Exercising a New Mindset

From a young age, even before our bodies have really developed, we're bombarded with the message that exercising leads to the “ideal” body image. Read more at thekindredvoice.com

Words by Amanda Neal

Take a moment and consider this: what if exercise had nothing to do with weight loss? What if the pressure to get toned arms and a flat tummy as a result of consistent physical activity was completely taken out of the equation? Would you still bother?

If you asked me this a year and a half ago, I probably would have said no. This is because from a young age, even before our bodies have really developed, we are bombarded with the message that exercising leads to the “ideal” body image. For me, that young age was 12.

I remember I was in middle school when exercise became intensely related to body image. Gone were the elementary days of running circles around the playground at recess for the sole purpose of having fun. Here were the days of avoiding pool parties when possible, only wearing shirts with sleeves because of that weird pocket of armpit fat, and perpetually holding my arms across my stomach whenever I was standing. Occasionally participating in school sports or a themed 5k would result in actual fun, but for the most part, an hour of exercise meant dessert after dinner and a day without exercise meant going to bed with an all-consuming feeling of guilt.

My relationship with exercise and my body were admittedly less than ideal, but when I looked around and talked with other women my age, it seemed so many thought the same way. I assumed it was just a universal truth. I didn’t want to feel this way and often I’d imagine that if I could just commit to a year of healthy eating habits and perfect combination of cardio and strength training, I would finally have the body I felt confident and comfortable in. Then and only then would exercise once again become a fun activity rather than a punishment. When I was 27 years old, I finally got the body that would grant me this liberation I had often dreamt of having, and I’m happy to say it took less than a year- nine months to be exact.

In fall of 2017, I gave birth to our first son and my whole world was instantly changed. My heart was fuller than it had ever felt. Exhausted but so happy, I began adapting the best I could to the new realities of this new wonderful life- one reality being my postpartum body. Loose wrinkly skin, stretch marks, a squishy stomach, no muscle definition in sight; it should have been what my prior guilt-induced nightmares were made of, but for the first time in as long as I could remember, I did not care. I had fully accepted my body for what it was with grace and forgiveness. How could I not? It had literally just grew the most important person in my life. I carried this grace and forgiveness with me in the following months. When my old jeans still didn’t fit six weeks later, I just bought new jeans. If I wanted dessert after dinner even though I hadn’t gone for a run, I had it. Of all the things in life to stress about, it felt amazing that body image finally wasn’t one of them.

All that said, I did hit a breaking point at about eight weeks postpartum, not with how my body looked, but how restless my body felt. I loved staying at home with my baby, but between my mandatory rest prescription and the winter weather forcing us to stay inside, I began to feel cabin fever set in. When my doctor finally gave the go ahead for physical activity shortly after, I couldn’t wait to get back into some sort of exercise routine. For me, this meant returning to Pure Barre, a fitness studio I had both taught and taken classes at prior to giving birth.

I eased back into classes slowly to avoid injury and build up strength. This time though, because of my newfound take on my body’s physical state, I didn’t focus on the number of calories burned or the amount of minutes spent in my “fat burning” zone. I just took the class because I finally could again. And consequently, with each class following, I began to truly appreciate the many non weight-related benefits to working up a sweat.

Taking a class at the studio meant 50 minutes of uninterrupted “me time,” which after hours upon hours alone with a baby, was extremely therapeutic. Seeing the friendly faces of clients and fellow co-workers satisfied my craving for social interaction (motherhood, though amazing, can feel so lonely sometimes). Losing myself in the upbeat music while endorphins get kicked into high gear was an instant mood booster. And finally, my post class victories rooted themselves in how much stronger I felt, not how much stronger I looked (my arms still jiggle when I wiggle, but I can do a pretty impressive push up!). As I settled into a more consistent routine of a few classes a week, I did admittedly start to notice physical changes as well, but acknowledging the pounds dropped and increased muscle definition became afterthoughts to everything else each class provided.

Is all this to say that you are wrong to exercise with its weight-loss and muscle toning benefits in mind? Absolutely not. But if your sole reason for exercising centers around body image- you’re missing out. It took finally accepting my body, even when it was in its most foreign state, to recognize this. It also helps that I found a workout that I genuinely enjoy. I encourage anyone who is trying to improve their relationship with exercise to try a new kind of fitness class, immerse yourself in a fitness community, join an intramural sports league, and leave the calorie tracking watch at home. If you try something that doesn't deliver these non-weight related results, try something else! I can’t help but think of the quote, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The notion applies here as well: Find a workout you love and just maybe exercising can feel like recess again.

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About the Author:

Amanda Neal is a former teacher turned stay at home mom. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with family and friends.