For many years exercise was, to me, purely a tool to manipulate my body. For me, the purpose of exercise was to burn calories or to create an energy deficit so I could “cheat” and eat the foods I really wanted, which I had decided (with some help from diet culture) were “bad” to eat and even morally “wrong” to want in the first place. Exercise was how I punished myself for what I’d eaten and sometimes what I wanted to eat. Whether I considered a workout a success was totally conditional and tethered to the calories I burned or the numbers I was seeing on the scale. And fitness wasn’t the only thing that I judged by whether I was losing weight; my self-worth got the same treatment. My whole vibe around exercise was negative and harsh; it’s no wonder I had a hard time sticking with it consistently. My mind always went back to debits and credits of calories and fuel. It was a mind-set I couldn’t shake.
If I’m honest, after looking at the National Eating Disorder website, I see now that my unhealthy relationship with exercise definitely checked some of the boxes for symptoms of compulsive exercising. And to be clear, I don’t think that my relationship to exercise was that much different or more severe than the relationship lots of us have to exercise while living in the reality of diet culture.
Over many years and through a lot of self-work, my mind-set and behavior have completely changed. I now coach women to reframe their relationship with exercise from punitive and perfectionistic to joyful, empowered, and celebratory.
What I know now—that I never could have imagined then—is that exercise can simply be about feeling good in your body or the pure joy of achievement. The rush I feel after finishing a tough workout, maybe one that I didn’t feel like doing in the first place; what if that was enough to make exercise “worth it?”
But making this shift in how you relate to exercise doesn’t happen overnight and it definitely doesn’t happen just because you want it to. In my experience, it’s something you have to work at. I had to change a lot of behaviors in order to start thinking about exercise in a new way. But the good news is that it worked for me and I’ve seen it work for my clients. Here’s how I overcame my unhealthy relationship with fitness and weight:
1. I stopped following media or influencers that reinforced diet culture. I started following accounts that celebrated movement and body diversity.
If you’re awash in images that reinforce the value of thinness, it’s really tough to stop valuing thinness. That’s it. Of course often times this content is meant to be “fitspo,” but it’s only ever inspired me to feel like however much I did would never be enough.
I ditched it all and replaced it with accounts of women who were celebrating their bodies and achievements at all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities. I filled my news feed and inbox with nothing but body positivity and it changed my thought patterns around what it means to achieve fitness milestones in a diversity of bodies.
Some of the people I started following are: ultramarathoner Mirna Valerio (@themirnivator), personal trainers Roz the Diva (@rozthediva) and Morit Summers (@moritsummers), and yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn).
I started to read books like: Triathlon for Every Woman by Meredith Atwood, Slow Fat Triathlete by Jayne Williams, A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio, Eat, Sweat, Play by Anna Kessel, and Embrace Yourself by Taryn Brumfitt.
2. I started tracking everything other than calories.
As someone with a long history of dieting, the only tracking I was accustomed to was logging everything that went in my mouth and any kind of exercise I did. Each day my goal was to make sure those numbers meant that I’d created a caloric deficit. If they did, I would deem the day a good one. If the numbers didn’t line up or worse, if the calories consumed were greater than those burned, it was a bad day. I still can’t believe how much power I gave to numbers!
Fortunately there are tons of ways to keep track of things we do for our health. I like to track my moods, mental health, and how I feel about my body. I also keep a log of the exercise I did along with how I slept and how much water I’ve drunk. These are the things that help me keep track of how I’m feeling physically and mentally.
If you’re interested in trying a new way of tracking, check out this page from the fitness journal I offer my clients. It will guide you through tracking your workouts (and more) in a way that will focus you on your emotional wellbeing.
3. I planned for the ride to get bumpy every now and again by literally writing extra rest days into my training schedules.
In every fitness journey there will be peaks, valleys, and plateaus. For me the peaks are when I’m feeling great, I’m crushing my workouts, and everything is aligned. But when I hit a valley, I’m just not feeling it as much. Then there are plateaus, those frustrating times when you feel like working out just isn’t getting any easier.
Guess what? This is normal. Having these ebbs and flows to how you feel and how your workouts feel doesn’t mean you’re failing. In fact, it means you’re succeeding at having an organic, authentic relationship with exercise.
Here are some ways I do this is:
- When I plan my training schedules, I incorporate a plan for potential valleys and prepare programs with some extra time to allow for illness or potential injury, just in case.
- I stopped being so harsh with myself and honor my body when my energy is lower. I ask myself, What would be the best thing for my body right now? Sometimes it is to push through but other times it’s about taking some time to rest.
- I also have flexibility within my training plans and sometimes move scheduled workouts around. This way, I am still getting the training I need without completely blowing it off.
And by the way, if you track and compare those good days against the bad days with the journal sheet, you sometimes can start to see some behavioral patterns and when we have knowledge around our behavior, we have power to change.
4. I totally re-evaluated my relationship to my scale.
Truth be told, I didn’t get rid of my scale entirely because I occasionally weigh myself. But it’s gone from my sight line and that puts weighing myself out of my mind, too. It means that if I want to weigh myself I have to think through whether it’s a good idea in the moment to follow through with that. This is a really personal decision and we all need to figure out what’s right for ourselves when it comes to weighing ourselves. However, I strongly recommend really thinking through your relationship to the scale. For example, how often do you weigh yourself? Does the number on the scale have a pretty big effect on your mood or your day? Does your weight at a given time influence how much you’ll eat or workout? If you answered yes to any of these, (like I did previously) you may want it gone all together.
5. I stopped doing exercise I didn’t truly enjoy.
I remember once doing a fitness program where I worked out intensely for six days a week and followed a fairly stringent meal plan. The main objective of the program was to shed pounds quickly, (yes, I fell for it). For the first time in my life, my knees hurt from all the jumping, my body was taxed, and I was starving. It felt wrong and just plain sucked. Plus—and maybe you already know this from personal experience—fitness geared towards rapid weight loss doesn’t often lead to a sustainable workout routine. So, I stopped doing this program because I was in it for all the wrong reasons. I went back to fitness I enjoyed and returned to training for events such as 5k and 10k races and sprint and olympic triathlons. I found the variety in workouts, mostly in the outdoors, suited my personality. These goals weren’t about weight loss and shredding pounds but more about athletic victory. That is the only motivator that keeps my fitness routines sustainable.
It’s really important to align your fitness routine with what makes you feel good. Choosing something that’s too severe can trigger all sorts of unhealthy habits or extreme behaviors. Remember long-term sustainability is the key. Choose something that interests you, that challenges you in a healthy way; find something that you enjoy, and you will be set up for long and happy (although sometimes bumpy!) relationship with working out. And remember that the only person who gets to decide what a sustainable fitness routine is for you is you.
There is a fine line between mindful tracking and dedication to your health, and obsessiveness, over-exercise, and chronically standing on the scale. Of course, staying on the emotionally healthy side of that line can be easier said than done. If you find yourself unable to break unhealthy habits or thinking way too much about eating and exercise, consider working with a professional like a therapist or registered dietitian who can help you implement some of these changes. I really think it’s worth it; reflecting not only on the workouts you do but also how you mentally manage the results of your workouts are both equally important in the health equation.