CREATING A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH EXERCISE IN A FITNESS-CRAZY WORLD
Creating a healthy relationship with exercise is something that I’ve recently realised the true importance of, and something that I feel needs to be addressed more often.
Health and fitness has become huge over the past few years, with the rise of social media making information more accessible to people of all ages – not just middle-aged women reading Cosmo or men reading body-building magazines (apologies for the use of stereotypes, but you get my point.)
Although you could argue that there has been a huge shift in society and the ‘ideal’ body type that is promoted to one that is focused more on being strong, a ‘healthier’ weight – the issue is still there. The hashtag may have changed from #thinspo to #fitspo, women might be striving for big bums rather than thigh gaps, but there is still an image being portrayed by the media as the most desirable. Men and women are still given the messages they need to have a particular body to be happy, rather than being given the message that they can be happy with the body they have; that an increase in health is not simply defined by the lowering of your body fat percentage, by the size of your jeans, or by having abs.
You could argue that with the rise of fitness in the media, our society is becoming healthier – by that I mean the levels of lifestyle-related disease, such as heart disease and diabetes type 2, are lowering. Which to an extent, may be true. So many people are being encouraged to be more active in their daily lives, and people are definitely feeling the benefits.
However, what is not often talked about is how exercise can become an addiction, and how easy it can be for someone’s mind-set to shift from positive to negative one without realising. Because if you’re doing something deemed oh-so-healthy, when could it ever become a harmful thing?
In hope to shed some light on this topic and maybe raise awareness of the issue, I have put together some points that I encourage everyone to think about next time they exercise, or simply reflect on their fitness journey.
1. THE REASON YOU SHOULD BE EXERCISING? Because it makes you feel good. Genuinely. Not because you’ve convinced yourself you enjoy it, or that you should enjoy it. Listen to your body. Do you find yourself dragging yourself out of bed in the early hours of the morning when there’s nothing you want to do more than sleep, or making yourself go after a long day of work or uni when you know you feel absolutely shattered? Do you actually enjoy the workout or class you do, or are you constantly looking at the clock, making yourself do that extra minute on the treadmill or feeling guilty if you don’t get that workout in you aimed for? Exercising to burn calories, to make up for that pizza/cake/alcohol, to change the way your body looks are not reasons that are going to benefit your body, or most importantly your mind, long-term.
2. DO SOMETHING YOU ACTUALLY ENJOY. Do you actually enjoy the high-intensity workouts, the treadmill runs or the weight training, or would you prefer to go on a walk in the park, a hike, or a cycle somewhere pretty? Don’t choose your exercise based on the number of calories it’ll burn. Working out should NEVER be a punishment, or something you make your body do through guilt or wanting to mould it into something else. Exercise should be something done out of LOVE for your body, not hatred. Exercise because you want to move your body, because you want to get your heart pumping and your blood flowing and feel those endorphins.
3. INTENSITY. A personal word of warning – if you’re doing exercise for ‘stress relief’, you might want to think twice about the kind of workout you’re doing. I used to be a HIIT (high intensity interval training) addict, loving the rush of endorphins and how hard the class was, knowing I was burning lots and ‘relieving stress’. Not that I’m saying that you should avoid this kind of workout completely – just bear in mind the amount of stress doing this kind of activity actually puts your body under, these kind of workouts probably produce a loooot of cortisol in your body (I also got a stress fracture from doing them so much.) Personally, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to be doing these workouts daily – especially for young girls, as they can really cause hormonal issues, and have read (will try and link some reputable studies on this asap when I find them again) that ideally you should wait 48hrs in between these kind of workouts minimum. There is nothing wrong with doing lower-intensity exercise – you DO NOT need to be constantly doing HIIT or any form of exercise for that matter to maintain your weight. Your body is smarter than you think. Throughout my childhood I was probably the least sporty person, aside from PE (which I hated), the most I generally did was walking to and from school, and maybe a little playing games in the playground, and was naturally slim and ‘healthy.’ Our metabolisms don’t change drastically the minute we hit puberty. (Any weight gain during puberty is because you are GROWING. Your body needs that extra fuel or weight to get your hormonal and reproductive systems working.) But again – on the other hand – low intensity workouts such as yoga can become equally as obsessive/stress-causing. The important thing is to try and stay mindful of your actions.
