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How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Exercise

by | Mar 30, 2021 | Exercise | 0 comments

Developing a healthy relationship with exercise sounds a lot easier said than done but by the end of this post, I hope you feel a bit more balanced in your approach towards movement.

We’ll cover:

  • what defines a healthy relationship with exercise
  • reasons exercise may have been unenjoyable or punishing in the past
  • questions to ask yourself to assess if a movement practice is truly health promoting
  • what are the health benefits of movement
  • encouragement & tips!

First of all, try calling it “movement” instead of “exercise”:

exercise vs. movement

Just this simple, little shift in one word can create a more positive relationship with moving your body. I’ll use these terms interchangeably throughout this post.

What does a healthy relationship with exercise aka movement even look like?

For many of us, our relationship with it STARTED in a healthy way. We ran around as kids and rested when tired.

We had fun with it, played games, and actually listened to our bodies! It felt good to move and it had no real connection to food yet (except that if we ate and ran too quickly we may puke, and in order to run well we needed to eat, period.)

Then, at some point, exercise became militant, punishing, negative, and shameful. I remember clear as day being 7 years old in gym class. The teacher would go on and on about how in order to burn that 200 calorie cookie we ate at snack, we needed to run *blank* number of laps around the track to burn it off. Then she forced everyone to climb the rope and people got bullied if they couldn’t meet her unrealistic expectations. 

Whether it was loved ones, your elementary school gym teacher, high school track coach, college cheerleading team, or our toxic and diet-y exercise culture in general, you likely have a somewhat complicated relationship with exercise (if you’re reading this post!) as a result.

Unfortunately movement is often approached as a should instead of a want. For so many people, it’s seen as a way to punish themselves for what they ate or an attempt to shrink into a smaller pant size. This mindset towards it leaves people feeling blah towards movement. But the good news is you CAN get off the shame spiral when it comes to how you move (or choose not to move!) your bod! 

I also want to take a sec to be mindful of not painting an ableist picture here. You do NOT need to engage in regular exercise to be healthy. There are plenty of people who are physically disabled and unable to partake in certain physical activities. Exercise is ONE tiny piece of the holistic health pie, and the assumption that you MUST workout to be healthy is ableist in essence. 

If you choose to (and are able to) include movement into your life, I hope this post helps you find a more empowering, joyful, and realistic way of approaching it than you’ve found so far. 

PS – I’m not a personal trainer. None of this should be taken as exercise routine advice. I’m a Registered Dietitian and Registered Yoga Teacher and most importantly a human being living in the same toxic exercise culture you’re (likely) living in too. I’m sharing my 32 years experience as a human & movement along with 10 years experience as a dietitian who has helped hundreds of clients relearn a healthy relationship with food and moving their bodies. 

PPS – If you don’t feel like moving at all lately it could be the pandemic. Try to cut yourself some slack for even SURVIVING during such a chaotic, stressful, uncertain time. The gyms and home workout videos will be there when you’re ready. A break from movement is sometimes just what we need. 

What defines a healthy relationship with exercise?

When I talk to clients about developing a healthy relationship with food we work to get rid of the black and white, all or none, restrict/binge cycle way of eating. We encourage you to tune into your body’s signals and desires so that you can make food choices based on internal cues like hunger, fullness, satisfaction, pleasure, and joy to support your overall health and well-being. You can read more about this by checking out my post on the 10 principles of intuitive eating and how they can work for you

Similarly for developing a healthier relationship with exercise, this means tuning into your body for internal cues to help you decide when and how to exercise or move your body. It means NOT following external cues, rules or programs regarding how to move (or not move) your body. You may have some sort of workout guide/schedule or a specific class you take, but that functions as a loose suggestion, not a mandatory “must” do. 

The motivation for a healthy relationship with exercise is self care and promoting health – meaning physical, mental AND emotional health. This is a stark contrast to traditional exercise where the focus is on burning calories, weight loss, or changing the body. 

A healthy relationship with moving your body factors in your emotional and mental health IN ADDITION TO increasing your fitness. If a certain exercise makes you stronger or improves your endurance but is totally ruining your social or family life because of the time it takes or it causes you significant stress to think about potentially missing a day, this is NOT a holistically health-promoting movement for you. 

If your mental or emotional health is suffering at the expense of your physical health, then is it really healthy? If you’re waking up at 5am every day to run but you’re totally exhausted and can’t focus at work since you’re falling asleep, is that really healthy? If you always say no to dinner with friends because you can never miss your 5pm workout class, is that healthy? Movement should fall under the vibe of self-care because that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: caring for yourself!

