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A popular reason people give for working out is because they want to look good, whether they are trying to lose weight, tone up, or maintain their present physique. While I could list dozens of proven benefits of exercise, vanity doesn’t rise to the top for me. But I get it. If our social media newsfeeds and the latest infomercials are any indictor, you would think we’re all motivated by sweaty bodies with Photoshopped arms, and impossible waistlines and abs.
But research has continually proven that the fitness industry’s focus on physical appearance does very little to actually get people up and moving. In fact, this kind of guilt-based pseudo-motivation hinders many people from making a long-term commitment to exercise, and actually harms body image. Why? Because when appearance is the primary goal, there will always be work to do and you will never be satisfied, even when your behavior and your physical health indicate you’re doing well. When you fall short of perfection (not looking like the instructor or the person next to you, not losing the weight you hoped for), it feels like a failure, and your motivation falls by the wayside.
Here’s the truth: You don’t have to go to extremes to be healthy. In fact, extremes can leave you unhealthy and unhappy. There are many health-giving benefits to caring for your body through movement. You don’t have to look svelte, shredded, skinny, or cellulite-free to get good results from making a habit of exercise.
I like the idea of being “in shape”—my shape. I see myself as a fit person because of everything I do for fitness. I love how being fit helps me fully engage in life—like having the stamina to do housework and the endurance to play with my energetic daughters. Looking at my arms, you might not be able to tell that yesterday I held a headstand pose for five minutes without the wall support, but I still felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment. And my thighs don’t say, “Look everyone! This amazing woman ran five miles today!” My body does tell a story, but it’s not necessarily one that can be measured by eyeballs. I intentionally choose different ways to measure health and fitness because I don’t ever want my appearance to dictate my success or undercut my achievements. This is the wish I have for you, too.
A Customized Plan
Much like how you take your coffee, fitness routines are a matter of personal preference. If you want to form new exercise habits, chose activities that are meaningful to you and workable in your life.
Treat your body with kindness, and keep these three things in mind when you choose an exercise practice:
- LOVE: Choose exercises that bring you pleasure and joy, and trust that whatever you decide, it’s enough because it fits your preferences.
- CONNECT: Listen to your body for signals, such as “increase intensity,” “slow down,” “take a break.”
- CARE: Make some amount of feel-good movement a daily priority because your body needs it and you want to care for your body.
We Are Made to Move
The most important decision you can make about exercise is simply to move your body more often with joy and satisfaction. Your amazing body was born to move. Think about being six years old. Remember jumping rope, riding your bike, and playing tag? When you were young, moving was second nature. If you tried one of these right now, just the action alone may give you a little youthful joy. Reflect on how satisfied you are with your current physical activity. Would you like it to be more playful, interesting, or fun? Even though a lot has changed since your Hula-Hooping days, it’s never too late to choose fitness for life.
All you need to develop an ideal fitness plan are two simple things:
- Any activity you’re willing to do that gets your heart rate going.
- A commitment to start. That’s it.
The simpler you make your plan, the more likely you are to succeed. You water your plants, you feed your cat, and you move. Exercise will become just one of those non-negotiable to-dos on your checklist.
“When appearance is the primary goal, there will always be work to do, and you will never be satisfied, even when your behavior and your physical health indicate that you’re doing well.”
The Art of Mindful Movement
Moving mindfully means paying attention to how your body feels and noticing as much detail as possible about whatever you’re doing. Paying attention to your breathing and trying to clear your mind of outside thoughts puts you fully in touch with the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Checking in with yourself in this way also gives you important information.
There are four essential components that make up mindful movement:
- Exercise to rejuvenate your body, not to exhaust or deplete it. You decide the intensities that feel right to you.
- Enhance your mind and body connection. Don’t confuse it. Mindful movement feels like something good you’re doing for yourself. You might notice your increased breathing, heart rate, sweating, or other changes during exercise as a way of staying connected.
- Alleviate mental and physical stress. Don’t add to it. Approach movement with a sense of ease. New activities or other factors might create some emotional discomfort, but if you stay connected you can observe yourself easing into comfort.
- Create pleasure, not punishment. When you move mindfully, you can observe harsh thoughts and feelings that might harm your well-being. Reframe your perspective to one that respects your self-care goals.
This kind of mindful attention can be applied to any form of exercise, and will increase your enjoyment and benefits. Even if you’re just walking, pay attention to posture, keeping your back straight, feeling the flex and release of muscles. Now, if you’re thinking you need a distraction so you don’t have to think about the pain you’re experiencing while you exercise, chances are you’re pushing yourself harder than necessary. By practicing mindfulness in your movements and choosing body kindness, I hope you find the sweet spot between challenge and comfort where the true joy of movement can be found.
Discover the Warrior Within
One of the most dramatic changes in my personal fitness mind-set happened when I decided to see myself as an athlete. Athletes are strong and powerful. Athletes set and achieve goals that stretch their current abilities. Do something you don’t believe you can do—a real challenge that interests you even if you do it only once, like a race. Find a fitness edge that feels challenging in a good way. Take up functional fitness, where you can learn exercises that help you do more in life—like upper-body strength to support your passion for gardening, or movements to help build stamina for your upcoming European vacation where you’ll do a lot of walking and hiking, or take a self-defense class series that teaches you something useful.
Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, is the founder and CEO of Capitol Nutrition Group and the author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health—From the Inside Out—and Never Say Diet Again, from which this article is excerpted. For more information, go to rebeccascritchfield.com