I travel around the country giving talks about body positivity, size acceptance, and Health at Every Size. In many of my talks, either in my introduction or during the talk, the fact that I am and have been involved in the fitness world – as a certified group fitness instructor, as a dancer, as a marathoner, and now training to be an IRONMAN – comes up. Whenever I talk about fitness, people of all sizes tell me about the horrible experiences they’ve had that led them to decide not to be involved in the fitness world. Some even tell me that just the word exercise is triggering or sends them down a shame spiral.
Before we get too far into this, let me be clear: fitness, or involvement in fitness or movement of any kind, is not an obligation or a barometer of worthiness. The choice of whether or not to participate in fitness is personal, participating in fitness is completely optional, and those who choose to participate in fitness are not in any way better or more laudable than those who choose other hobbies.
There are people who aren’t interested in exercising for whatever reason and that’s completely ok. The people I’m talking about are those who tell me that they would like to engage in movement for whatever reason, but they feel stuck or blocked about it because they had a messy break-up with exercise, because exercise was used as a way to mistreat them, to punish them for their body size, because they were forced to do exercise that they didn’t like, or were shamed because they weren’t “good enough” at the exercise (Junior high school gym class, I am looking at you).
School presents ample opportunities for a budding relationship with movement to end before it even gets started. If you aren’t good at organized sports and don’t enjoy having dodgeballs hurled at you, you might leave physical education thinking that you hate movement, when what you actually hate is physical education.
Then there so-called “anti-childhood obesity initiatives” that tell kids early and often that their bodies are wrong, that they should be ashamed of them, and that exercise is punishment for having the “wrong” kind of body. This can happen later in life when people get convinced that the only “good” or “right” outcome of movement is a manipulation of how their body looks. I hear from people all the time who have never moved their body for any reason other than to change the size and shape of it because they can’t imagine any other reason to move their bodies, or any other goal that they could choose.
So if you hate to exercise, that’s completely cool and understandable and you’re not alone. Even if exercise has health benefits, that doesn’t mean that anyone is required to do it, or that exercising creates some sort of health guarantee wherein you are immortal unless you get hit by a bus. Besides, there are lots of things that are shown to improve our odds for health and we aren’t obligated to do any of them, and we can pick and choose what we want to do.
When we insist that people “owe” society healthy habits it very quickly becomes a slippery slope. If we “owe” society exercise do we also “owe” it eight hours of sleep a night? A vegan diet? A paleo diet? To quit drinking? To not go skiing or play soccer or anything else that could get us hurt? Who gets to make these mandates? I recommend that people not try to tell others how to live unless they are super excited about someone else telling them how to live.
The reason I talk about the research around fitness is that I believe we are constantly lied to and, while we don’t owe anybody exercise, I think that public health owes us true, unbiased information. Instead, we are told that exercise will definitely lead to weight loss. We are told that exercise won’t make us healthier unless it makes us thinner. We are told that we have to do hours of specific (and often unpleasant) things in order to get benefit from movement. Au contraire; the research suggests that people can experience health benefits from roughly 30 minutes of moderate activity about five days a week, and that people can experience health benefits with less movement than that as well. And, you never have to set foot in a gym. Movement can be anything from walking, to playing with your kids, to dancing around in your underwear in the living room.
If you had a messy break up with exercise and you think it’s time to move on, you have lots of choices. Maybe you decide not to exercise. Or perhaps you decide that exercise has some positive redeeming benefits, and you want those benefits, so you find some forms of movement that you hate less than other forms of movement and do those. You may decide that you would like to move your body because you want that kind of connection with your body, or because there’s a type of movement that sounds fun to you.
One option is to practice movement/fitness from a Health at Every Size (HAES) perspective. In HAES, we recognize that health is not an obligation, a barometer of worthiness, entirely within our control, or guaranteed under any circumstances. We are also clear that public health includes fighting the social constructs that harm people’s health including poverty and oppression – racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and sizeism, for example. Finally, we are aware that there isn’t a single study where more than a tiny fraction of people have maintained long-term weight loss and so we don’t pursue weight loss.
In HAES, we focus on goals other than the manipulation of body size. So if someone is interested in increasing mobility, they may choose goals around building strength and increasing flexibility. If someone wants to run a 5k, they work on running. If someone wants to support their health through movement, they may look at their metabolic numbers to see if they change with behaviors, or they may go with how they feel.
They might also choose goals based on what they want to accomplish – whether it’s picking up their grandkid or running a marathon.
Choose goals that make sense to you and ignore people who try to get you to set unrealistic goals or think that their goals should be everyone’s goals. I think that too many athletes think that everyone must feel like them – since they love to exercise and feel great doing it, they believe that everyone else can love it too! I think that’s bullshit. I, for example, hate long distance running. I’ve heard people talk about getting a “runner’s high,” but the only runner’s high I ever got was when I stopped running. I ran a ton when I played soccer as a kid so if I was going to learn to love it, it would have happened already. But I decided that I wanted to finish a marathon. So I trained for it, then signed up as a walker in a marathon that had no time limit and I took forever to finish. My realistic goal was to cross the finish line and get a medal. People said that it shouldn’t count because I walked or I took too long, or I should have set a different goal or whatever – screw them. I crossed the finish line, I got my medal. Achievement unlocked. You get to decide what you want to do and how you want to do it.
If you hate exercise and you decide to do it anyway, you can try to make it suck less by picking activities you don’t hate (gardening? dancing in your living room? a video game that incorporates movement? window shopping?), doing it in an environment that’s comfortable for you (indoors and temperature controlled? at night and out of the sun?) changing activities frequently, playing music, watching television, reading a book, talking on the phone (when I do flexibility training I often do several of those things at once to try to stave off the boredom).
And if you have kids in your life, consider that they deserve better than what we got and that we need to dramatically change the way that we talk to youth about movement. Gym classes need to offer as many options as possible – I’m not suggesting that we shut down competitive sports, but let’s give kids options so that they look forward to physical education: hoop dance, yoga, non-competitive sports. We need to stop talking about the size of some kids and start talking about the health of all kids. Kids don’t take care of things that they hate and so we need to talk to kids about their bodies in ways that help them appreciate those bodies and want to take good care of them.
Maybe you had a messy breakup with exercise, but whether you try to kiss and make up or file for divorce because of irreconcilable differences is entirely up to you and it’s your business and nobody else’s.