How do you create a healthy, empowering relationship with exercise?

One of the most difficult aspects of moving from an eating disorder mindset to a healthy mindset for me was my relationship with exercise. A big part of my identity is being a runner, or as someone who enjoys working out. But why do I love running now? Why do I love to lift, or to push myself on box jumps and burpees? Because I do so in celebration of my body. I do so as a way to cultivate wellness and awareness. I do so as a way to enjoy time with myself. I do so to see what my body can do, not how my body looks.

Exercise in our society (especially for women) focuses on looks. How many times have you seen magazine covers with “The routine for a toned core!” or heard “Yeah, let’s go! It’s almost bikini season!” at the gym? We tend to see exercise in a focused way: move more to weigh less. Lift more to bulk up. You are more attractive / strong / sexy / confident if you workout and fit the definition of ‘fit.’

Hell, I think the exercise mentality has even been woven into our country’s shared morality system. People who work out a lot are seen as more dedicated. They are not lazy! They are so inspirational for keeping fit, how strong! There is something fundamentally flawed with the idea that you are a stronger person, or that you have an attitude to admire because you workout.

I want us to celebrate moral values of love, love, empathy, generosity, strength. These are the things that make someone (or, not to get too political, a nation) great. I love my friends because they are there when I need to talk. I love my parents because they always encourage me. I love my coworkers because they make me laugh. I love my boyfriend because, even if we’re different, he always strives to understand me and support me.

Do I give a fuck if someone has been to the gym only four times this week instead of six? Uh, no.

Do I see someone who is trimmed as more valuable in society? Nope. (One of my favorite bloggers, Kylie Mitchell at immaeatthat, asks you to consider, “Are you less valuable if you take up more space in the world?”)

Are you less valuable if you take up more space in the world?

Is a friend more important to me if they are a runner? No. I only enjoy sharing occasional conversations about dorky runners’ topics, and having a running partner.

How do we move on from here? How do we see exercise for what it is– movement of our bodies to keep us well physically and mentally? There are a few important shifts we need to accept. Especially if you are in an eating disorder or exercise addiction mentality, it’s important to work to adopt a new understanding of why and how we move.

 1. Think about MOVEMENT, not “exercise” or “working out”

Because working out is so wrapped up into our cultural standards, we can come to think of it with more importance than it needs to have.

The cultures that have the highest life expectancies, called the Blue Zones, are five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the U.S.. These cultures don’t follow any radical diets or workout routines. Instead, they “move their bodies a lot. They have social circles that reinforce healthy behaviors. They take time to de-stress. They’re part of communities, often religious ones. And they’re committed to their families.”

Movement is just a part of their lifestyles. Children in Japan walk to and from school each day, meaning that they get the 60 minutes of physical activity that American doctors try to prescribe.

hiking in the smokeymountains on bridge
Sometimes movement is hiking in beautiful places. Other days, it’s just biking to work or listening to a podcast on a walk.

Especially if you’re struggling with an exercise addiction or disordered eating, I cannot overstate the impact that it has to shift your thinking from exercise or working out to movement. Because you can move without having a plan. Exercise is this # of sets, or this # of minutes on the treadmill, or lifting this # of pounds. Movement just happens in life. It is not something that should stress you out, but is something you should enjoy. I would challenge you to a day, a week, a month, whatever you feel comfortable with — of just moving. Of not scheduling workouts or taking classes, but allowing your body to let you know each day how it would like to move and honoring those cravings. (Is this challenge something you’d be interested in more deeply? Let me know and we could organize it)

2. STOP valuing fitness as a moral code


Take some time to make a list of the characteristics that you truly value in people. What do you want a friend to be like? How do you want people to view you? I’d take a bet that fitness, or being able to do pull-ups, or run a certain time in a half marathon is not on that list.

Now take time to whittle down what characteristics you value about yourself. What do you love about the way you live your life? What do you think makes you a great friend / lover / coworker / student?

Those are the things that matter. You are not less if you exercise less. You are no more valuable if you are ‘toned.’


3. Find ways to CELEBRATE your body through movement (and decouple it from eating)


For me, this was one of the most important aspects of learning to move more intuitively and joyfully. I had always viewed working out as part of an equation– calories in — calories out = my satisfaction  

This is flawed in so many ways. One’s level of joy or satisfaction should never be based something as simple as food or movement. If I had a day where I overate, I would need to workout more that night, or the next day. This, of course, creates a cycle, one of guilt and overexercising, and fundamentally, never feeling good enough.

It took years for me to learn to separate movement from food. I move as I walk to work and listen to a podcast. I move as I go for a run to de-stress after a busy week. I do some HIIT to get out energy so that I can focus during a long day at work. And I do so in celebration of what my body can do. I ran 4 miles? Thank you, legs, for carrying me! I squatted more weight than ever? Let’s not look at if my ass is getting bigger, but celebrate that I am healthy enough to squat, and that I am able to push myself in new ways.

Give yourself your gratitude. Seriously, sometimes, after you move, tell your body thank you. Out loud. Think about the amazing things that it does, day in and day out — telling you when you need energy, helping you get through a long meeting, having escape mechanisms when you feel stressed, hugging a friend. Thank your body, and know that movement is a time to celebrate the work that it does for you. It’s time to enjoy being alone, to take delight in working hard and feeling good within your body.

4. Set goals for PERFORMANCE, not for looks


So often, the rhetoric surrounding working out is about how you will look, how much weight you will lose, how many muscles you will gain. Instead of setting goals for fitness about looks or numbers, set them for a real endeavor.  I think goals can be healthy and motivating if the intention behind them is as well. “Goal weight”? That’s not a goal that matters; it will only hurt you and haunt you. But running your first 5k or first half marathon? That’s something that you will be continually proud of your body for doing, something that you will be able to celebrate your body’s abilities, instead of criticizing what it cannot do or cannot look like.

Broad Street Run — one of the best feelings after hitting a goal!

If you are trying to get stronger, your goal could be to do one, or ten pushups on your toes. Not to get down to 135 lb.

If you want to get faster, your goal could be to run a 5k in under 25 minutes, or to run your first 5k. You should be celebrating the awesome running your body is able to do, not worrying about fitting into jeans, or seeing a certain number on the scale.

If you want to build a stronger core to be a better runner, set a goal to do a plank up to a certain amount of time. Please don’t make a goal to have a six pack. Who the hell cares??

If you are trying to form a more positive relationship with exercise, your goal could be to only move as feels good for your body.

I am a very goal-oriented person and still love to set and complete goals. Recently, my goals have been to run a marathon, and to squat a certain weight.

You are able to respect your body a lot more, and honor what it can do, if you are working for a goal of athletic performance, not of an aesthetic nature.

For more about exercise compulsion, read Kylie’s story on Immaeatthat about her journey. This graphic is hers, with permission. I plan to write a more in-depth post about what intuitive exercise is, and my journey with it.

How do you enjoy moving?

How have you shifted your thinking to make movement a joyful activity instead of a punishment or chore?