A healthy relationship with exercise enhances the mind-body connection instead of disrupting it. Again, thinking about tuning in to your body to know how and when and for how long to exercise means that you’re encouraging your mind and body to work together in promoting your health. Traditional exercise that encourages you to disengage from what your body may be telling you (I’m tired, I’m sore, I need a rest day, I don’t enjoy this type of movement, etc) does the opposite- it severs the connection between mind and body.

Movement should be pleasurable and enjoyable, not punishing or compensatory. It should be something fun that you look forward to because it gives you energy, makes you feel strong and releases feel good endorphins! 

If it feels like punishment or if you’re doing it to compensate for something you ate, yesterday’s “laziness” or to check it off your list, well then it makes sense because that’s how our culture around movement is unfortunately. BUT we can write a new story. And I have a feeling you want to because you’re still reading this post!

Is every single second supposed to feel joyous? Not necessarily. If you truly love running but during that last 10% of your run, your body is aching and your muscles are starting to get fatigued and you’re pushing through to get home, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you need to quit running. It’s more about the bigger picture of whether or not the act itself, as a whole, is enjoyable and feels good. 

what is a healthy relationship with exercise

Reasons exercise may have been unenjoyable or punishing in the past:

You may have a difficult relationship with exercise based on your past experiences with it. Good news, you are not alone.

More good news: your relationship is salvageable! We can still turn this thing around. *cue Bonnie Tyler – #totaleclipseoftheheart*

We can recreate it from the ground up and build something beautiful. But before we go there, I want to take a moment to acknowledge why exercise may have been unhealthy or felt really terrible in the past.  

  • Underfed – if exercising was coupled with dieting in any form, it’s possible that you were trying to exercise while at a calorie deficit and your body was simply responding exactly as it was built to – by letting you know that it’s tired, undernourished and it doesn’t have the energy to support the type of exercise that you’re asking of it. If you don’t put gas in your car, what happens? 
  • Overzealous, unsustainable – if you jumped head first into a new type of exercise or regimen that was too extreme (looking at you P90X and Beach Body!), it’s possible you couldn’t keep up with it because it was too much, too soon, or at too high of a pace. Maybe you ended up feeling guilty or like it was your fault you couldn’t keep it up, when the reality was that it was just an unrealistic plan. 
  • Body shaming – Maybe in exercise locations (like gyms or fitness classes), you felt uncomfortable or judged because you weren’t in a “fit” body. It can be super intimidating and maybe even painful to feel like all eyes are on you because your body doesn’t look like everyone else’s there. This could have turned you off from a particular form of movement (or exercise as a whole) for years, and I don’t blame you. No one should be made to feel like that; you have the right to engage, shame-free, in any form of movement that you choose in whatever body you inhabit. 
  • Being forced or shamed into exercising – If a parent, friend, partner or other person of influence in your life has ever forced or shamed you into exercising, this can leave a lasting impact. Even gentle nudges that you should “get your body moving” can be received as a harmful, hurtful critique. If exercise was happening in your life as a response to these “encouragements” by others, it makes total sense that the exercise would not take on a positive role in your life. Who wants to do something because they’re told to do it? Almost no one! The desire has to come from within…
  • Exercise as punishment – whether you were compensating for something you ate or it was a mandatory drill on a sports team, exercise as a punishment can leave a sour taste in your mouth. 
  • Years in competitive sports or an industry that pushes unrealistic body expectations (cheerleading, dance, acting, etc) that may be hard to let go of. 

As we finish up this list, I want to remind you that our goal here is to break down the negative history you may have with exercise so that we can rebuild something from scratch that will serve you well and faithfully for years to come.

why might exercise have been unenjoyable or punishing in the past?

Questions to ask to assess if a movement practice is truly health promoting:

  • Does it add or relieve stress? The movement itself should not contribute to stress in your life. You should not feel stress over missing a day. Engaging in the movement should leave you better fit to handle and take on other stressors in your life. 
  • Are you more energized and alert? Movement should be good for your mental health and alertness. It should leave you feeling awake and clear-headed, not foggy, exhausted or tired. 
  • Does it contribute to a general sense of well-being? Movement should leave you feeling rejuvenated and empowered. 
  • Does it improve your mood? (Runner’s high?!) Or does it leave you feeling cranky, sour or irritable?

