Building a healthy relationship with exercise

Exercise is good for us, right? But what happens when we take things to extremes, and use exercise as a form of punishment? Sarah Young says that the good news is we can heal our relationship with working out, and reap the benefits in a healthy way

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Exercise is often a big part of people’s lives, and when you look at the benefits, it’s easy to see why. Regular exercise can help lower your risk of many diseases – including heart disease, stroke and dementia, and can relieve anxiety and stress; it can even help with depression. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which create a positive feeling in your body, and also reduce your perception of pain.

So how can exercise ever be unhealthy?

One instance of unhealthy exercise is where people with eating disorders  abuse exercise in order to lose weight, change their bodies, and cope with negative thoughts and feelings; this is, obviously, unhealthy. Unfortunately, however, it’s also something that has become a toxic part of many people’s lives. Exercise can be used as a coping mechanism, or be fuelled by negativity, even if someone doesn’t have an eating disorder.

The issue isn’t with the actual movement of the body, but the way in which many of us exercise – the why and the how. Issues arise when we examine the thoughts and feelings behind what is driving us to exercise, and the outcome we’re looking for.

The media is permeated with ‘health and fitness’ adverts and advice, as well as promoting exercise as a means to change our bodies. Society is obsessed with getting us to burn calories and fat, drop pounds, tighten our bodies and harden our abs, and it’s toxic.

We force ourselves to aerobics classes to sweat the pounds away. We torture ourselves at the gym in order to burn calories. We make ourselves run miles in order to ‘compensate’ for that slice of cake we had earlier. We punish our bodies for not being small /lean /toned enough. But exercise isn’t enjoyable when it’s used as retribution against our bodies for not fitting society’s idea of perfection, and it’s not something we look forward to when it’s fuelled by negativity towards our bodies or ourselves. It’s certainly not healthy when we feel that we need to exercise in order to eat in a certain way, to change our appearance, or to feel worthy, attractive, or ‘disciplined’.

Of course, plenty of people genuinely enjoy the gym, aerobics classes and running, and pursue these activities as hobbies, rather than seeing them as an obligation. Yet there are many of us who force ourselves to exercise in ways we don’t enjoy – or even actually hate – because we feel driven to by body hatred, food anxiety, or low self-esteem.

If you can relate to this, you might wonder how can you change your relationship with exercise so that you can move in a way that is healthy, both mentally and physically. Here are some suggestions.

Take a break to heal

It may be tough, but take a break from exercise in order to work on healing your relationship with your body, food and yourself. This could include therapy, unfollowing social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, and untangling the connection between your weight and your worth – because you are worthy, regardless of your weight, shape or size.

Change your perspective

Redefine the way you see exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be an intense cardio session. Exercise is splashing in the pool with your kids. It’s walking in the sunshine with your dog. It’s rounders on the beach with your family. It’s running around the house after your toddler. It’s finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin wide. Exercise should be whatever makes you happiest, not whatever burns the most calories.

Explore what feels good for you

Take the time to discover physical activities you genuinely enjoy, that are primarily focused on having fun and/or socialising. Take your time to figure out what feels good for you – there’s no rush. Experimenting could help you uncover something unexpected you enjoy most.

Look at your language

The way we think and talk about exercise can contribute towards the way we view it. You could rename it ‘joyful movement’ to see it in a more positive light. You could say you want to ‘move your body’, rather than ‘work out’. This could help you view exercise as a hobby, rather than a chore.

Recognise that exercise is individual

While the media focuses on intense, strenuous types of exercise, it’s crucial to remember that, in reality, exercise has to be tailored to the individual. This is especially important if you are someone with a chronic illness, mobility issue, or other disability that affects movement, because the pressure to engage in activities that aren’t suitable for you can often mean experiencing anxiety, guilt and shame. Exercise could mean going to the corner shop, gentle stretches, lifting small weights, or doing Pilates. It could just be moving around the house. What exercise looks like is different from one person to the next.

Learn the warning signs

Exercise should add to your life, and should never be something that you dread. On the extreme end of the spectrum, exercise can turn into a dangerous addiction, which needs to be taken seriously.

As someone who battled compulsive exercise as part of my eating disorder, I know that it’s extremely difficult to break that compulsion and build a healthier relationship with exercise, especially when the message you constantly receive is that all exercise is good exercise. Movement should be something that’s driven by positive energy and focused, first and foremost, on the pleasure you get from it.

There is, truly, a wealth of benefits to enjoying physical movement that we all deserve to experience but, in order to ensure your relationship with exercise is a healthy one, really assess why you are exercising. If you’re working out because you feel you have to, then I suggest taking time out to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you.

Your body is incredible just as it is, naturally. Learn to love it, not to wage war on it. Then find movement that brings you happiness; you deserve it.

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