Exercising should not be a chore or a punishment—but rather, an expression of the love and gratitude we have for our bodies.
Do you work out because you love your body or because you loathe it? The sad truth is that for many of us the main motive for working out is the urgent, sometimes desperate, desire to whip our bodies into shape. Yet hard-won experience and the latest research show that the most effective way to get yourself out the door for a workout is to do it because it makes you feel good. Imagine what it would be like to think of your workout not as punishing and joyless, but as a way of having fun and expressing your love for yourself and your body.
In our book Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey and on our blog, Fit Is a Feminist Issue, we are all about exercising for joy. There is no question that humans respond better to carrots than sticks and this applies to fitness just as much as anything else. We know from experience that a singular focus on losing weight and looking a certain way isn’t a recipe for success—and we aren’t alone. The statistics about maintaining lost weight are extremely grim.
Author Dick Falon talks about the myth of willpower, the idea that if we want it badly enough and have enough willpower, we will be successful at achieving our weight loss and fitness goals.
Falon says the main reason for failure is that people don’t establish a positive feedback loop. This happens when the rewards of what you’re doing outweigh the pain. Willpower might get us started on a new program, but positive feedback in the form of rewards will keep us going. (A negative feedback loop, on the other hand, means the more we do something, the more resistance we create.)
While weight loss and bodily change can create a positive feedback loop, it is actually weak and hard to sustain. An even better approach is to feel the instant gratification that a workout has to offer. When I (Tracy) go out the door for a run, I feel light and enthusiastic, most of the time. By the time I’m hitting my stride, my energy level has increased even if it’s at the end of a long day. If it’s early morning, it sets me up for a good day. And what’s more, especially if I’m running with friends, it’s fun. You can’t get much more “instant” than that if you’re seeking a reward and you want it now.
Our top three tips for taking this new, self-nurturing approach to fitness are:
Choose things you enjoy. We’re all grown-ups. If we don’t want to eat our peas, we don’t have to eat our peas. The invocation to “do what you love” might challenge those of us who feel we have an aversion to exercise. Do something you enjoy, like dancing or yoga.
Make it about fitness and performance, not about looking a certain way. Focussing on weight loss, as anyone who ever has will tell you, is demoralizing and thankless. And it’s not the best indicator of health or fitness. Instead, if you are bike-commuting to work, you realize you’re getting there faster than you used to. That’s a performance gain worth celebrating. Or you’re adding more plates to the bar when you do your squats.
Join communities around the activities you enjoy. Running clubs, cycling groups, triathlon clubs, yoga studios—there’s a community of enthusiasts around every activity you can imagine. When you think of your activities as opportunities to get together with friends and like-minded people, it’s much easier to get out the door than if it’s a punishing thing you “have” to do.
If you haven’t tried working out because of the love you have for your body and yourself, give it a go. You never know what great things may happen next.
Tracy Isaacs, PhD (Associate Dean, academic, arts and humanities, Western University) and Samantha Brennan, PhD (Dean, College of Arts and University of Guelph) are co-authors of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (Greystone Books) and co-founders of the popular blog Fit Is a Feminist Issue.