5 Things That Changed My Relationship to Exercise

changed relationship exercise changed relationship exercise

I started going to the gym when I was 14, and from the beginning, exercise always sort of functioned like a punishment for eating. Going to the gym was something that I had to do; it was a chore rather than a reward or release. That isn’t to say that I never enjoyed working out, because I did. I was an athlete and my body has always craved movement. But even my most strenuous workouts never felt like “enough.” My criteria for what actually counted as exercise was super rigid, and I had no idea that it could be any other way. This can be traced back to an active eating disorder and a mind brimming with diet-culture misinformation. As a result, I looked fit and healthy, but my mentality around fitness was anything but.

After I had my first baby, I was determined to pick up where I’d left off pre-pregnancy. I decided to train for a half marathon. I completed the 13.1 mile race but afterwards felt completely burnt out on all of it. I hadn’t properly trained and my body felt the effects of that, so I quit the gym altogether. My motivation was gone, because the desire to look good was not enough to endure the bruising physical punishments that were my workouts.

A couple of years went by, and I found myself in a body that I hardly recognized. I’d put back on my ‘baby weight’ (30ish pounds) and I was lethargic and often in pain. My aha moment came when I injured my lower back for no apparent reason. Something had to change.

Suddenly I had new fitness motivation, which was to feel good — rather than look good. I knew intuitively that in order to rebuild my relationship with exercise, how I felt had to be the focus. I wanted to feel strong, endurant and energetic. And so began the second chapter of my relationship to fitness. Here are the five ways I did (and continue to do) this:

1) I underwhelm myself.

In the past, I was the kind of person to clock many, many hours per week at the gym. In my new life as a mom, this wouldn’t work for me; I barely even had time to shower or pee let alone workout for hours on end, plus most gym kids’ clubs have a two-hour max. An hour(ish) seemed doable and not overwhelming. I’ve stopped worrying so much about how long I spent exercising, and I also give myself more options: to walk instead of run, to lift lighter or do less reps, as needed, to modify any exercise that needs modifying. Sometimes old thinking pops up telling me ‘you’re not doing enough’. I’ve learned to replace that thought with “underwhelm yourself.”

2) I ask myself what I want.

My workouts used to be rigid. I felt like on certain days I had to do certain workouts. False! These days I ask myself ‘what do I feel like doing today?’ That is such a wonderfully freeing and powerful shift for me. Some days I just feel like running at the beach, other days I want to lift weights, and on days where I don’t feel like thinking much, I like to take a class. Doing this has really introduced an element of adventure and variety into my workouts, which, in turn, has kept me engaged.

3) I prioritize fun.

Did you know that dirty-dancing to early ‘00s hip hop in your bedroom for 30 minutes counts as exercise? It totally does. And it is totally fun. Exercise doesn’t have to consist of spin classes and running on treadmills. There are so many ways to exercise our bodies. When I embraced the idea that I could be having fun, I started doing things like taking hip hop classes, boxing, barre and joining a coed adult soccer league. Another powerful thing to ask yourself is how do I enjoy moving my body? What are things I have always wanted to try? (ahem, pole dancing–that’s next up on my to-do list).

4) Compare not, judge not.

Ladies! Stop comparing yourselves to other people! And I’m not just talking about the 20-something-Lululemon-wearing gals at the gym. I mean stop comparing post-baby you to pre-baby you. Your body has changed because you did the most amazing thing with it. Embrace that. I had to stop reminding myself of how fast my mile used to be. I had to meet my body exactly where she was physically, and love her unconditionally.

5) I cheer myself on. 

I am a big believer in the power of our own thoughts. If negative self-talk can derail us, then positive affirmations can empower us. I have experienced this firsthand in other areas of my life, so it felt only fitting to apply it here too. I decided to become my own hype girl. When I would run, I would literally cheer myself on,‘you got this girl!’ When I would lift weights I would tell myself ‘you are so strong!’ It feels good to talk to myself this way. I figure if I don’t, why would anyone else?

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Emily is a freelance writer and photographer living in Southern California with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has been featured in Babble, Scary Mommy and Today Parents, among other places. Emily is fueled by spontaneous dance parties, '80s music and coffee. Connect with her on Instagram or on her website or on Twitter.