I’ve gotten this question several times from readers or clients… Which I think means….is it possible to want to change your body but also have a healthy relationship with exercise?
I feel pretty strongly that the answer to this question is no.
That’s not to say that certain types of exercise that might indirectly change your body aren’t mindful, but if the goal of engaging in a type of exercise or movement is to change your body….that almost always leads to an unhealthy place.
And I think that goes for any food or exercise behavior. It’s not so much the behavior itself that becomes unhealthy (although that can happen) but instead the motivation for the behavior. What is the “why” behind the behavior? What influences that behavior?
When it comes to exercise…external motivators tend to disconnect us from our bodies. They lead to doing things we think we should versus things we want to do. And they never lead to sustainable, healthy/mindful habits. We know diets don’t work. And just like eating certain foods in hopes of changing your body doesn’t work, exercising a certain way to change your body doesn’t work in the long term either.
What might begin as a fun challenge to “tone up” can quickly lead to 1) rigid rules around how much, how often or how intensely to exercise 2) guilt or shame when you don’t exercise 3) exercising in a way that’s physically harmful vs helpful and many other destructive thoughts/behaviors/motivations. What started as a seemingly harmless pursuit to change your body more often than not, leads to a not so harmless place. And usually when we do reach this arbitrary “goal” we set when we began the exercise routine, that goal isn’t enough anymore…then there is some other arbitrary goal to achieve. It can become a downward spiral where enough is never enough.
A good way to check in with yourself to guage if the movement you’re doing is healthy or harmful could be to ask yourself these three questions:
What is my end goal in doing this type of movement? Is it to feel good?
Is my worth and value contingent on this type of movement?
Does this help me live a better life?
If your goal is anything other than taking care of yourself and feeling good, then that type of movement might be a behavior that isn’t serving you. If your worth and value are contingent on whether or not you exercised that day or how long or how intensely you exercised that day….that behavior isn’t healthy. If the type of movement you choose to do isn’t helping you live a better life….then that isn’t helping you become the person you were created to be. That behavior isn’t positive. It’s negative.
Are you seeking health or are you seeking appearance?
If you find yourself engaging in any type of movement with the intention of manipulating your body…it might be time to take a step back and reassess. I use to run to control my body. To burn calories so I made sure I didn’t gain weight or to make up for the alcohol and three slices of late night pizza I consumed. I use to lift weights or go to a HIIT class in an attempt to carve my body into a shape and size it wasn’t genetically designed to be. It wasn’t until I got completely burned out and my body actually started to do the exact opposite of what I wanted it to do that I realized….this is not healthy mentally or physically. I had become completely dissociated from my body.
We often get confused with what healthy actually is. The “super fit” person you see on instagram might actually not be that healthy at all….all we get is the outward appearance. But really, true health starts from the inside. Mentally, emotionally and physically. Your health is not contingent on your body size. Body fat and health can and do exist simultaneously.
Before beginning any type of movement, ask yourself….”Am I doing this because I want to feel good and alive in my body…or because I want to change my body”
If you want to read more about this topic, you can check out these posts here, here, and here. The book Body Kindness and Body Respect are also two great resources that might be helpful as well.
I’d love for you to share you thoughts in the comments and perhaps what you’ve learned about mindful movement. Happy weekend!
I really, really appreciate this post :). I do have a quick question and I would love your honest thoughts. Do you think it’s possible for a personal trainer to coach clients to use exercise as a tool for health WITHOUT prescribing rigid exercise schedules (maybe something more like various exercise options, along with coaching to listen to their bodies own cues?)? Any thoughts on a positive and helpful way to approach this with clients?
I definitely think it’s possible! And I so hope there are more and more personal trainers coaching people in this way – giving them tools but also helping them learn to listen to their body so they know how to appropriately and mindfully use those tools.
This post hits home with me, Robyn! I never had issues with overexercising or worrying about doing it to burn calories to lose weight until I started running cross country my senior year of high school. With all of the miles and not knowing much about nutrition in high school, I started losing weight and liked how my body started looking. My mindset COMPLETELY changed from running for pleasure to running because I HAD to. Talk about a downward spiral really fast that led me to becoming anorexic. After getting professional help a number of years ago, I totally 100% back you up on everything you said in this post!! I love being able to run now for pleasure, only on days that my body feels like it!! I can actually ENJOY the movement, rather than suffer through the whole time for all of the wrong reasons
I love reading your blog and see where you’re coming from with this post.
We’re told over and over again to love our bodies no matter what – but this is easier said than done.