4. METABOLISM. Leading on from that last point, your body is SMART. Your body will respond to your activity level and your food intake accordingly to maintain it’s natural optimum body weight. The more you mess with it, either by going on diets or exercising more to burn calories, the further down a slippery slope you will find yourself. This is a topic that could take up another whole blog post, but in short; the more you exercise excessively and lower your overall caloric intake, the slower your metabolism becomes. Your body thinks it’s experiencing famine. This is not healthy, and not sustainable for a long time. You won’t be able to maintain it for the rest of your life. Ever wondered why so many people talk about crash diets and losing weight then gaining it all back, if not sometimes more? Ever wondered why whenever you try to diet or do a crazy exercise routine, you can’t stick to it/feel tired/feel ravenous/feel horrific? Your body is trying to PROTECT you. Save yourself the turmoil of having to put back on that weight or reverse the internal damage that you can’t yet see. If you exercise more, eat more. Exercise and eat intuitively (listen to your body’s signals.) It knows what’s best.
5. LOVE YOUR BODY THE WAY IT IS. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that all bodies have a different set point weight of what is healthy for them; where the body is able to work at it’s best and maintain itself. Some people naturally carry a little extra body fat. People carry this in all different places. Some people are naturally very slim. Some people are naturally very athletic and muscular. The science is all out there – ever heard of endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph body types? We’re all different, and are being fooled that we need to, or should change the way our bodies look. An image you see online of a person might be a healthy way for their body to look, but for another person this could cause lots of internal health consequences. What is achievable for one person could be so detrimental for another. There is also another flip side to this; where some images we see online may not be the full story. It’s so easy to see those abs, those thighs, and not consider what might be going on in that persons mind. It can be so easy to convince yourself and others around you that what you’re doing, what you look like is healthy. I’ve seen it done. I’ve been sucked in to those images thinking that it was perfectly okay. I’ve done the same to people around me, and myself.
Here are some warning signs that might be able to help you if this resonates, or if you’re concerned about someone else:
- Rigid rules/routines about how often they are exercising – more so that they are anxious/angry/upset when they can’t stick to this exactly, or miss out on social activities etc. because of this ‘commitment’
- guilt when not exercising/missing a workout because of tiredness/illness/any other reason
- exercising in a way that is stemmed from destructive thoughts – punishment/guilt from junk food/nights out etc
- constant excuses/justification about stress relief/new years resolutions/health
- craving foods high in sugar or fat (because blood sugar levels are low)
- ‘binge’ eating (hate to use this term as it is an actual medical disorder, but by this I mean eating patterns that are thought of by the person as binging/more than they would usually have/late night snacking/not feeling satisfied from meals etc)
- constantly thinking about/planning workouts and meals
It’s such a grey area, and such a difficult topic, which is why I think it hasn’t been spoken much about. Where is the line between something being a true interest or passion, and something becoming obsessive or compulsive? The more I reflect on these things, the more I realise how important finding balance in life is – and more so, how difficult finding that balance is.
If you’re unsure about your behaviours, try taking a week off from any routines and see how you feel and respond. A week is a normal length of time for anyone to take off from something – whether that be for a holiday, for illness, or an athlete taking time for an injury or to simply allow recovery from an event. If you’re unable to do this, or have negative thoughts, or are literally itching and craving to get back in the gym to combat the food you ate or your lack of activity that week, maybe consider that you should change something in your life, or be more mindful about your actions and the signals your body is giving you. It’s not easy, in a world where every message we receive from doctors, from the government, from the media about exercise is a good one. And some people truly do have the passion for sport, whether it be running marathons or competing as a team or in that body-building competition.
But for others, life can be so much more than the hours you spend each week at the gym, the calories you burn or the weight that you can lift. Life is so much more than getting abs, than the number on the scale, than the size of your jeans.
Don’t let #fitspo define your self-worth. Don’t let it stop you from truly living.