I have been talking for two weeks about body image. Here is my final installment on this series: body image and exercise, what is the relationship? How do these two concepts inform each other in your life? For most people the relationship can get complicated. As children, it’s easy: exercise starts out as play. It’s normally something we do naturally for fun, like chasing each other around, playing soccer or basketball, swimming in the summer, wrestling with siblings or climbing trees. However, at some point in our lives, most of us start to worry about our body image. This is the point where exercise can cease to become play and instead become work: an obligatory hour spent in the gym trying to make our bodies look different than they do. Even women who love exercise can manage to make it a chore by feeling intense guilt if they miss just one workout. But what if by working on developing a more positive body image, our approach to exercise started to shift? The less we worry about how our bodies look, the less exercise has to be work and the more it can once again be play. Once exercise is fun again, we organically begin to incorporate more of it into our lives and our bodies and minds naturally begin to feel better. However, it takes a little reframing of our focus in order to get there.
My relationship with exercise is long and problematic, or at least it used to be. During my school age years, I spent summers in Panama with my grandmother. Being a good Latina, she showed her love with food. When I came back to the U.S. at the end of that first summer, all of a sudden, to the outside world I was fat. My mother, seeing how upset I was at this realization, tried to be helpful. She set me up with a yellow leotard with a cute gray belt and a Betamax copy of that now iconic Jane Fonda Workout. This was the beginning of my life as an exercise junkie. I was determined to make my body look different than the current unacceptable state it was in. I was nine years old.
It took the next twenty years for me to realize that exercise is necessary for good health (not a “good body”), yet it does not have to be a chore. There are a few ways we can arrive at this point, but they all involve making exercise about anything else but gaining or losing weight. The first way to reframe exercise is to make it about performance. Martial arts and team sports are great for this. However, my first “a-ha” moment with exercise and performance came when I started running. I didn’t become a runner until I was about thirty, so it was always about milestones, not about losing weight. I would get excited for my morning runs because it was always an opportunity to improve my speed, distance or perceived effort. When I started racing, I learned about goal-setting, planning and training tricks until I felt like a real athlete, conditioning myself to perform. Running was about putting in effort and reaping rewards, and it had nothing to do with what my body looked like or how much I weighed.
When I injured my foot, running could no longer be about performance, at least for a while. When I could run again, I was slow. I couldn’t do long distances until I built my base back up, so running then became about a sort of meditative mindful time to myself. I started running without my watch or runkeeper sometimes, just running by feel. The freedom I felt not having to keep a certain pace was unbelievable, and I gave myself permission to stop and just feel the sun for a minute or take photos of flowers or cool cloud formations. Making exercise about quiet time to unplug can also be accomplished by taking a hike in the greenbelt or even a walk around the neighborhood. Yoga is another great way to find that mind-body connection, and there are so many different types that you can make it as vigorous or mellow as you want. Again, these activities remind us that movement can be about enjoyment of a little mental downtime rather than how we look.
Exercise can also be about a sense of community and connectedness with others. I was part of a bootcamp for a few years, and the group of women I met there were an integral part of my life. It was easy for all of us to show up for a 6:30am workout when we knew that all of our friends would be there. I have heard this about CrossFit and other group training situations as well – you form a support network for one another that can extend far beyond the walls of the gym. This concept works for just two people, too! I had a running partner for a few years and together we trained much better than we would have individually, plus we had the benefit of “talk therapy” three times per week.
Finally, exercise can just be straight up FUN. I haven’t tried it, but I have heard Zumba is so fun you forget you are doing exercise. My mother swears by her Jazzercise. I will admit I find lifting weights fun, provided I only do this once or twice a week and I listen to my “guilty pleasures” playlist (reserved exclusively for the gym). However, my favorite fun workout is barre. I was never the ballerina type growing up, and I got kicked out of modern dance class at the age of twenty-two for being an unconvincing snowflake. Enjoying barre now is my chance to reframe those early disappointments. I get to channel my inner ballerina and be graceful and strong and precise in my movements. I just have fun with it because I can. Plus it’s an incredibly hard workout, which always puts me in a great mood. I love going to classes, but when I’m on a budget I get the DVDs from the library and do it at home. The added bonus is that, whereas in class I have to pretend to be in my own world, at home I really can be. My boyfriend even made me a ballet barre out of PVC pipe, so now it’s EXTRA fun to do it at home!*
The truth is our bodies function better when we move them, so developing a way to make exercise feel more like play again is key to getting in the movement we need. I have suggested a few ways to do so, but the bottom line is to make the focus of our exercise activity anything EXCEPT gaining or losing weight. This ALONE is not normally a good enough motivator to make regular exercise sustainable. The 2.0: if we can manage to be at peace with our body image, we won’t be putting pressure on ourselves to exercise to gain or lose weight in the first place.. exercise can instead just be a pleasurable part of our healthy lifestyles.
*the ballet barre is easy to make, and cheap! http://www.toroidalsnark.net/barre.html