The Gym is Not a Punishment
Around this time of year, when holiday treat (I’m looking at you pumpkin pie) consumption is at its peak and many people are thinking about their New Year’s resolutions, folks tend to think about changing their diet or working out more. It’s very common that people have unhealthy views about diets, exercise or their bodies and I’m hoping to address some of those views in this post. Many people say things like “I’ve been bad, I guess I need to go to the gym.” Or they frequently look at “fitspo” (fit + inspiration) images that push pretty extreme ideas of what you should be willing to put yourself through during a workout. Below is an example of a fitspo image with a satirical version of the same poster next to it. If you have a hard time looking at images of fitspo due to a history of an eating disorder, you may want to avoid this post. I think both images display extreme and unhealthy views.
Some folks find this motivating but most do not. Who wants to actively punish themselves? If given the choice between binge-watching Netflix and running 5 miles, a lot of people choose the former. There’s nothing wrong with either option and even very active people need rest days. Trying to shame yourself, or someone you know, into a regular exercise routine or different diet doesn’t work. Research shows that when you shame someone or try to use scare tactics (think almost every anti-smoking commercial) to change behavior you usually have the opposite intended effect.
When people feel fear or intense shame their ability to make rational decisions diminishes. The science is that as your amygdala goes into overdrive, there’s less brain food for your prefrontal cortex, the thing responsible for impulse control and prudent planning. Some folks have managed to exercise three times a week as an act of self-flagellation. Usually, they push themselves so hard they get injured. But even so, going to the gym as a way to hurt yourself or because you “were bad” when you ate a slice of pumpkin pie is an unhealthy mindset to have. Even if you can exercise regularly this way, I hope you don’t. I hope you stay active because you love yourself.
Most people, though, cannot maintain a commitment to going to yoga class or walking 30 minutes a day if those activities are somehow penance for being a shameful couch potato who ate 5 Oreos. Take a lesson from Terry Crews, a guy who spends 2 hours in the gym each day: make exercise a joyful experience. Maybe you take a salsa dancing class or go for very long walks in a nearby park or maybe you signed up for a trainer to teach you to lift heavy. Whatever you do, do it out of love.
I feel that the below video is another good example of the gym being a celebration. What I love most about it is that it shows women of all shapes working out. It gives us permission to jiggle, have fun and feel good about what we can do with our bodies. I would also note that the women do rest and take breaks!
That mindset change might be really hard for you. Maybe you have a hard time loving yourself in other ways and you are too frustrated with your body image to feel like any exercise is a way to love yourself. Maybe as a kid, you were told you were unlovable, and now loving yourself is something you have to learn. Maybe you were forced to do physical activity and hurt when you failed. Maybe you’ve recently relapsed into a shame pit and miss being able to go for a run without that nasty negative self-talk.
It’s possible to climb out of the shame pit; if you need a hand you can get one.