Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
As I lay on the green turf lining the edge of my local gym, gasping for breath after a grueling workout of plate pushes, moving burpees, and countless push-ups, my trainer shook something yellow and jiggly in my face.
“Look at this!” she shouted. “This is why you’re here!”
The yellow jiggly thing was a model of a pound of fat. Looking at it, I shook my head no, feeling a flash of frustration rise up in the midst of my exhaustion.
“No,” I said. “That’s not why I work out.”
Because the truth is, it’s not. Fat, in the form of a scaled replica or the extra pounds firmly wedged onto my frame after four kids, is the least of my motivation. I exercise for many different reasons. I work out because I enjoy it. I work out because it makes me feel strong even on days when I want to do nothing but sleep. I work out because it gave me purpose after my miscarriage. And I work out because it’s the one hour every day that I don’t have to think about anyone but myself.
But exercising as a way to destroy fat? Nah. For me, exercise is a mental health practice. I hate that we almost entirely frame working out as a way to mold our physical selves when it’s really about so much more than that. An “ideal” body without inner health means nothing. Mental health can be found within the freedom of exercise — no matter what you look like.
Is exercise important for your physical health? Of course. And I have high hopes that the slow miles I’ve slogged through, the many box jumps I’ve almost met my maker on, and the countless sweaty sessions I’ve logged trying to get out of my sweaty sports bra have all had some sort of positive impact on my internal ductwork. But physical beauty has been the focus of exercise for far too long. I mean, just think of all the ways we advertise exercise:
Blast away that fat!
Lose that baby weight!
Trim your tummy!
Banish those extra pounds!
Say goodbye to the jiggle!
What if we changed the primary rhetoric about exercise? What if instead of advertising fitness as something we do to look good, we changed it to something we do to feel good?
Blast away at that depression!
Lose that anxiety!
Trim your negative self-talk!
Banish that low self-confidence!
Say goodbye to that bad mood!
I know many of us are aware that exercise is good for our mental health, but I don’t think many of us incorporate exercise into our lives primarily as a mental health practice. Many of us don’t know that exercise can help manage chronic pain, that it’s an effective anti-depressant, that it reduces stress, anxiety, and mental fatigue, and that it boosts self-confidence.
In the past, I never took my mental health into account when exercising. Instead, I focused on fitness as a way to avoid getting “fat,” or prevent my body from committing the ultimate sin of being too much in a world that demands women disappear. I started running when I was 13 because I thought I was overweight. I’ve used exercise all through adulthood as a way to try to make my body behave. It wasn’t until after my fourth baby, when my extra rolls insisted on staying firmly wedged onto my stomach no matter how many miles I ran, that I started to look at exercise differently.
I started weightlifting, learning how to squat and deadlift from my much younger (and more fit) sister. I learned to love the feel of a barbell in my hands and how the depression and anxiety I’ve battled my whole life seemed to seep out into the metal, tamed for a moment with every squat I took. I grew to look forward to exercise as my only escape from life as a work-at-home mom of four young kids.
I quickly learned that no matter what was happening in my day, how foul of a mood I was in, or how stressed I was before, one workout would be the single most effective way to change that. Slowly, my perspective on exercise changed from being something I did to try to control body to something that I did to benefit my mind.
I don’t work out because I’m on some elusive quest for six-pack abs. I don’t even work out to try to find my abs hidden under loose skin and stretch marks. I work out for my mental health, knowing exercise has saved me in countless ways.
When we frame exercise in the form of what it can do to change our bodies, we are missing the mark in so many ways — from mistakenly equating appearance with health to overlooking the myriad of medical conditions that can affect weight.
For me, working out is no longer about looks. I happen to know that exercise is the single best way to manage my depression and my anxiety, whether it changes my body or not. No amount of fat-shaming will change that for me.
I may not be able to burpee my way to a “better” bod, but I sure as heck can burpee my way to a better mind. And in the end, that’s the most important thing.