Exercise can be a valuable tool for self love. Through exercise, we can learn about our bodies, we can become stronger and more agile, and we can enjoy myriad physical and mental health benefits. Unfortunately, for many of us, exercise feels more like a tool for self hate than for self love, and I blame this on how strongly exercise is associated with weight loss.
I spent most of my life hating exercise. As a fat child, I was made to work out regularly by people in positions of authority, and every second of it was awful. I hated getting out of breath. I hated all the sweating. I hated feeling sticky and uncomfortable. I hated being sore from overexertion. I hated having to go to a specific place at a specific time and undergo the torture of exercise, when what I wanted to be doing was reading a book, or watching television, or finishing homework, or literally ANYTHING else.
Mostly, I hated how exercise felt like punishment. I cannot accurately describe the shame, embarrassment, frustration, and sense of failure that comes with being a fat child in a weight-obsessed culture, so I will just say that it is potent and I felt all of it. Exercise, in my black-and-white child’s mind, was the punishment I had to endure for being a bad (i.e. fat) kid, and if I could only be a good kid and lose weight, I would not have to do it anymore.
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Suffice it to say that it did not work.
My attitude towards exercise did not change until I was introduced to fat acceptance in my early 20’s. I slowly unlearned the myths about fat, health, and weight loss that I had previously been fed, and began to consider why people would want to exercise if weight loss is not an issue. Interestingly, the merits of exercise suddenly became much clearer to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I found myself actually wanting to exercise.
And so I did. I started with dance classes, then I went walking a couple of times a week, then I began to pursue running. My routine has been and will continue to be changed around based on differing circumstances, but one thing that has not suffered is my enthusiasm. I no longer try to come up with excuses for not exercising. Rather, I look forward to it, and have come to depend on it as an important tool in my self love.
Unfortunately, my personal ability to remove weight-loss goals from exercise does not change the fact that a lot of people around me (around all of us) see exercise as something they have to put themselves through, rather than as something enjoyable. It is difficult to wade past the focus on weight loss (and other body sculpting practices) that runs rampant in today’s exercise culture, but it is possible. Here are ten techniques I have come across for navigating self love and exercise culture.
- Consider how exercise will help you. Exercise is a commitment, and an often impractical one. It takes time and effort to get changed, find a space, do the exercise, shower and change afterwards, etc. Before making such a commitment, it is well worth asking yourself how exercise will help you in your self love. Personally, I’m a very health-focused person, and exercise helps me feel healthy, which in turn allows me to better deal with my anxieties. Being honest with myself and understanding why I exercise enables me to stick with it and reap its benefits.
- Exercise how you want to exercise. Some people love the endorphin rush that comes from a high-intensity workout. Others like the relaxation that can be gleaned from tai chi. Others enjoy the spirituality in yoga, or the competition in team sports. It is a basic rule of motivation that we will always continue to do something if we enjoy it, and exercise is no exception. Instead of thinking about what exercise is ‘best’, think about what you would most enjoy doing. You are doing this for yourself, and being able to enjoy it is essential.
- Make your own goals. Not everybody likes to have goals, but I find simple, realistic goals useful. I recently achieved a goal of running for 25 minutes without stopping. It took me a couple of months to achieve it, and the sense of accomplishment I felt made the toil more than worth it. I thrive when I am working towards achieving something, so making goals and reaching them is a big part of my self love. Incorporating that element into my exercise has added to the overall positivity of my experience, and if you are also somebody who enjoys having goals, it should work well for you too.
- Join like-minded groups of exercise lovers. Exercise can be as good for our social health as it is for our physical health, and finding physical or online communities that share your interests is a fantastic way to socialise and stay motivated. Having other people who understand what you are doing, and encourage you as you work towards your fitness goals, is an immensely positive thing.
- Be gentle with yourself. Exercise off days are something everybody goes through, and they can be frustrating. The other day I was only able to run for about half my normal time, and I was annoyed. But it happens sometimes, and it is important to remember that an off day does not mean you are slipping, or that you are not benefitting from the exercise. Any small amount of exercise is beneficial, and the bad day will pass.
- Don’t push yourself beyond your ability. When I exercised as a child, I often had to keep pushing until my legs were so sore I could barely support myself. I believe that exercise should be a slow, progressive journey, in which each stage of the journey is savoured. Pushing yourself beyond your current ability not only increases your chance of injury, but is demotivating. I certainly never wanted to exercise again once I was in searing pain. Understanding your limits and not pushing past them is an essential part of taking care of your body and its needs. Be patient, and let your body get stronger and fitter in its own time.
- Look after your injuries. Injuries happen. Even if we are careful and always warm up properly, accidents can always occur. If you find yourself injured, that injury will need time to properly heal. Take a day or two off your regular exercise schedule, and perhaps do something lighter, or that works out a different area of the body, instead. Part of self love is listening to your body and giving it what it needs.
- Reward your achievements. When you reach an exercise goal, you should celebrate it! Treat yourself to some new fancy sports leggings, or a swanky drinking flask, or a massage. Also, be sure to reflect on how far you have progressed since you started on your self love/exercise journey, and congratulate yourself on your progress.
- Stay nourished and hydrated. Self love and exercise includes making sure your body has all the fuel it needs before, during, and after exercise. Personally, I find exercise twice as hard if I don’t eat an hour or so before I do it. I also like to make sure I drink water throughout the day, so I don’t get too parched when I’m breathing heavily. A body that has the energy it needs for working out will always perform better than a body that doesn’t.
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- Learn to let the weight loss messages go. If you are immersed in exercise culture, it can feel like you are inundated with weight loss messages, and they are hard to ignore. I therefore suggest you do not try to ignore them, but do not engage in them either. For example, if you see a weight loss related post in your online exercise community, instead of scrolling hurriedly past it, take a deep breath, read it, think whatever you want to think (whether that be a genuine ‘good for them’ or a snarky ‘let’s see how long that weight loss lasts’), and move on. The fact is that a lot of people do exercise to lose weight, and if you are a reformed chronic dieter like me, it is going to be a good long while before you will stop noticing weight loss talk. The best thing you can do is let those messages go and remind yourself that everybody exercises for different reasons, and self love is just as valid a reason as weight loss.
In today’s age of body and weight obsession, exercise culture is flooded with weight loss messages, many of which directly contradict messages of self love. But exercise can also be a useful tool for engaging in self love, if given the chance.
[Featured Image: A white woman of size with blonde hair joyfully sploshes through a puddle as she walks, swinging her arms out as she goes. Her back is to the camera. She is wearing a black tank top and rolled-up black pants. Behind her is a red building.]