It’s time to unlearn the belief that exercise is a punishment for not being a bikini model.
I’ve never been one of those svelte, sporty women who make loving exercise look easy. I was quite literally that kid that always got picked last for teams in gym class. Naturally speaking, I’m clumsy and uncoordinated. I can’t even dance worth a damn without making an absolute fool of myself, so I guess you could say exercise and I weren’t exactly fast friends in life.
It hasn’t helped that most of the few friends I’ve had who were good at staying in shape made exercise sound awful. They talked too much about all the things they’d given up and learned to live without. They claimed to love exercising for its own sake, but I never saw much evidence of that. What I did see was a lot of negative self-talk, toxic thinking, and disordered behavior.
It often seemed like the fitter my friends became, and the more disciplined they were about their exercise routines, the more they hated their bodies and obsessed over their flaws. I also mirrored that thinking and behavior for a long time because it was all I knew. When I exercised at all, it was usually for the same reason my friends were doing it — because I wanted to lose weight or look better.
Exercise became something I used to punish myself when I felt fat or ugly and forgot about entirely when I was happier with myself. “No pain, no gain.” Or at least that’s the bullshit people were still selling when I was younger and more concerned with how I looked than I was with how I felt.
I didn’t understand the real reason why I hated exercise.
It’s not that it’s hard. Once you manage to turn it into a habit and get a decent routine going, it’s reasonably easy to stick with it. It becomes like every other thing you don’t necessarily enjoy but do anyway — like your laundry or paying your bills. It’s just a part of your daily ritual that you keep doing because you always do it.
It’s different when it’s something you’re not used to and trying to jam into your life because you hate your body and want it to change. You want to see that change as quickly as possible so you can go back to doing things you enjoy, so you way overdo it in a state of constant frustration. I remember that all too well.
I’d obsess over the numbers on the scale until they were where I wanted them to be, and I’d emotionally pummel myself with negative self-talk every day for putting on weight in the first place. I’d starve myself so that I could reach my so-called goals even more quickly, as well. I wasn’t learning how to take better care of myself or establish a more balanced lifestyle, but that was never really the point back then anyway. Who wouldn’t hate that?
And it turns out science has my back in thinking all that negativity was why I struggled so hard with the whole concept of fitness in the first place. There’s a direct correlation between body-shaming thinking like the kind I used to engage in and dreading exercise with every fiber of one’s being.
Nobody truly likes anything that makes them feel horrible about themselves. And as long as you’re using exercise as a punishment for not looking the way you think you should look, that’s how you can expect to feel about it — horrible.
Hating exercise is kind of like hating vegetables.
(Or like hating anything else that’s good for you, for that matter.) There are hundreds of different kinds of vegetables out there, so the chances that any one person truly hates them all are pretty slim. However, most people don’t bother to try them all before making up their minds. They eat broccoli, think it’s disgusting, and assume every other vegetable is disgusting, too.
Then one day, they try rainbow carrots cooked to perfection and seasoned correctly, or they discover how fantastic spring peas can be when they’re not the sad, grey kind that comes out of a can. Maybe they even try broccoli again sometime, only this time it’s cooked properly and served with a little good cheese on top. It’s then that they realize there’s a lot more to vegetables than one specific kind served in a manner that doesn’t bring out the best in them.
Realizing that being active doesn’t have to suck was similar for me. I thought exercise started and stopped with the activities I was forced to do in school. I thought it was having to run laps until I thought I would vomit or pass out. I thought it was being forced to play volleyball or softball with a bunch of other kids who didn’t like me and always picked me last.
I didn’t yet realize that when my dad took my brother and me roller skating as kids, we were exercising. The same goes for the bike rides by the water I used to love, and all the nature walks I always got so excited about. I was so sure that exercise was always something horrible that I assumed something couldn’t possibly count if I enjoyed it.
So, by all means, if you hate broccoli and cauliflower but love fresh salads, choose the salads when it’s time to nosh on some veggies. And if you can’t stand running or have a panic attack at the mere thought of going to a gym, don’t do those things. Try different sports and activities on for size until you find something that floats your boat, and do that instead.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you work out the way your friends do or adopt the same approach to fitness they have. The only person your fitness routine has to work for is you.
You can reframe the way you utilize exercise.
Finding something active to do that you genuinely enjoy (or can at least tolerate) is the first step to genuinely embracing exercise. The next order of business is to redefine your reasons for wanting to get in shape in the first place, especially if they have anything to do with losing weight or looking a certain way.
There are many ways your life will change for the better once you manage to turn fitness into a habit. Improving your body composition is only one of them. It’s also a mere side effect of getting healthier overall, and it’s not even the coolest one. You can also look forward to benefits like the following.
- You’ll sleep better and wake up more rested.
- You’ll have more energy and better mental clarity.
- Your sex life will improve.
- Your moods will improve, and if you suffer from conditions like depression, they’ll become easier to manage.
- You’ll reduce your risk of developing conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, and even certain cancer types.
- Your self-esteem will go through the roof.
- You’ll be healthier overall, even if you’re also overweight.
Yes, weight is a factor in your health, but it’s not anywhere near as important as fitness. An overweight person who exercises regularly is almost always going to be healthier than a thin person who doesn’t, so it’s time to stop seeing exercise as a punishment for being fat.
Once you hit your groove when it comes to fitness, you’ll realize that your body likes to move. I used to think “relaxing” felt good, and it does… sometimes. But being active feels right in a way sitting around all the time never really did. Once I became consciously aware of that, it was easy to rewire my brain as far as how I thought of exercise.
It’s not my punishment for eating too much cake over the holidays or for weighing too much anymore. Instead, it’s become another way to love and care for myself — like good food, quality time spent with loved ones, or weekend skincare treatments. It can become something similar for you if you give it a chance.
Here are some tips for making the transition.
Of course, knowing you’d love to stop hating exercise and actually doing that are two different things. Since there’s no one approach that’s going to work for everyone, you might have to experiment a little before you hit on what works for you. Here are some additional ideas to try.
- Find a workout buddy. My husband and I don’t usually work out together, but we are on the same journey together, and it makes a difference. We can keep each other accountable, share workout tips, and encourage each other when things get frustrating. It helps a lot and makes the whole process a lot more fun.
- Reward yourself for meeting goals and reaching milestones. Just make sure you choose healthy, neutral rewards. A long, hot bath or a massage is a great reward, but a double helping of chocolate cake? Not so much. Rewards are especially helpful while you’re still forming a habit. Once you start seeing results and embracing the benefits, you’re more likely to see exercise as its own reward.
- Switch things up as needed. No law says your workouts need to stay exactly the same to yield results. Switching things up and engaging in lots of different activities is helpful, as it activates different muscle groups. It also keeps things fun and engaging, making it easier to stick with things and continue building your new habit.
Exercising may seem hard at first, but I promise you it doesn’t stay that way. As your body and mind get used to your new routine, it gets a lot easier. At this point, I can’t imagine going back to the sedentary couch potato lifestyle I used to think was so great. It doesn’t even begin to compare to how good it feels to finally have a healthy relationship with my body.
Being healthy and comfortable in your own skin is worth it. Try it and see. Like me, you’ll wind up wondering what on earth took you so long.