Exercise: it is a prominent part of our lives. It is a prominent thing on our minds. It is something that those with eating disorders use and abuse to lose weight, change their bodies, and deal with negative thoughts and feelings in a negative and unhealthy way, but it is also something that has become a toxic part of many people’s lives in the community at large. It has become something that is unhealthy for many people who are engaging in it – and most of us aren’t even aware of it.
“Exercise…unhealthy?!” you gasp in disbelief, “How can something that is clearly part of a healthy lifestyle be a problem?”
The issue with exercise in our society now is the way people exercise. The issue is why people exercise. The issues are the mentality: the thoughts and feelings behind what is driving someone to exercise, and the outcome that they are looking for – and in particular the motivations behind exercise for women.
If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, at magazines, books, and website articles, then you will see that women primarily (but also men too) are constantly being told that they should be exercising in order to lose weight or become toned, or in some way alter the way that their bodies look. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but that they need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include “clean eating” (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods – something that is not healthy, by the way) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.
There are people who genuinely enjoy the physical activities that they pursue as hobbies. There are people who don’t like the physical activities that they choose to do but feel that the results are worth it. There are people who cannot stand to do the physical activity that they force themselves to do but feel like they have to do it because of whatever the driving force behind their exercise is – which is usually body hatred: something that is promoted in our culture of dieting, fitness, and weight loss. As women, we are told constantly by advertisements and magazines to FIGHT THE FLAB! ELIMINATE BINGO WINGS! GET A THIGH GAP! BEAT THE JIGGLE! MELT THE MUFFIN TOP! TONE THE TUMMY! ERASE THE DOUBLE CHIN! Honestly I could go on. The diet and weight loss industry would have us believe that whatever we alter on our bodies, there is always more work to be done. I mean, if there wasn’t, how would they sell their products and gym memberships? Just in searching for an image for this article, I came across so many products being advertised: “What to eat pre-work out”. “What to eat post work-out”. “How to prevent exercise acne” (what? That’s a thing?!). Post pregnancy work out books. Pre-work out powder stuff for women. Creams. Supplements. Personal trainers. Books. DVDS. Recipes. Clothing. Working out in itself just creates new rules in HOW to work out. Ughhhhh.
In my opinion, only the first of the three types of active people that I mentioned should be exercising. The others should cease exercise and heal their relationships with their bodies and with themselves before resuming any physical activity. They should find physical activities that they genuinely enjoy that are primarily focused on having fun and/or socialising rather than changing the way their bodies look. We need to be moving our bodies is a way that is about joy, not about punishment for our bodies not conforming to society’s idea of the “perfect” body. We as woman need to say “no” to diet and fitness culture and recognise that we are worth more than how small or tight our bodies are. We need to realise that we are allowed to take up space. We need to stop wasting our time chasing the unattainable “body/fitness” goals that are shown to us by the media. We need to stop and think how much of our lives we want to spend relentlessly pursuing the “ideal”, and how much of our lives we want to miss out on because of that. The large majority of us will have to dedicate a massive amount of our time in our lives to even get close to the “perfect” body. Is it really worth missing out on social events; delicious foods; time for hobbies and friends and family? Is it worth missing out on all the other experiences life has to offer, chasing a meaningless goal that we will never reach or if we do will have to suffer forever to maintain?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaways and playing videogames forever after (but if that’s what makes you happy, by all means, go for it! No judgements made), as I believe movement is part of a healthy lifestyle, but I do not think that anyone should be forcing themselves to do a workout that they don’t find any enjoyment in. I do not think that anyone should be wasting time engaging in activities that they do want to do purely because they are driven by a society telling them that their bodies are not good enough as they are and/or that they are lazy and unhealthy if they do not engage in x amount of physical activity doing certain types of exercise. “I really don’t want to go the gym today, but I know I need to/have to/should,” is a common comment that I hear from colleagues, friends, and strangers, and this is a result of the insidious and toxic system that is diet culture. Nobody has an obligation to engage in physical activities that they don’t enjoy. Nobody should. These days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary.
Exercise should not be about energy-depletion. It should not be about being in minus calories or about burning calories (fuck calories). It should not be about “eating xyz will defeat the purpose of my work out!” It should not be about “I must only eat xyz after my work out”. Moving your body should not be about
1. Punishing your body.
2. Changing your body.
3. Putting yourself through gruelling and/or not enjoyable work outs in the name of health and fitness.
4. Earning food.
Being active is great, but only when you have found something that you actually enjoy. This could just be leisurely strolls through the countryside, or hikes in the hills. This could be swimming with your kids, or challenging a friend to a few badminton games. This could be finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin wide. It could be practising mindfulness through yoga, or getting competitive with a colleague whilst playing squash. This could be once a week or once a day. Whatever makes you happy. Not whatever makes you lose weight, or whatever gives you abs. Not whatever gives you a tiny waist or bulging arm muscles. Not whatever burns the most calories. Whatever makes you happy.
Physical activity should be done only if it adding to your life, not something that comes at a cost. Not something that you dread. Not something that you have to make yourself do. Exercise is something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy, but it’s just not healthy when it comes at the expense of someone’s mental or physical health, and it’s not when the drive behind it is body dissatisfaction, or downright body hatred. On the extreme end of the spectrum, exercise can also turn into a dangerous addiction, and in the case where exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life it needs to be taken very seriously (something that I talk about over on my other blog here).
If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then I would highly suggest that you take time out, stop the exercise that you have been engaging in, and take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you. Assess your reasons for exercising, and start building a positive and healthy relationship between you and your body. Because you need it, and you deserve it. Your body is perfect just as it is. Learn to love it, not to wage war on it. Then find movement in your life that makes you smile. Find movement in your life that you look forward to. Find movement that brings you positivity, and never expend energy in the name of diet culture ever again. You are beautiful, and this is what you deserve.