How is your sleep? Intuitive, health-promoting movement should be contributing to a healthier sleep pattern and should fit into your schedule in a way that allows you to get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep most nights.

is your exercise health promoting

What are the health benefits of movement?

It may surprise you that there are health benefits of movement that have zero to do with your body shape, size or weight. Here is an incomplete list, just to give you a rough idea of how valuable exercise is when it fits into your life in a way that is truly health-promoting and totally separated from any goals of body manipulation: 

  • Improved bone density / bone strength
  • Reduction of stress
  • Improved blood pressure 
  • Reduced risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol
  • Increased cardiovascular strength/capacity
  • More in-tune with hunger and fullness cues
  • Improved mental state- learning, memory, alertness, clarity
  • Prevention or delay of cognitive declines associated with advancing age
  • Improved body image! This is essentially due to the fact that when you move your body, you see immediately that your body allows you to do something (run, stretch, lift weights) and brings the focus to what your body can do FOR you vs. what it looks like

It’s also important to mention that any benefit that comes from movement will continue to benefit you for a longer duration (think years instead of weeks) when the type of movement you are doing is something sustainable, enjoyable and realistic over the long-term. 

If a particular workout has some benefits for you but it’s so time-consuming or unenjoyable that there’s no way you’ll keep up with it for months or years, then whatever physical benefits it may have had will not last long, because you won’t keep it up. For example: if you love walking and see yourself continuing to take walks regularly for the foreseeable future, then walking will have benefits for you over the long term. 

As opposed to: if you engage in a three week fitness program that is all-consuming and takes every ounce of will-power you have to make yourself do it and you know there’s no way you can realistically keep doing this for months or years, then that exercise may have had some very short term benefits but won’t continue to benefit you long-term because you won’t be engaging in it long-term.

In short… the movement that will benefit you is the movement that you’re doing, not the one that you had to stop doing because it was so unsustainable, unenjoyable, or exhausting. 

This doesn’t mean that every form of movement has to be one you plan to continue to do for years; it means that something you’re forcing yourself into that feels unsustainable probably will be (unsustainable) and therefore any potential “health benefits” of it will be short-lived. 

A few reminders: 

Exercise may look a LOT different for a long time (or permanently) as you allow yourself the opportunity to explore, reflect, and make some serious changes in your movement patterns. This can be a lot to adjust to; it may take some time (and some intentional conversations or therapy) to process. Often we allow our identities to get interwoven with types of exercise we do (think: “I’m a runner” or “I’m a yogi”), so making the decision to stop doing a particular form of movement or adjust it can bring on what feels like an identity crisis. It’s OK and normal to go through some stages of grief as you figure out what you want movement to look like in your life and how it can be truly health-promoting and contribute to your self-care. 

You may need to take a complete break from any exercise while you relearn what sounds good, feels good, and what your body craves. Figuring out what a healthy relationship with movement looks like for you may actually require a break from exercise for a while. You may have to stop and take an extended rest period so that you can let your body relax and just figure out what it craves. Just like with dieting, exercise regimens might be something that makes us feel safe, so this break may be difficult to endure. But just like with quitting dieting, enduring that discomfort is part of your journey as you learn to trust your body and it’s cues instead of relying on external cues and rules to know when and how to move. Remember that postponing exercise for a few weeks or months will NOT hurt your lifelong health or commitment to movement. If anything, it will tremendously help. 

Your body will be best served when it is also adequately nourished. Exercise will probably never feel good or energizing if you are at a calorie deficit, and specifically if you aren’t getting enough carbohydrates. The foundation for a healthy relationship with movement and being able to physically enjoy and benefit from the movement is eating enough. It’s even possible that a form of movement you used to hate (but forced yourself to do) may come back around. Maybe you will discover that you actually love it, look forward to it, get super energized by it and the difference could be from a variety of things, including a changed attitude towards exercise or simply being adequately fueled, instead of underfed.

Encouragements and tips:

1.) Every bit of movement has the potential to be health-promoting, even just 5 minutes. In the past you may not have exercised because you didn’t have enough time to “make it worth it” but every little bit contributes to the health benefits of movement. When you say “I can’t workout unless I do a 2 hour HIIT workout” you’ll probably never end up working out because who the f*ck has time (or energy) for a TWO hour HIIT workout?!

