Most of us have not had much opportunity to discover how we feel about moving our bodies on our own. Instead, we've developed our reasons to exercise (or not to exercise) from sources like our parents, gym teachers, significant others, diet culture, magazines, movies, and society at large.
And that's a problem when you consider that how we think about exercise has a lot of power over our ultimate relationship with exercise. When someone comes to me with a tenuous relationship with exercise, it's likely that their mindset about exercise falls somewhere in this range:
- Exercise exists for burning calories and atoning for the sins of what they ate.
- Exercise is only for losing weight.
- Exercise is a way of being “good” when they have been “bad.”
- Exercise is something they “should” or “have” to do (and if they're not doing it that means they're lazy and terrible).
- Exercise is something they “should” do but they're too busy to fit it into their schedule.
- Exercise requires going to a fear-inducing gym where they will be judged by other people for their body, lack of ability, or both.
- Exercise has to make them sweat buckets and be sore for days or it doesn't “count.”
- Exercise is the worst and they hate it.
No wonder so many people begrudgingly exercise or forego it all together. Those sentiments about exercise aren't exactly a ringing endorsement.
You Probably Haven't Always Had Those Beliefs About Exercise
Let's take it back to when you were just a tiny tot, before you'd ever even heard of exercise. Before any gym teacher made you get on a scale in front of your classmates or forced you to complete a humiliating mile test. Before your first diet or the first comment about your body that hurt you.
Back when exercise and moving your body weren't a chore, they were play. A time when you were exploring your surroundings with your body as you grew, maybe by climbing trees, treating the floor like lava, playing tag, or racing on the monkey bars. Back then, your mind and your body were one unit, working in tandem to discover the world around you. You didn't need a reason to exercise—you just moved your body naturally!
It's only later that we start to develop negative associations with exercise because we come to understand the expectations society puts on movement. For some kids that happens when adults start talking to them about the importance of exercise. For others kids it happens when they realize the ways in which their bodies don't fit the mold or when they have traumatic experiences in their bodies. For some kids it's when they start to diet, come to believe that their bodies aren't good enough, or learn to see their bodies as their worth.
It's no wonder we start to associate exercise with negative feelings when society harshly views exercise through a moral lens. It can feel impossible to fully enjoy movement with that kind of pressure riding on it.
Shift Your Mindset to Unlock Your Exercise Potential
Viewing exercise as a way to compensate for the food we eat or solely as a way to change how our bodies look is reinforced and rewarded in our culture. But this mindset encourages us to look at exercise as a tool for fixing what's broken. It turns exercise into a means to an end instead of something that is valuable on its own.
One of the keys to changing your relationship with exercise is to find a “why” for doing it that resonates with you. Which begs the question, “Why the heck should we exercise if it's not to burn off that cookie we ate last night or to finally get Carrie Underwood's legs?”
I put together this list of 20 body positive reasons to exercise that have nothing do with food or weight loss to help you answer that question for yourself:
1. Endorphins. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde was right all those years ago. When we exercise, our bodies actually do release feel-good endorphins that can put us in a better mood. Note: the amount of endorphins secreted per person in response to exercise varies. If you don't experience this phenomenon, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you.
2. Exercise can be a community-building experience. I love delicious food and pretty cocktails as much as the next person, but I definitely get bored when all of my outings revolve around restaurants and bars. Next time you're looking for something fun to do with friends, consider planning a hike or a walk, starting a game of pick-up basketball at your neighborhood court, or trying a free fitness class in your city if that's something your friends would be into.
3. Stress reduction. For many people, exercise has a stress-relieving effect and is an important tool in their mental health toolkit. However, for some people exercise increases their stress levels, and that's an important consideration.
4. A better relationship with your body. If you can successfully leave behind the diet culture and #fitspo nonsense, exercise can actually help you have a better relationship with your body. Exercise has the power to strengthen your mind-body connection and give you a sense of gratitude for all the ways your body supports you in your life.
