Exercise is good for us, isn’t it? But what happens when we take things to extremes and use exercise as a punishment? The good news is we can heal our relationship with exercise and reap the benefits in healthy ways
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 such as heart disease, stroke, and dementia, and reduce anxiety and stress. It can even help with depression. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These create a positive feeling in your body and also decrease the perception of pain. Not bad, right?
“Society is obsessed with making us burn calories and fat, shedding pounds, toning our bodies and toning our abs, and it’s toxic.”
How can exercise ever be unhealthy?
One case is when people with eating disorders abuse exercise to lose weight, change their bodies, and deal with negative thoughts and feelings, which are obviously unhealthy. Unfortunately, it is also something that has become a toxic part of the lives of many people across the church. Exercise can be used as a coping mechanism or fueled by negativity, even if someone doesn’t have an eating disorder.
The problem is not the actual movement of the body, but the way many of us exercise – the why and the how. The problems arise when we examine the thoughts and feelings behind what drives us to exercise and the outcome we seek. The media is full of health and fitness advertisements and advice, as well as promoting exercise as a means of transforming our bodies. Society is obsessed with making us burn calories and fat, shedding pounds, toning our bodies, and tightening our abs, and it’s toxic.
We force ourselves to aerobics classes to sweat away the pounds. We torture ourselves in the gym to burn calories. We run miles to “compensate” for the piece of cake we used to have. We punish our body for not being small enough / lean enough / tight enough. But exercise isn’t fun when used in retaliation against our bodies for not conforming to society’s idea of perfection. It’s not something to look forward to when fueled by negativity towards our body or ourselves. It is certainly not healthy if we feel that we need to exercise in order to eat certain ways, change our looks, or feel worthy, attractive, or “disciplined”.
Of course, many people really enjoy the gym, aerobics classes, and running and pursue these activities as hobbies rather than obligations. Still, there are many of us who force ourselves to exercise in ways we don’t enjoy (or even hate) because we feel driven by body hatred, food anxiety, or low self-esteem.
If you can relate to this, you may wonder how you can change your relationship with exercise so that you can exercise healthily, mentally and physically.
Take a break to heal
It may be difficult, but take a break from exercising to help heal your relationship with your body, your food, and yourself. This can include therapy, neglecting social media accounts that make you feel bad, and untangling the connection between your weight and worth – because regardless of your weight, shape, or height, you are worthy.
Change your perspective
Redefine the way you see movement. Exercise doesn’t have to be an intense cardio session or frolic in the gym. Exercise splashes with your kids in the pool. Take your dog for a walk in the sunshine. It’s around the beach with your family. It runs around the house after your toddler. It’s about finding a team sport that makes your heart beat faster and makes you grin. Exercise should be what makes you happiest, not what burns the most calories.
“Exercise splashes in the pool with your kids. She walks your dog in the sunshine. She runs on the beach with your family. Exercise should be what makes you happiest, not what burns the most calories.”
Discover what feels good to you
Take the time to discover physical activities that you really enjoy and that are primarily geared towards having fun and / or socializing. Take the time to figure out what feels good to you – there’s no rush. Experimentation can help you discover something unexpected that you like best.
Look at your language
The way we think and talk about movement can contribute to how we see it. You could rename it to “joyful movement” to see it in a more positive light. You might say you want to move your body instead of exercising. This could help you view exercise as a hobby rather than a chore.
Realize that exercise is individual
While the media is focused on intense, strenuous types of exercise, it is important to remember that in reality, exercise must be tailored to the individual. This is especially important if you have a chronic illness, mobility problem, or other disability that interferes with movement, as the pressure to engage in activities that are not right for you can often mean anxiety, guilt, and shame. Exercise can mean going to the corner store, stretching gently, lifting small weights, or playing Pilates. It could just move around the house. What an exercise looks like varies from person to person.
Learn the warning signs
Exercise should enrich your life and should never be something you fear. At the very end of the spectrum, exercise can become a dangerous addiction that needs to be taken seriously.
As someone who has struggled with obsessive-compulsive exercise as part of my eating disorder, I know that breaking that compulsion and building a healthier relationship with exercise is extremely difficult, especially when the message you keep getting is that all exercise is good Exercises are. Exercise should be something that is positive energy fueled and primarily focused on the enjoyment you get from it.
There are truly a plethora of benefits to enjoying exercise that we all deserve, but to make sure your relationship with exercise is healthy you should really assess why you are exercising. If you exercise because you feel you have to, I recommend taking some time off to assess whether what you are doing is actually benefiting you. Your body is amazing the way it is, of course. Learn to love not to wage war against it. Then you will find movement that will bring you happiness: you deserve it.
To talk to a professional about your feelings about exercise, visit counselling-directory.org.uk/