2.) Work movement into the activities you already do. You may feel like your life doesn’t have the room or flexibility to start exercising, but when you can pair something you already do (like chatting with a friend on the phone ) with movement (like taking a walk around your neighborhood) you have now engaged in TWO enjoyable and health-promoting habits simultaneously! My favorite combo? Dance party while cooking dinner!!!

3.) If finding ways to fit in enjoyable, desirable, FUN movement is difficult based on your schedule, I encourage you to reflect about where movement falls on your priority list. Think about this like scheduling self-care. Ideally, movement will be something you look forward to just as much as another self care activity like a massage or a coffee date with a friend, and I guarantee those are things you pencil in on your calendar and schedule around! 

4.) Get comfortable. Find clothes that are comfy, make you feel confident and are appropriate for the activity you’re doing. You don’t need a whole new wardrobe, you just need clothes that FIT and allow you to do the activity comfortably. Check out Girlfriend Collective for size inclusive workout gear. Make sure you have some good shoes, too. The right shoes to support whatever activity you’re doing can make all the difference in the movement being enjoyable.

5.) Before you begin any movement activity, check in with your body. Assess from head to toe and reflect on how you feel physically and if the type of movement still feels right for this moment. Every day is different! If you’re having a hard time, close your eyes, put your hand on your heart and ask your DEEPEST, healthiest, strongest self what the right move is. 

6.) Embrace rest days. They WILL be needed. You may plan for them or you may decide on them spontaneously based on the body check-in (see #5!) Rest days are just as vital as movement days, especially depending on the intensity of the movement you’re doing regularly. Even something that wasn’t “planned movement” like a particularly busy day of cleaning the house or moving furniture might leave you needing a rest day. Giving your body time to rest and repair is critical in how movement physically benefits us. 

7.) Practice journaling or reflecting on how you are feeling after engaging in movement. This will help intentionally evaluate whether a given type of exercise is health-promoting for you as an individual in your unique current season of life. Reflecting on how you feel afterwards helps determine: Is this movement energizing, fun, life-giving? Or is it draining, exhausting and unpleasant?

8.) Ditch the all-or-nothing approach. Made a plan but something came up? Give yourself some grace and understanding and move on. Nothing healthy comes from dwelling on a missed day of movement. And DEFINITELY no restriction or decreased eating should result from it. Remember that five minutes of walking is useful for your body, so even if you can’t do the longer movement you planned on, you can still benefit from a little bit. Want to start running? You don’t have to start running five days a week and sign up for a marathon. You don’t have to choose between the identities “I’m a runner” or “I’m not a runner”. You can occasionally take jogs, occasionally take walks, and occasionally go for weeks or months without running and it doesn’t have to change your identity. You can try things, you can experiment, you can admit “I never really liked ___” or “I’d like to try ___ but I’m nervous since I’ve never done it before!” You don’t have to either be a professional athlete or a self-proclaimed “couch-potato.” There is INFINITE room in between the extremes for you to find what serves you best in this season. 

9.) Recruit a friend– if you’re experimenting with new forms of movement (especially something that feels intimidating to you like a new group class or a new sport) try and recruit a buddy to join you. It makes it more FUN and it takes the pressure off of going somewhere brand new by yourself. 

10.) GET OUTSIDE! You don’t need to see the research (although there’s a TON!) to believe this one. Nature is good for mental health, physical health, spiritual health AND even body image! It connects you to what your body can do FOR you vs. what it looks like. Who cares if you have rolls or a belly when you hike your fine ass all the way to the TOP of that mountain to take in the gorgeous view?! 

QUICK PLUG FOR JOYN! Check out Joyn – a body neutral, size inclusive workout company. Try free for 30 days and then it’s only $9.99/month after that!

encouragement and tips for a healthy exercise relationship

This was a lot to cover and remember we can’t find a healthy relationship with exercise in ONE blog post, but hopefully it helps at least a bit!

And if you’re looking for someone to help guide you on your food, movement, and body image journey feel free to book a free intro call with me here. 

My favorite body positive Instagram accounts:

Leave a comment below with the word COMMIT if you plan to commit to a healthier relationship with exercise! OR share an exercise resource you like! 

Blog Lexy Penney Nutritionist Boston Intuitive Eating

Hi, I’m Lexy!

I’m a Registered Dietitian, yoga teacher, & body image coach.

I help women make peace with food and built trust with their bodies so they can live the lives they desire and deserve.

Hop on my email list for your weekly dose of food freedom, body liberation and self-care!

Lexy Penney Nutritionist Boston Intuitive Eating

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