What a Healthy Relationship with Exercise Looks Like
Throughout your lifetime, there’s a high probability that physical activity has consistently been promoted as a tactic for weight loss without any additional benefits. Consider this: Your mother may have frequently mentioned the need to use the elliptical machine to “eliminate” all the calories consumed at breakfast. Alternatively, your high school health teacher might have advocated running as a means to maintain a low “BMI.”
And this belief often stays with you as you mature, influenced by the culture of dieting and societal prejudice against larger bodies, according to Barb Puzanovova, a Certified Personal Trainer who promotes a non-dieting approach and aligns with the Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy. “Although there is truth to it — exercise does allow you to expend energy — I would argue that it’s not a compelling reason to move your body,” she explains. “There are so many more advantages to be gained from physical activity beyond simply burning calories.”
The issue lies in the fact that focusing solely on burning calories and potentially achieving a smaller body can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Ultimately, these approaches to physical activity can have detrimental effects on both your mental and physical well-being.
However, it is possible to mend your relationship with exercise. Here, fitness experts outline the signs of an unhealthy connection and provide steps you can take to restore it.
What an Optimal Relationship with Exercise Looks Like
An ideal relationship with exercise resembles any healthy relationship you might have with a friend or partner. It is built on compromise, flexibility, and effective communication, says Puzanovova. “Just as you listen to a partner, you listen to your body and respond accordingly,” she explains. “It is sustainable, adaptable, and founded on trust and respect.” For example, when faced with a significant obstacle like the pandemic, which affects your ability to follow your usual fitness routine, you can pause, assess the state of your body and mind, reassess your needs and goals, and adjust your program as necessary — all without feelings of anxiety or panic, says Puzanovova.
Conversely, an unhealthy relationship with exercise may be rigid and inflexible. You might struggle to take rest days, even when you are sick, injured, or excessively exhausted. Alternatively, you might force yourself to endure strenuous exercises, even when a modification would be more suitable, notes Puzanovova. “You might be overly fixated on achieving a specific outcome and become extremely inflexible. Therefore, if you need to alter or modify your routine on a given day, it can quickly lead to feelings of shame,” she adds. “Additionally, if you miss a workout, you may feel overwhelming guilt about it.
Barb Puzanovova, Certified Personal Trainer (C.P.T.), who promotes a non-diet and Health at Every Size (HAES) approach and holds a certification from the American Council on Exercise (ACE)
A nourishing connection with physical activity is enduring, flexible, and built on reliance and admiration.
— Barb Puzanovova, C.P.T., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, ACE-certified personal trainer
Likewise, you might possess an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to your routine; either you persevere through all 60 minutes of circuit training without making any adjustments, or you abstain from exercising entirely, adds Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., Certified Nutrition Consultant (C.N.C.), a non-diet, HAES-aligned, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer in Texas. “Many individuals believe that they must exhibit extreme discipline in order to adhere to a sustainable exercise regimen,” she states. “However, the truth is, you need to attentively listen to your body, especially when you’re unwell or fatigued — engaging in exercise under those circumstances would be counterproductive.” The converse holds true as well: If you harbor a deep aversion to physical activity and experience anxiety even at the thought of engaging in certain forms of movement, that indicates your approach to exercise could benefit from improvement, adds Puzanovova.
However, your relationship with exercise does not exist in isolation. “Your connection with nutrition and with physical activity are interconnected,” asserts Rodriguez. “I think diet culture influences our perception of exercise, and it has taught people to associate physical activity with sensations of disgrace and culpability [through] body shaming and [the creation of] pressure to diminish their body size.” That is why an unhealthy relationship with exercise may also be associated with fixation on calorie counting, both in terms of consumption and expenditure during workouts, she remarks. And scientific research supports this correlation: Individuals with anorexia nervosa frequently engage in compulsive exercise (exhibiting excessively driven and inflexible exercise patterns, coupled with an incapacity to refrain from exercising despite recognizing its detrimental effects), as stated in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.
The Consequences of an Unhealthy Relationship with Exercise
In the short term, a strained relationship with physical activity can evoke continual feelings of remorse (for instance, if you failed to find time for a workout or were unable to lift as heavily as you did a few days ago), says Rodriguez. Due to that all-or-nothing mindset, you may struggle to incorporate any kind of movement into your routine when you take a break from your usual intense gym regimen due to factors such as changes in work schedule or vacations. “Adapting to the different phases of life might feel exceedingly challenging,” adds Puzanovova. Additionally, by relentlessly pushing yourself to your limits at the gym, you might find yourself mentally and physically drained, impeding your ability to participate in other activities in your life, such as social gatherings or everyday errands, notes Rodriguez.
Over time, a rigid approach to physical activity, especially if you’re not allowing yourself enough rest days or adjusting your workouts as necessary, can potentially result in injury, states Rodriguez. Overtraining syndrome — a condition associated with a prolonged imbalance between training and recovery — is also a possibility. “If you engage in excessive exercise for weeks or months at a time, you put your body at risk of overtraining syndrome,” Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl, previously mentioned to Shape. “…If you constantly hinder your body’s ability to rebuild itself from the strain of previous workouts, for example by skipping rest days, you subject your body to chronic stress.” As a result, you may experience greater exercise-induced muscle damage, mood disturbances, and faster fatigue. Your performance may also suffer, according to research published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.