I’m 17, and like many other teens, I have gone through phases where I disliked my body and wanted to change it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you want to start exercising to lose some fat and live a healthier and longer life. I got into exercise because I wanted to lose the puppy fat I still had from my younger days. Yes, it is easy to become obsessed with working out which is not good for your mental state. But working out also teaches you to love your body. I’ve learnt that I’ll never have a six pack or model thighs. But through exercising regularly, I’ve learnt what my body’s version of a six pack is and how my body is supposed to look. I’m as lean as my body is meant to be healthily. This gives me confidence and makes me feel good about myself. I exercise because it makes me feel good. I’ve learnt to set goals that are reachable for my body.
Hi Monique! Your last sentence it’s a great mindset – exercising because you FEEL GOOD. But having the sole motivation to exercise being weight loss doesn’t lead to a healthy mindset, but like you said in the words to follow….”to live a healthier and longer life” –> that’s what makes you FEEL good.
“Are you seeking health or are you seeking appearance?” That’s such a great question. When I finally realized what a waste of time over exercising was I felt so liberated. It felt good to be able to find my own balance with exercising and stop letting exercise run my life!
Love this! My question is….what if you need to lose some weight for health reasons? My cholesterol is slightly elevated & I’m carrying some extra weight around my middle. I love the intuitive approach, but some change is probably needed.
That’s a great question Kristen and I think a blog post idea that will resonate with many….and I think a healthy motivation is similar to this post. Is the motivation internal…to FEEL good and be healthy (meaning normalizing your cholesterol) vs losing weight. Increased weight is not a direct cause of high cholesterol, there is possible association but it’s not the direct reason your lipid levels are elevated. I hope I’m making sense here 🙂
You are making total sense! Thank you.
Thank you for this wonderful post! Just yesterday I was looking at pictures from a year ago and thought gosh, I really am a lot less toned now. I *need* to eat better/go to the gym…I am in a busy season of life doing the best I can (yay grad school!). I had bad tmj for three months at the end of the summer which led to eating lots of pureed foods, including buttery mashed potatoes and smoothies and ice cream. I’m finally better now, but everyday is so busy that cooking, which I had always loved, have just become another chore. Yesterday, looking at my “more fit” self in pictures, was a day of feeling like a total failure. But reading this has reminded me that in the past year, letting go of disordered eating has freed my mind up so much to focus on other things–Jesus, my husband, my studies, friends, fun hobbies that DON’T revolve around food and structured exercise. I’m no longer constantly anxious around meals or starving myself or dealing with any of the symptoms that accompany that. The peace of mind and the LIFE I have gained are worth some freaking cellulite (which my husband loves anyway!). Thank you for being a voice of reason in the midst of my struggle!
And a free mind that allows you to pursue your passions and purchase and so much BETTER!Thank you for sharing!!
Amber @ Bloom Nutrition Therapy says
This is so good and so true and I can definitely relate. I tried to control my body for years and then eventually it began suffering in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Hair loss, everyday fatigue, disruption in my cycle and other symptoms. It was finally a sign that this wasn’t healthy, but harmful for my body. I finally started viewing movement as a means of what I WANT to do instead of what I SHOULD be doing. Running miles everyday because actually enjoying a walk around my neighborhood. I traded structured exercise classes for doing some quick lunges and squats while I dinner cooks. And I can’t believe how much HAPPIER I am now that I’m not living with the stress of forceful exercise and pressure to change my body. Great post!
I so agree with your point of view here. I’ve been in recovery for my eating disorder and exercise bulimia for almost five years, and the exercise has been the hardest thing for me to find balance with (though I’ve still made strides). I’ve found so called “body positive” health professionals on social media touting that you can in fact still love your body while wanting to change its appearance. It’s just not true. The second I do anything with the intention to control my body, I fall down the rabbit hole of obsession. The thing is, I genuinely like to exercise because it does make me feel good, I just have to be mindful to let go of the rigidity when it arises and stop doing anything I don’t enjoy. Thanks for writing this!
I agree with you Hannah that it is not true. Thanks for sharing!!
Megan @ A Continual Feast says
This is excellent. I feel like I often have to check myself and I love these questions that you posed. It feels SO good to be in a place where you are doing things because they help you de-stress or bring you joy vs because you dislike your body. Freedommm!
