Content warning: post includes talk about dieting and weight loss
I’ve been working out regularly for close to 20 years. That still amazes me when I think about it, because for the first 30 years of my life, I was not an active or fit person. I hated gym class, smoked on and off, hated my body, punished it with diets, binging and wished it would be different.
When I started working out regularly, it didn’t change my perspective about my body overnight. But I didn’t focus on my body’s shape as the primary reason I was working out on a regular basis. And, over time, it has become the least important reason for why I get my sweat on. I focused on:
- Amazement at what my body was capable of doing (you can spin your ass off for 3 hours and still feel like you can keep going! You can run a WHOLE MARATHON! Aren’t you lucky you’ve been given a body that can do these things!).
- This may be a bit controversial, but at first I was a little surprised at how well I could keep up to the people in some of my classes who were smaller. My brain, conditioned to think smaller was always fitter, learned many times over, that this was not the case. Not for me and not for those with larger bodies, who would often whip my butt in class. Learning this, added to my understanding of how little someone’s appearance relates to their level of fitness.
- How much stronger my body felt.
- I did enjoy how my body felt firmer. But that is not something that always happens. And bodies of all shapes and sizes can be firmer.
- How much my mind benefitted from exercise. It’s still my number one factor. I always say that if I don’t exercise for a couple days “I don’t feel right”. It’s just a fact. I can get too much in my head. I can get too anxious. I can get tense for no particular reason. I don’t think I’ve ever exercised, and not felt noticeably clearer afterwards. Lighter. My chest unclenches. My outlook on my day improves. It’s often stated but not overstated. Exercise is completely beneficial for my mental health (this is not to say that if someone needs other medical interventions, such as medication, that exercise is a substitute for medication).
- Helped me quit smoking for good. Knowing I was going to run in the morning, stopped me from going for that cigarette one last time. As I got older, and found that alcohol made me more tired the next day, it also stopped me from going for that 3rd or 4th drink.
- Community. Exercising, regularly, allowed me to meet like-minded people. It’s a reason to smile and say Hi to familiar faces. It enables you to see that fitness comes in all shapes and ages and demographics. The pandemic has made the importance of this connection even more evident.
My experience of body hate and disordered eating is not unusual, unfortunately. Aspects of these experiences can be attributed to diet culture and, particularly, North American views that part of being a successful woman is taking up as little physical space as possible. I am not going to go into the evils of diet culture and why we shouldn’t succumb to these pressures. We’ve talked about this many times on this blog. It’s not news.
But, I’m still surprised at how often, women I know, from all walks of life, all shapes, ages, levels of education, etc., say things like:
- I have been eating “better”. I feel less guilty. Or, the opposite.
- I enjoyed girls’ night last night, but I need to be extra careful today.
- There’s no point in me working out until I get my diet together, because I don’t see results until I eat better.
Variations on all of the above. It’s not surprising that these thoughts are so common, when all around us is “advice” about “Why you might not be seeing fitness results”.
I’ll tell you why some people “may not be seeing fitness results”. They are only looking for one factor. Weight loss. When there are so many other results from fitness, that are much more important.
I can tell you from my own experience:
- No amount of guilt is going to steer you in the direction you seek (whether you should be seeking that goal or not).
- When you stop looking for visual results from working out, you will notice a whole host of other results from exercise.
- If you focus on the visual results of exercise, it may hinder you. It may prevent you from exercising. The “what’s the point” mentality. I don’t want this way of thinking to stop you from enjoying all the amazing benefits that come from regular, intentional movement.
Some of my friends or family who know me might say, “That’s easy for you to say. I’ve noticed you’ve lost weight recently”. This I would address by saying, (1) Losing weight isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes it means you’ve lost muscle tone. Sometimes, losing weight means a person has been unusually stressed or unwell. In my case, I currently feel neutral about losing weight. It’s neither good nor bad. Nor was it my goal. (2) My exercise schedule hasn’t changed much over the years. Sometimes, I’ve been bigger. Sometimes, I’ve been smaller. (3) I eat how I enjoy eating. I happen to have lost weight recently. Because of the pandemic, I have also been doing less heavy weight on the rig. That may be part of it. The way I eat, and my weight, may fluctuate. But one thing is for sure, the way I eat does not involve guilt, body hate, praise or other virtues about my food intake. I am not punishing myself. I make sure I am satiated. I try not to overthink things. How others may enjoy eating, without assigning virtues to the food, may look completely different. And their bodies may look completely different and be equally as fit. You can’t tell how fit someone is by looking at them and you can’t tell how kind someone is to their body by looking at them.
Occasionally, I mention my thoughts about food and exercise, around people who indicate they are upset with themselves because of how they have been eating. I try to gently remind them that beating themselves up isn’t going to help. My thoughts are clearly not that influential. But, I feel the need to try, because it is my sincere wish, that people understand two things about food and exercise:
1. Only do things out of love. You will only be content with how you eat, if you love yourself. If you choose what you want to do because you love yourself. It sounds corny, but it’s true. Nothing good comes out of hating yourself. Ever.
2. Exercise benefits you with mental clarity, strength, joint health, managing things like blood pressure and blood sugar (sometimes, that doesn’t mean you still won’t need medical intervention, it’s not one or the other, in all cases), and so many other things, REGARDLESS OF HOW YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR. Don’t lose all those other benefits, or let that one thing prevent you exercising. PLEASE. Is that too much to ask?
I long for the day when work meetings, backyard bbqs, and social media threads, refrain from feelings of guilt about food, and espouse the virtues of exercise beyond how people see themselves in a mirror.
This is what will happen if you stop “looking for results from working out” and kick guilt to the curb:
You will appreciate exercise for more important things that add up to overall wellbeing. And, it’s more likely to become a regular habit (not just an occasional reminder to “fix” yourself.
You will be kinder to yourself. If there is one thing this pandemic should have taught us, is that it is important to be kinder to ourselves and others. It should not have taught you to deride yourself or to be ungrateful to your wonderous living being because of outdated, unhelpful, time-wasting, life-wasting, brain-wasting societal norms.