5. Potential to eliminate or improve pain. Muscle weakness and limited mobility are big drivers of physical pain, which means consistent exercise to improve those issues can lead to noticeable pain reduction for some conditions.
6. It can boost self-confidence. No matter what kind of exercise you choose, if you stick with it, you'll get better at what you're doing over time. Celebrating your progress is an excellent self-confidence booster.
7. A better night's sleep. One of my clients recently had to take a break from exercise to recover from an injury, and she noticed that she didn't sleep as well when she wasn't exercising consistently. That's not uncommon. Regular exercise can help us fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
8. Stronger bones. Doing weight-bearing activities makes your bones stronger and denser, which can help prevent osteoporosis and broken bones later in life.
9. An excuse to explore the outdoors. Outdoor exercise is an opportunity to further explore both your own neighborhood (if it's safe to do so) and the world at large while also reaping the many benefits of being out in nature. That's two perks for the effort of one!
10. Delayed cognitive decline. You may have heard that puzzles and other mental challenges are a way to protect your brain in old age. It turns out that physical activity is also very effective. We know through research that exercise is one of the best ways to fend off dementia and Alzheimers for longer.
11. Alleviating depression and anxiety. Exercise has been proven to help with depression and anxiety in many people, and I have seen this firsthand with my clients and myself. However, having depression and anxiety makes it much harder to feel motivated to exercise, so that piece has to be addressed first in order to experience any potential benefits.
12. Increased aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity (aka: cardiorespiratory fitness) reflects the rate at which our bodies can use oxygen and convert it into energy during exercise. We lose a little aerobic capacity every year as we get older, but we can cut that loss in half with regular exercise.
13. Blood pressure reduction and lowered risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. We've all heard by now how exercise can have an incredible effect on our immune system and disease prevention in our bodies. Even better? Research shows that you can get these health benefits from exercise regardless of if you lose any weight.
14. Gains in muscle mass. Doing weight-bearing activities increases the amount of lean muscle mass in your body. We naturally lose muscle as we age which can make daily activities more difficult. Thankfully, strength training can improve that downward trend.
15. The opportunity to play more. As we get older, we tend to get further and further away from the effortless play of our childhood. With so many different kinds of movement available to us, exercise is one possible way to bring play back into our lives, which does a body and mind good.
16. Improved memory and focus. Studies show that memory and focus are two areas of cognitive functioning that exercise can help sharpen.
17. An easier time with daily activities. One of the best parts of gaining strength for me has been the autonomy doing so has given me outside the gym. Thanks to strength training, I can wrangle heavy dog food bags, move furniture, put my suitcase in the overhead bin, open pickle jars, and more. Strength can provide a wonderful sense of independence.
18. The potential to extend your life. We can't live forever, and many factors play a role in when we die. That being said, if there are things I can do to give myself a fighting chance to be a badass old lady with killer style and lots of life wisdom to spare, I'm at least intrigued. Exercise can play a part in helping us live longer because it slows the aging process of our cells.
19. More energy. Exercise can act as a natural stimulant that can increase daytime energy levels so you're crashing less. Hurray for natural highs!
20. It might just make you a total badass. Admittedly, I have no studies to back this up. But anecdotally, all of my clients who have made exercising a habit report feeling much more badass as a result. And they should! With so many different things competing for our attention, it's challenging to commit to a regular exercise routine. So when we actually pull it off, it can make us feel pretty fantastic.
The Most Important Reason to Exercise Is You
It's okay if you don't care about some or even most of these reasons to exercise. You just need to keep in mind the reasons to exercise that feel most meaningful to your life and who you are as a person. You may even have some other ones in mind that I haven't included on this list.
I also want to emphasize that you don't have to exercise. In a society that views exercise through a moral lens, it can feel like you're a horrible person if you choose not to exercise, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There are very valid reasons not to exercise and a lot of barriers that can make exercise inaccessible to people that I want to honor.
Ultimately, if you do want to exercise, and if you're exercising for your own benefit instead of as a punishment or because you feel like you have to, you'll be much more likely to keep moving your body. And moving your body can be a truly magical thing.
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