Thank you for your post, Robyn. As I sit here on my couch in the early Saturday morning hours reading and journaling, I am riddled with anxiety of rampant thoughts on the hamster wheel in my head. Thoughts such as, I really should be hitting the pavement running for two hours to get in my whatever “required/set/planned” miles for the day dictated by some current training plan. Get out there and burn calories, build VO2 max, etc. I am an over-exerciser with an eating disorder (and I have sought out help, just now entering this phase by finally succumming to the realization). In our society it is SO incredibly easy to fall into disordered/wrong (I prefer disordered here versus wrong) habits for exercise/movement AND it is SO incredibly hard to fall out of disordered habits for exercise/movement. I think I own about 20 t-shirts and tank tops that say things like “No Excuses” “Working for It, Not Wishing for It” “Sweat Now, Glow Later” and on and on. I had a ton of apps on my phone to try and keep up with the person who lives in California I don’t even know or because I decided to join some online run club or try to keep up with someone one a leaderboard on a spin bike that goes nowhere, or a challenge on Facebook and on and on and on. I had a watch, HR monitor which tracked EVERYTHING from calories, cadence, heel strike, it would even beep performance measures at me throughout my run which would typically deflate me and tell me I need to pick up the pace.
My apologies for the long-winded post. All this to say your written words resonated with my current situation in learning to ask myself if moving in this particular moment is health for my body? I started to journal all the points in your post which I need to hear, internalize, continue to heed, but there were too many good ones. I printed and highlighted instead which created for a whole bunch of yellow and pink on one paper. 🙂
Thank you, a simple thank you for providing poignant words at a time I needed.
This comment: Pretty much exactly everything i was going to say (or should have) minus the T-shirt comment. (It’s like your living my life!) I haven’t been reading on this blog for a while and for this post to be there first one i saw was something of a miracle. Thank you Robyn for being so… On point.
xoxo thanks for reading Bethany
Kristin – I’m sending so much love your way! And I’m glad the questions were helpful as a journal prompt. Know that you are NOT alone. Many women walk in your shoes and you will move through this tough season. Saturate your mind in positive messages, give yourself grace and time and know that I am thinking of you!
I needed this post. Thank you. A follow up question:
Do you think it’s unhealthy to experience the following:
1. Do whatever exercise that makes you feel good (yoga or walking)
2. Recognize the mental benefits (calmer, breathing better)
3. Recognize the physical benefits (tone, less jiggle)
4. Like the physical benefits
5. Want to keep doing the exercise because you like the physical benefits and you know there are mental benefits too
I guess my question is whether it’s ok to be happy about physical benefits while realizing it’s not just about the physical side of things. Does that make sense?
The first two are healthy and #3 and #4 aren’t necessarily “bad” but I think it becomes unhealthy when physical appearance is your motivator. Do you ENJOY the movement? Does it feel freeing for you? Does it help you live a better life? I hope that helps!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to navigate the exercise world. Tons of triggering things out there…like, is doing an ab workout video on YouTube disordered because it focuses on a body part? I mean, why else would people do that except for manipulating a body part? Is it ever ok to exercise certain parts of the body? If so, what is an approach to doing this that is balanced?
I would say a healthy motivation would be doing ab workout because it strengthens your core which helps improve posture which keeps you joints/muscles healthy, helps improve or prevent back pain, improves balance and helps you to not get injured doing everyday movement. So thinking about what the exercises help you to DO instead of how they make you look I think is a good way to approach this. hope that helps <3
Emily Swanson says
It’s amazing that it all stems from our motivation of why we exercise; are we exercising for health or just for appearance? I know it’s ok to want to have muscles or even to build those muscles, but for me I know that that often goes down the wrong road; so I steer away from the appearance motivation, and I love the health motivation because it’s so much of a deeper broader motivation and much more freeing!
Sam @ Sam Vander Wielen LLC says
Love this post! Thanks so much for sharing.
I cannot get over how much I love this post. Your words on exercise and movement are oh so wise, and you have helped me move through a challenging time. Thank you thank you!!! I’m so glad that you have discovered intuitive movement for yourself as well.
I had a question. What would you coach someone on if they want to utilize the intuitive eating approach and exercising only for enjoyment rather than to get your body to lose weight but they have to lose some weight for medical reasons? I was diagnosed with a condition called pseudo tumor cerebrie which can be reversed only through weight loss and if it’s not reversed can lead to blindness. I hate dieting and find myself bingeing whenever I restrict food and I would so love to do IE but I want to know if some weight loss can go hand in hand with IE or if it even can? Thank you!! I appreciate your answer and time 🙂
Hi Marissa! From what I know about the condition (which I am not that well versed and no expert) weight loss is not the end all be all. I’m rather certain that if you’re body is at it’s healthy set point, weight would not be a cause of this condition. Finding your natural set point is an outcome of IE. Hope that helps!
Thank you so much for your reply! I’ve decided to fully embrace IE and Intuitive exercise. I was under the impression that I had to lose a mass amount of weight to reverse it but you’re totally right, if I just allow my body to get to it’s set point I’ll be fine. I didn’t have PTC when I was at my natural weight lol so it makes sense if I allow my body to figure that out I’ll be alright. Again thank you!! 💜
glad that was helpful 🙂