Updated: Aug 21, 2021
What comes to mind when you hear the word, “exercise”? I see the image of hopelessly, trudging along on a treadmill, unable to look away from the numbers. Those dreaded, daunting, demoralizing, annoying numbers. In diet culture, the numbers can feel like the only way of gauging if the exercise is “good enough”, “long enough”, or “tough enough”. Eating disorders love to focus on the numbers.
If you have found yourself in a difficult relationship with movement you are not alone. But wait!—movement can be bearable and, dare I say, ...fun? By improving our relationship with our bodies we get the chance to make movement something that we actually want to do. It can be helpful to differentiate between exercise that is driven by diet culture and joyful movement driven by making peace with our bodies.
Signs that it is diet culture-influenced exercise
It leads to resentment.
Feeling like we have to exercise or have to meet certain expectations tends to suck all of the joy out of an activity. If you find yourself wishing that you did not have to do it or if you find yourself resenting others that seem to enjoy that activity, it may be a sign that this activity is not a joyful movement for you. It may be good to take a step back and reassess intentions and expectations around this activity.
Time feels like it is crawling by.
Wishing for a time machine during exercise indicates that you would much rather be doing something else. Movement does not have to be a chore. It is important to listen to our own preferences in movement rather than force ourselves to do something that we do not want to do. If we want movement to be part of our lives, we have to set ourselves up for enjoying it.
The “shoulds” are showing up.
“I should exercise”, “I should be more committed”, “I shouldn’t be so lazy”...etc. This is diet culture. Should statements are shaming and have no place in joyful movement. We really cannot hate ourselves into becoming someone that we accept to love. Try focusing on what you want to do and what feels nourishing to your body’s needs (i.e. stretching when your energy feels low but you’re wanting feelings of release).
As was stated before, the numbers can be menacing. The numbers show up everywhere in the exercise community. Just think about how many different metrics there are in a gym! Letting go of the numbers associated with exercise is a difficult component of rejecting diet culture--and it is a necessary step in finding joyful movement. Just as we move away from diet culture through the principles of intuitive eating, joyful movement can be viewed as intuitive exercise (meaning we focus on the internal experience rather than external measures).
Signs that it is Joyful Movement
A smile is not forced.
In joyful movement, the focus is on pleasure. We are doing it because the movement feels good and the activity is fun. Even when we are pushing ourselves, we can smile because we are choosing to engage in movement from a place of love and choice. Movement is meant to be fun and empowering.
We allow breaks or stops.
We are no longer at war with our bodies. Repairing our relationship with ourselves means listening to when our bodies have had enough. This involves allowing for moments of reprieve and rest during movement and activity. Similarly, this means listening to our bodies and giving them rest when we are sick, injured, or overwhelmed with other stressors in life. Remember: our bodies do not know the difference between physical and mental stressors, so it’s possible for your body to feel like you just ran a mile simply after finishing up a stressful day at work. This is an example of when taking a break to allow rest may be the best choice for your body.
We meet our body where it is at.
We welcome our imperfections and beginner status. When we let go of expectations, we allow our bodies to show their own abilities and strengths. Personally, I used to hate yoga because no matter how much I stretched, I still could not touch my toes. Once I let go of that expectation, I learned that I am actually happy to practice staying mindful and holding some balance poses. Now, yoga feels more inviting when I choose to practice it.
Growth is appreciated, not expected.
It is ok to notice improvements. In joyful movement, we may find that we gain skills, strength, endurance, and energy. These are all great and it is appropriate to celebrate them. We just need to be careful not to place unfair expectations on ourselves. Also remember that every day is different—some days the energy is there, some days we need to rest and take care of ourselves.
It is connected with other forms of joy.
Sometimes the movement is a means to reach other forms of joy. Playing with kids, gardening, meandering through an art museum, hunting for treasures at the thrift store, dancing at a concert. Sometimes it helps to focus on the joyful part and not be caught up in what movement means.
Try to remember that our relationships with the body, food, and movement are ever-evolving. After letting go of expectations around exercise, It can be fun to play around and find what our movement preferences actually are. You may not enjoy activities that once seemed fun. You may find immense pleasure in activities that you once avoided. It is still ok to challenge yourself in joyful movement. You are encouraged to get creative.
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