If you told sixteen-year-old me that I’d eventually learn to enjoy exercise, I would have definitely laughed in your face.
As with most women, I grew up facing a lot of pressure to look a certain way. At the age of ten, I became very aware that people around me thought I was chubby. My family encouraged me to pull my stomach in when I walked around, or they told me to wear more flattering clothes.
Exercise was presented to me as a ‘solution’ for my weight, and so, I was sent to karate classes and dance lessons despite the fact that I really didn’t enjoy either of those things. I was told, ‘no pain, no gain’, and what I was meant to gain was a thinner body. Unsurprisingly, being forced into exercise made me hate it more. (Here are 8 more well-meaning things that you say to your daughter that you shouldn’t and what to say instead.)
Looking back, my weight wasn’t a problem. I gained weight suddenly because I was a prepubescent girl. It didn’t mean that I was inactive and, more importantly, it didn’t mean I was unhealthy.
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When I grew older and became familiar with feminism, I learned a lot from the fat acceptance movement. Firstly, I became more critical of the way society treats fatness. We think of ‘fat’ as an insult and a bad word because thinness is seen as desirable, which is why the fat acceptance movement tries to reclaim the word ‘fat’.
Secondly, I realized being fat doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy. Society often equates thinness with health. We often assume fat people are unhealthy and thin people are healthy. This isn’t true. There’s actually a whole body of research that shows us that one’s weight doesn’t necessarily determine one’s health, which is summarized nicely in this article.
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Think about it: we probably all know at least one really skinny person who eats a lot of junk food and never exercises. We also probably all know at least one fat person who has a super healthy lifestyle. (Check out, for example, this yoga teacher who’s blowing up stereotypes.) Those fat people are probably assumed to be unhealthier than the thin people. We judge people’s health based on their appearance when, truthfully, neither their health nor their appearance is our business.
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If someone’s weight isn’t a problem, what is the value of exercise? I thought. When exercise has always been presented as a way to change your body, it’s hard to remember that people exercise for any other reason.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the end goal of exercise shouldn’t be weight loss.
It seems like a simple mantra, but when you’ve been pushed into doing something because you’re told your body is undesirable, it’s a difficult realization to have.
And when I had that realization, I decided to try the theory out in practice. I told myself: I’m not trying to change how my body looks. I just want to take care of it. I’m not obliged to lose weight to be valuable, and I’m not obliged to exercise to be valuable, either. I’m exercising because I like it. I won’t do exercises I hate in order to lose weight or maintain a certain aesthetic—I’ll only do it because it’s fun.
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I’m sure that some people motivate themselves into exercising by thinking about the pounds they’re shedding. To me, though, that would mean that I’d be exercising out of a need to change my body. What I wanted to do was exercise from a place of self-love.
When I exercised out of self-love, a few things happened. I started actually enjoying exercise and finding it fun. I took a while to get into it, but eventually the rhythm of mountain climbers and squats became super comforting and I enjoyed doing reps of certain exercises. It was almost like spinning in a circle and not wanting to stop: your body gets used to it and your mind enjoys it.
Related: 5 Simple Steps To Starting A Daily Exercise Routine You Can Stick To
It also helped me with some symptoms of my mental illnesses. I have PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The anxiety means that I often have persistent, painful muscle aches when I’m tense or stressed. PTSD means that I seldom sleep well. As I exercised, gently but persistently, my muscle aches eased slightly. My muscles started feeling like I stretched them out instead of cramping incessantly. The cardio also meant that I felt sleepier at bedtime, so I slept better. And of course, the dopamine rush lifted my spirits.
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After exercising for a few weeks, I realized that it made me love my body more. The most important thing about my body, I realized, was not how strong it was or what I could do with it. The important thing is that it contains my soul, and that’s a really special job. Exercising was something my body loved, and by dedicating time to it, I was dedicating time to taking care of my body.
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I’m not saying that you have to exercise to be body-positive, and I’m not saying that exercise will necessarily help you practice self-love. Plenty of people develop obsessions with over-exercising, and they end up hurting themselves. What I’m saying is that, after a long journey and a crucial change in mindset, I eventually learned to love exercise.
I’d be lying if I said there is no part of me that wants to lose weight – on a subconscious level, I want to be thin because I’m told that’s what’s desirable. Everyone internalizes the messages the media sends us, and my gut reaction to my body is to think it’s too fat. But striving towards body acceptance has helped me develop a better attitude towards exercise.
In a world where exercise is often viewed as punishment for not being thin, it’s kind of radical—and sorta beautiful—to use it instead as a tool for self-love and self-acceptance.