Ultimately, you may end up completely burnt out with physical activity. “You might reach a point where you simply never desire to engage in exercise again due to all the adverse effects it has on your mind and body,” adds Rodriguez. And completely eliminating all movement from your routine can be equally detrimental as going overboard; insufficient physical activity is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression, according to research.
How to Repair Your Relationship with Exercise
If you notice signs that your relationship with exercise could benefit from some healing, you may find it helpful to implement a few (or all) of these expert-approved strategies.
Reevaluate Your Workout Objectives
If you find yourself falling into a cycle of shame or if deciding whether or not to exercise becomes an intensely emotional experience, it may be worthwhile to reassess your goals, suggests Puzanovova. Instead of focusing on long-term outcomes (such as back squatting a 200-pound barbell or running a marathon), concentrate on short-term goals, she advises. Ask yourself: “What do I want to experience right in this moment, shortly after this workout, or later today?” By doing so, your planned activity may feel more manageable if you generally feel overwhelmed by exercise, and it may feel less like a do-or-die situation if you usually push yourself beyond your limits.
“I also encourage considering other immediate rewards and motivations for exercise — a better mood, improved sleep, socializing with friends,” says Puzanovova.
That seems counterintuitive to establishing a long-term, enduring bond with motion, but…you desire to discover motives that resonate with you on an emotional level and make you sense as though, ‘Alright, this is the rationale behind my presence in this moment, and I can perceive the impacts of it at this very moment.
Dedicate Time to Decelerate
It’s not simple to shake off the ingrained notion that relaxation is for the feeble and you must maximize every moment of your workout. However, taking small strides to slow down your movement practice is a positive starting point, according to Puzanovova. Dedicate one day a week or a specific moment during your next activity to deliberately decelerate. For instance, if you usually bypass savasana at the conclusion of your intense Vinyasa class, give it a try during your upcoming yoga session and gradually extend the duration you spend there with each session, she recommends. “I typically suggest pushing your limits of how much rest is acceptable just a tad, stepping out of your own comfort zone, and saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to incorporate a bit more slowness into my usual pace of moving,'” Puzanovova states.
Change Your Perspective from Exercise to Movement, Then Infuse Delight
For some individuals, the term “exercise” can carry unfavorable associations, and it’s easy to become fixated on what qualifies as exercise, notes Puzanovova. However, reframing exercise as movement can create a more inclusive and accessible approach to staying active. “When you alter your language from exercise to movement, you might actually broaden your understanding of what ‘counts,'” she explains. “Suddenly, you might realize and acknowledge that ‘I can actually incorporate more movement into my day without needing to engage in a rigorous, hour-long workout that doesn’t align with my lifestyle or energy levels.’
When that time frame is over, investigate with yourself: How does your physique and muscles feel? What reflections are passing through your mind? Then, inquire if you desire to persist in progressing or cease at that point. “I dub that acquiring your affirmation,” she affirms. “It’s a means to commence introducing certain authorization inquiries with our personal physique and to commend your physique.
Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., C.N.C., a diet-free, Health at Every Size-aligned, NASM-certified personal trainer
You have the opportunity to select who appears on your feed and whom you listen to, so discover your specific area of interest that shares the same principles as the viewpoint you want to establish about physical activity.
— Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., C.N.C., a diet-free, Health at Every Size-aligned, NASM-certified personal trainer
Align Yourself with Supportive Communities
To begin abandoning the narrative of diet culture and reimagining exercise as a practice of self-care rather than a tactic for weight loss, change up your social media feed. “You have the power to choose who appears on your feed and whom you listen to,” says Rodriguez. “Therefore, locate your specific community online that shares the same principles as the perspective you want to establish about physical activity.” For instance, you may search for diet-free, body-neutral, body-positive, or Health at Every Size communities on Instagram to learn from others who are striving to mend their relationships with exercise, she suggests. Equally important, unfollow individuals who are not offering beneficial guidance on your journey and are impeding your progress, she adds. After all, exposure to “fitspiration” images featuring women with “slender yet toned or muscular” bodies has been linked to increased dissatisfaction with one’s own body and the development of compulsive exercise habits among women, studies reveal.
Don’t Hesitate to Collaborate with a Professional
There is no shame in engaging in conversations with a mental health professional to devise a strategy for healing your relationship with exercise. If you consistently find yourself forgoing rest days to tackle grueling workouts, frequently sacrificing social engagements to prioritize your workouts, or displaying a deep aversion to exercise in general, it may be worth considering partnering with an expert, says Puzanovova. “I strongly recommend that individuals also work with a counselor who specializes in trauma or pain, in order to address the underlying factors,” Rodriguez adds. “This involves not only examining your body, but also your mindset and social life, and how they impact your relationship with physical activity.”
Even if you believe your approach to exercise is already healthy enough, collaborating with a diet-free, Health at Every Size-aligned, and/or trauma-informed personal trainer can bring about positive outcomes. “There exists a misconception that fitness professionals solely assist with weight loss and nothing more,” says Rodriguez. “Yet, an exceptional fitness professional can help you enhance your relationship with physical activity.