the scale. When you’re genuinely stoked about making progress, the things you used to hate about your body suddenly don’t matter as much. While you’ll probably be dropping pounds and pants sizes, that becomes more of a happy side effect of your awesome physical progress than an end of its own. Whether you see changes in your body quickly or not, you’re focused on what really matters: the amazing things you are capable of.
4. Add variety.
Boredom is the enemy. Mix up your workouts and try new activities to engage different parts of your body and mind. Cross training is ideal for strengthening muscles that may not get as much attention in your normal routine. Plus, starting something new keeps your attitude fresh and energetic.
5. Celebrate your wins.
Don’t get stuck in the cycle of dissatisfaction. Each new milestone in your fitness journey is a victory, and you should own that shit. Whether you lost 5 pounds, moved up to the intermediate Pilates class, or bench pressed a personal record, don’t forget to be proud of yourself. While there’s always the next goal to chase, make sure to stop and acknowledge how far you’ve come. Share your successes with your workout buddies—and make sure to celebrate their wins, too. You’ve done awesome, you little badass.
How are you going to show up for body positive fitness?
Share the story of your journey in the comments or on Instagram with #strongpositive. Tell us what you struggle with, and what your next steps can be. What have you overcome? What practices and activities have helped?