Learning to Exercise For the Right Reasons
By Mia Sherin, July 12, 2021
Content warning: weight loss and body image
Finding a healthy relationship with working out isn’t always easy — and isn’t always talked about. Too often, our social media feeds are flooded with workout tutorials and six packs, with no information on how to go about participating in these workouts in a comfortable way that doesn’t harm your mental health. Working out, eating, body image: These are all topics that are completely personalized and are never a one size fits all scenario. But I’d like to open up about my own journey to form a positive relationship with exercise, from the habits I practiced to the regimens I now live by.
At the beginning of quarantine — it feels so long ago now — I found myself stuck in my childhood bedroom. Not just physically (even though quarantine did make us all feel pretty trapped), but mentally, too. I was completely in a funk, feeling unhappy, and totally unsure of what to do. So, I started working out like I never had before. In high school I was on a sports team, and in college I took my fair share of trips to the gym, but I was never much of a fitness junkie. But as the months followed, I found myself exercising practically every single day. It gave me something to work towards, goals to set, and a purpose in days that felt hard to get through.
Then, I started losing weight. It was unintentional, really. I had always felt happy with the way I looked and knew that being healthy was most important, but as I created a more intense workout regimen, this weight loss was just something that followed. It wasn’t drastic or anything that many people would notice, and I didn’t even realize myself until I arrived at my annual doctor’s appointment a few months later and they asked me to step on the scale.
Seeing the changed number set off something in me that I had never felt before. I immediately felt like this weight loss was something that I needed to maintain, that I needed to keep working out to make sure I kept off something that I didn’t even care to lose in the first place. I completely spiraled: My relationship with food was negatively affected, I became hyper-aware of my body, and my workouts started feeling more like a punishment than something I enjoyed.
I know that I’m not the only person to feel like this, nor will I be the last. Our society encourages young women to strive for impossible standards, to seek validation in a meaningless number on a scale, and to scroll through social media and compare yourself every single second of the day. It’s really freaking hard.
Eventually, I started seeing a therapist. Which helped, a lot. She gave me strategies to manage my anxieties surrounding food, we spoke candidly about body image, and she reminded me what working out truly should be: a free dose of endorphins. But from there, it was on me to implement these strategies.
I started only doing workouts that sounded fun. Which may sound crazy to some people who think all forms of exercise are exhausting or unpleasant in some ways, but I completely surprised myself when trying out this new way of thinking. There were some days where I was really craving going on a run — a form of exercise I used to hate —, other days where I wanted to do restorative yoga, a long period of time where I got majorly into YouTube dance videos, and some days where I just wanted to do a high intensity workout where I could sweat out whatever emotions had gotten the best of me that day.
I thought that by only doing the forms of exercise I was feeling at any given moment, I might end up taking the easy way out or losing my routine of consistent exercise. But really, the opposite happened. I loved the time of day that I got to workout, and I felt even more encouraged to push myself because my motivation was coming from a genuine place.
Another strategy that worked well for me was goal-based exercise. Rather than focusing on losing weight or how I would look in the mirror when I woke up the next morning, I set goals for myself that I wanted to achieve: running three miles without stopping, learning to do a headstand, holding a plank for three minutes (still working towards that one!). Actually seeing my body get stronger or faster was such an empowering feeling. Rather than seeing my progress as a number on a scale, I was able to see it in the form of a faster mile time, a longer plank hold, or an even more awesome headstand.
And finally, I made a habit of it. There were plenty of times, believe me, when I felt like I had lost all my progress and gone back to square one. When I noticed myself thinking, “Oh, I should workout tomorrow,” after eating a big meal. When I felt like the scale was holding power over me that it didn’t deserve. But by sticking by my habits and implementing them into my routine, it eventually stuck. And not in the trapped-in-your-childhood-bedroom kind of way.
When it comes to topics of eating, exercising, and body image, every single person is different. Just like someone else’s workout may not be right for you, my own journey may not fit your personal needs. If this is something you are struggling with, it’s important to reach out for support and take yourself seriously. It’s time working out becomes empowering, rather than holding power over us.