For those of us with no natural affinity for sports, exercise is painted as a form of punishment right from the beginning. It starts with PE classes in smelly gyms and freezing stadiums, being picked last, being goaded into doing things that are uncomfortable while all of your classmates watch your awkward prepubescent body flailing about helplessly.
Then as you grow up, the world around you insists that your body is wrong, and that you should change it. That’s when, and why, I found exercise. Not because it looked like a fun or worthwhile way to use my time, but because I wanted to lose weight. To this day, how many of us turn to working out solely to “shed those extra pounds” or “lose those pesky love handles?” Socialisation takes away the joy there is to find in exercise, body-shaming us into submission.
The idea that we all need to lose weight is sexist, racist and damaging as it is, but add to that the fact that exercise can actually be counterproductive for weight loss, and you start to see how ludicrous it is that we think of working out as something that only serves to make us take up less space in the world. Not to mention that weight loss alone is often both insufficient and potentially harmful as a motivation to exercise, leading us either to give up or to overdo it.
The good news is that you can absolutely reclaim exercise as a joyful practice, and it’s easier than you think — here are some ways to do it.
1. Find a discipline (or two, or three) that works for you
Do you hate running? Are you allergic to weight lifting? Then don’t do it! The first step towards creating joy in exercise is to find the disciplines that you genuinely love and are excited to practise. This could look like the most extreme physical challenges (mountain-climbing, training for a triathlon, bungee-jumping) or the most gentle activities (restorative yoga, dancing around your room, a daily walk), and everything in between (hiking, spinning, HIIT, basketball, martial arts, pilates…). If you look closely enough, there’s truly something for everyone.
2. Try different exercise formats
Maybe it’s not specific activities that have put you off, but the environment they were practised in; perhaps you hate changing in the gym or playing competitively or exercising alone. Here too, the options are endless: you could take a workout class IRL or over Zoom, do a YouTube video or other home workout, hit the great outdoors, join a women-only gym or an amateur sports team, and each session could last 5 minutes or 5 hours (for hikes or professional training — please don’t overdo it!). There isn’t just one way to exercise.
READ ALSO: Are Women-Only Gyms the Way Forward?
3. Find your exercise community
If you find it hard to motivate yourself when you work out alone, or you’re simply looking to add to your social life, an exercise community can be your saving grace. Again, this doesn’t just look one way: your community could be a real one in a boxing gym or karate dojo or weekly zumba class, or it could be a virtual one on Zoom or Instagram or Reddit or LAPP. You could also drag your housemate or your grandma or your dog into doing that YouTube workout with you. Whatever works for you, you don’t have to go it alone.
4. Prioritise your mental and physical health beyond appearance
Exercise has so many incredible benefits that have nothing to do with weight loss. It would be a shame not to reap those benefits just because you’ve been taught that exercise equals punishment, because it doesn’t. On the contrary, it’s one of the most amazing forms of self-care. It has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood and sleep, and potentially prevent certain conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, among many other benefits. Plus, it’s just loads of fun when you take out the appearance factor and simply enjoy yourself.
5. Build a more inclusive idea of what a ‘fit’ body looks like
There’s a persistent (and false) idea that a fit female body has toned muscles, visible abs and a tiny waist. But a fit body can look a thousand different ways — try following body-inclusive fitness influencers like Jessamyn Stanley or Irene Pappas to help change your perspective. The sooner you can shift your fitness goals away from appearance-related superficial markers and understand that your body can be fit even with stretch marks and a soft belly, the sooner you’ll find the joy in exercising.
Written by Iris Goldsztajn