When I was a personal trainer, I was always posting about workouts.
I mean, let's be real - it was bragging.
I was always bragging about how much I was doing, and how what I was doing was transforming my body into something that looked (what I judged to be) more visually appealing.
And proving it with transformation photos.
In many ways, as a trainer, I felt like I needed to do those things - it was my job to "inspire" others to "take care of themselves" and "get fit" after all, right?
Ugh. Now it turns my stomach and I'm never doing any of that shit again for two reasons.
First, because I see those things more clearly now for what they actually are - not at all inspiring and potentially harmful cries for external validation and acceptance.
And second, because my relationship with exercise has completely changed.
In fact, I don't even "exercise" in the traditional sense or in any of the ways that I used to anymore.
But that doesn't mean that I stopped moving.
I still move my body, every single day in fact - whenever & however I feel like it needs or wants it.
Because exercise is punishment but movement is healing and nurturing.
See, as messed up as my relationship with food was for most of my life, so too was my relationship with exercise.
My first experiences with exercise were, as with dieting, as a teenager - when I learned that I needed to diet to make my body more acceptable, I also learned I needed to exercise for the same reason.
I had books & magazines (back when the dinosaurs roamed & we had no YouTube) that told me what exercises to do to “fix” the “problem” areas on my body & a few dumbbells with which to perform said exercises.
Exercise was punishment that I had to endure to beat my body into submission, into something smaller, more visually appealing or to "fix" all those "problem areas".
And, after spending eight years as a personal trainer, I can tell you with absolute certainty, that's an accurate reflection of most people's relationship to exercise.
How is any of that healthy?
The cycle goes like this: I’d stare at the weight gain, or “problem areas” in the mirror, hating myself for them until I got “motivated” enough to “fix” them.
When I would, the cycle of punishment with another new and short-lived "exercise program" & ultimately quitting and feeling like a failure would begin, again.
I’d “get back on track” and restart the futile diet and exercise attempts - which meant of course controlling my intake and “getting a workout” in every day - making sure to focus on fixing all those “problem areas”.
Now that I’m out of it, I can see it so clearly for what it was - punishment - for not looking (or being) good enough.
And, as with the dieting, that too, was my relationship with exercise. It was punishment.
Punishment that I’d try to start every few weeks or months - only to quit within a couple weeks with my fears that I was lazy and useless confirmed.
Until the next time I tried again.
Then in 2007, I actually made it stick. Desperation and self-hate are powerful forces when they’re deep enough and by that point, mine were deeeep.
But as powerful as those forces are, they don’t drive positive change and while I had finally learned to make the whole exercise thing part of my life, it most certainly wasn’t in a healthy way.
It was still punishment - only it developed into much more corporal punishment. The harder I could physically punish my body and make myself ache, the happier I was and the more powerful and better about myself I felt.
Which sounds great and all - ohh, I felt better about myself... except that without it, when I couldn't or didn't exercise, I hated myself, felt like I could barely get through the day and it created physical injuries that persist to this day.
And this concept of exercise as punishment for weight gain or not looking perfect, is one I see repeated sooo very often in women everywhere.
Because that’s what we’ve been taught. We’ve been taught so many unbelievably toxic and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors in the name of “healthy living”.
The entire time I was training like an animal and beating the hell out of my body I was celebrated. The more I made my body suffer, the more praise I got.
And who eats up praise more than someone who hates themselves? Nobody. I ate that shit up. I lived for it - without it, I felt worthless.
The more I physically transformed my “problem areas” the more I felt like I needed to. It was all I cared about. Health, or what was best for my body wasn’t driving any of it.
Desperation to punish myself into perfection was driving it all.
If it wasn’t something that would contribute to improving the way my body looked, I wanted no part of it.
And all I got from any of it, was a fleeting transformation (because physical transformations need constant work to maintain or they’re completely undone), constant physical pain and lasting overuse injuries.
Punishment and self-hate never drive positive or healthy changes.
But that’s what we’re taught. If we just reject our bodies enough, if we just feel enough shame, if we just criticize ourselves enough - THEN we’ll be motivated to start eating right and exercising.
But it really just turns into a battle to punish them into submission.
All I needed, as a kid and then teenager was someone to support and fuel my own innate ability to trust, love, listen to and respect my body.
It's all any of us need. It's all your kids need.
Help them learn to tune out the external noise about what they "should" be doing for their bodies and tune IN to what their bodies are telling them.
Help them stay so in love with themselves and their bodies (no matter what size they are) that they care enough about themselves to want to give themselves and their bodies what they need to feel their best.
That's all I needed. It's all you needed.
Imagine if someone had helped to nurture those things in you when you were little. How many decades of pain, suffering and mental health battles would it have saved you?
Close to three for me.
Because sadly, like everyone - I got taught fear of getting fat, I got taught to be "the picture of health" was the pinnacle of success, I got taught to punish "problem areas", and I got taught I couldn't be trusted to make my own food choices.
But the truth is, our bodies want to feel good. They're working 24/7 trying to keep us healthy and constantly sending us messages about how they need to be supported to accomplish that.
They want to move.
They aren’t lazy.
They know when they need movement, instinctively, they often even sort of know what kinds of movement and they want it. They know when they need rest. They know what foods make them feel best and they don’t want to consume the ones that make them feel like crap.
The entire problem we’ve been having with ALL of this mess is that we’ve been taught to ignore them.
We've been taught some really unhealthy things in the name of health.
Like that exercise (and healthy eating) is punishment.
As long as you continue to view exercise as punishment, you’re going to struggle with things like constantly searching for ways to stay motivated or feeling like you need accountability tricks.
Movement is not punishment and you’re not “too lazy” to start being more active.
You've just been taught, like most of the rest of us, that exercise is punishment. You can learn to listen to your body when it tells you it needs some - and even learn to want to give it what it needs. I swear you can and it will tell you, if you just listen.
Start by giving it some much gratitude for all it does for you - no matter how badly you treat it. Thank it. Seriously. And start connecting with it. That is, paying attention to what you sensations you feel in your body and where you feel it.
Aches? Pains? Immobility? Weakness? Connect with all those sensations. How does it feel to experience life in your body today? How do you want it to feel? What one thing can you do right now to address any of those sensations you're feeling?
It's a process that takes practice - when you've spent decades ignoring or punishing your body, understanding what it's trying to tell you isn't easy. But when you get good at it, nurturing your body with what it tells you it wants and needs, when it needs it, becomes automatic and there's never another diet or exercise program to "fall off".
Just a constant connection with your body, asking it what it needs and giving it that.
Four tips for changing your relationship with and beliefs about exercise that go beyond just changing what you call it:
- Think about movement as a tool you can use to re-energize and reinvigorate your body rather than exhaust or deplete it. Stay connected with your body through the day and ask it not only how it feels but what it needs. It will tell you if it wants a walk outside or some stretches to help with stiffness, or rest, etc.
- Think about it as a means of support for yourself and your body. Movement can enhance mind-body connection and coordination when you use it in a way that feels natural, kind, and loving. It can be a wonderful tool for helping to foster gratitude and compassion for your body - including its limitations.
- Think about it as a way to reduce stress, not create or fuel it. Notice your thoughts around movement - are they kind and accepting or judgmental, punitive and critical when you feel like you're not doing what you "should" be?
- Think about it as a positive experience that you get to engage in rather than punishment that you have to do. Movement can and should make life better and easier - it shouldn't create pain, suffering and feelings of dread. And when you approach movement from the perspective of just listening to your body and giving it what it needs in these ways - rather than as punishment required to change your body - it's far more likely to become a positive part of your everyday life.