Many of us have a complicated, joyless, or downright dark relationship with exercise. We think of exercise as a chore or punishment—for eating too much, for eating the wrong foods, for being too big, too small, not enough. We start hyper-focusing on calories and pounds and heavier dumbbells and increasing reps. We view exercise as a savior that’ll correct our supposed flaws and finally help us to become worthy. When we don’t exercise, we call ourselves unmotivated, lazy, and defective.
However, we can change our relationship to exercise so it serves as a supportive tool in our lives, helping to empower us both physically and emotionally.
Here’s how, according to K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, a personal trainer, fitness writer, and co-author of the new book Give Yourself More: Within seconds of starting a workout, we produce more endorphins and feel-good neurotransmitters. We also exhibit increases “in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, aiding in nerve growth and health within the brain.” This helps us to effectively manage and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression and respond to difficult emotions with adaptive actions and thought processes.
Exercise also creates a strong sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy. “For many women I work with, getting up and over the pull-up bar for the first time is a transformational experience,” said Fetters. I’ve experienced this first-hand, as someone who assumed, for years, that I was weak, wasn’t “athletic,” didn’t belong in the gym, or was just “bad” at anything exercise-related.
Being able to do something you once thought was impossible shatters your self-defeating assumptions. It changes the way you see yourself—and that trickles down to other areas. “When we realize our definition of what was impossible was made up, we question what else we could do… and what do we want to do?”
Plus, exercise can help us become physically self-sufficient. “I can get my luggage into an overhead bin with ease, move furniture by myself, and at 5’2″, do pull-ups to get to things that are otherwise out of reach,” said Fetters. “I can run through cities, climb rock walls, and Scuba dive with sharks, massive turtles, and through skip wrecks.”
To cultivate a healthy relationship with exercise (and really with ourselves!), Fetters shared these helpful suggestions:
Pick activities you actually enjoy. As Fetters said, the best kind of exercise is the exercise you actually enjoy doing—which could be anything from walks around your neighborhood to dance parties in your kitchen to yoga at a welcoming studio to lifting weights at the gym. You also might want to pick activities that are challenging yet feasible so they “demand attentional focus, but are also doable enough that we can accomplish them if we really try—we need that feeling of self-efficacy or competence.”
Focus on the process, not your performance. For example, instead of aiming to run an 8-minute mile, you might exercise to increase energy and decrease stress, to compassionately connect to your body, or to ease the tension of sitting at the computer for long hours.
Schedule play days. According to Fetters, a play day is “devoted to moving with an attitude of pure play—doing whatever feels good and is fun because that’s what feels good and is fun, not because it’s programmed into your workout or it’s what you ‘should’ do.” This could be anything from playing hopscotch to using a hula-hoop to running around with your kids in your backyard.
Take it easy on yourself. Since you’re not a robot, your capabilities will differ day to day (this might seem obvious but how often do we forget this?). As Fetters said, maybe you didn’t sleep great the night before or a certain situation is sapping your energy and focus. You’ll have “off” days. “[R]emember that the goal of exercise is to care for and celebrate your body as it is in that moment.”
Find a trainer that’s a good fit for you. When you’re just getting started with exercise or trying a new form of exercise (like strength training), working with a trainer can help. Fetters suggested first checking for certifications from an accredited organization such as the American Council on Exercise, National Academy of Sports Medicine, or National Strength and Conditioning Association.
She also noted that having an “ideal” body (“whatever that is”) doesn’t create a great trainer or great fit for you. “Knowledge, experience, the ability to fit exercises and workouts to your needs, help you enjoy movement and fitness, and improve your physical and mental health do.”
A good place to learn about a trainer’s mindset is their website or social media: “Is there a lot of talk about weight loss, aesthetics, ‘crushing’ or ‘destroying’ your body with hard workouts? Is there any talk about varying body goals? Mental health? [Are their images] all glamour shots or tutorials and reflections of our relationship with exercise? How does what you see make you feel?”
Once you find a few trainers you like, Fetters said, “talk to them about your goals and desire to focus on exercise as a means of empowerment and self-care, as opposed to fixing so-called ‘flaws.’ Make sure they echo your priorities and are a good fit for you. You should click with your trainer and be excited to spend time with them.”
If you’ve had a difficult relationship with exercise for years, it can take time to shift your mindset and behavior. And that’s completely OK. The key is to start. Start with Fetters’s suggestions, using exercise to empower, support, and honor yourself.