For women, striking a mentally and physically healthy balance between body positivity and fitness is tough. The body positivity movement tells us we should love our bodies, no matter what shape or size we are - TRUE. The fitness industry tells us we should exercise and take care of our bodies and lose weight if we're overweight, or gain weight if we're underweight - ALSO TRUE. The question is, "Can I both love my body and want to push it to be better?"
My short answer is, "YES!" However, it's easier said than done.
Addressing the Extremists
Typical to any cultural movement, body positivity and pursuing fitness have two extreme sides. I would like to address the extremists below:
- Body Positivity: It's okay to be overweight/obese or underweight because you should love the skin you're in. Yes, staying thankful for a body that is alive and moving is good. However, remaining ignorant or dismissive about the health effects of being overweight/obese or underweight is not good. Being overweigh/obese comes with a laundry list of health problems, including increased risk for all causes of death, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and the list goes on (read the full CDC report here). Being underweight also brings about health problems, including decreased immune function and decreased fertility (read more here). People who ignore the health risks of being overweight/obese or underweight and continue to make unhealthy life choices are not loving their bodies as the body positivity movement encourages women to do - they're weakening and destroying them.
- Fitness Industry: Truly fit people have rippling muscles, six-packs, run marathons really fast or look a specific way and you must pursue those things to ever be happy or be considered "fit." Having fitness goals are super important in order to remain motivated and continue a lifetime of healthy living. Plus, exercising regularly makes you want to exercise more because you feel so good. However, fitness can quickly turn into an obsession. Whether you're a bodybuilder, a runner or any type of athlete, fitness can become unhealthy when it's obsessive or becomes a pursuit of vanity, rather than health. Often, athletes will develop eating disorders or resort to taking steroids during their unhealthy pursuit of perfection. Here are two helpful articles from Greatist and CNN to help determine whether your pursuit of fitness is unhealthy.
6 Ways to Balance Body Positivity and Fitness
Now that we've addressed the extreme views on each side, I'll share some tips about how to balance body positivity with fitness:
- View fitness as stewardship. By definition, stewardship is "the job of supervising or taking care of something." There are so many health benefits of regular exercise, including weight management, improved mental health, decreased risk of disease and so much more (check out the CDC's list here). By making fitness about stewardship - taking care of your body because you love it and are thankful for it - and not about looking a certain way or weighing a certain amount, fitness becomes a sustainable lifestyle versus the means to an end (e.g. being thin or ripped).
Also, if stewardship and body love are your primary motivation for fitness, you're less likely to do unhealthy things like starve yourself or take weird supplements to reach weight-loss or muscle-gaining goals. I personally love exercise because of the mental health benefits - I'm better equipped to handle stress, sadness and anger. I'm also able to push myself to develop mental endurance from running all the miles.
- Set healthy and realistic milestone goals. Having fitness goals is a good thing. Fitness goals provide purpose and focus for workouts, and increase our motivation to remain faithful to our fitness plans on days we just don't feel like working out (I'm looking at you, half-marathon training). However, it's important to set healthy and realistic milestone goals. Make your goals about strength and how you feel, not about how you look, because being strong feels better than being "skinny." If you have big goals, don't let the size of them overwhelm you and break them into smaller milestone goals. For example, break your larger goal of losing 50 or 100 lbs into smaller goals, like going to the gym four days per week for 3-6 months, cooking 80% of your meals at home, being able to run a mile, cutting out sodas/sweets/processed food or losing weight in 10 lbs increments.
Some personal goals I have right now include running a sub-2:00 half-marathon and being able to do pull-ups. I also have a goal of reducing my body fat percentage so that I can run faster and eventually reach a sub-1:45 half-marathon time, but I know that will happen as I eat healthier and pursue my other two goals.
- Celebrate your body. As you work toward your fitness goals, make sure to take time to celebrate and focus on what your body can do versus what it can't. If you ran for five minutes straight for the first time, but have a goal of running 20 minutes without stopping, still take time to celebrate your legs and lungs that were strong enough to run longer than you ever had before! Or if you're pursuing a weight lifting or sport-related goal, celebrate every inch closer you get to reaching your goal, and celebrate your healthy and strong body frequently. Our bodies are amazing and instead of criticizing them all of the time, we should celebrate the things they can do. For example, I'm out of running shape right now and am running slower miles than I have in past years. Sometimes I get frustrated, but I try to celebrate my strong legs and lungs more often than I criticize myself for "being slow." I also know that conditioning and running faster takes time and effort, so I just need to enjoy (or at least get through) the tough miles.
- Make exercise fun. Pursuing fitness goals can be a grind - ask anyone training for a race or a bodybuilding competition. Watching what you eat and working out hard 5-7 days per week requires A LOT of mental discipline, so if you ever see someone with an 8-pack or who runs freaky fast, applaud them because getting to that level is not easy. However, it's important to take time to have FUN when you're working toward a fitness goal and to enjoy your body. If you're training for a race, take a day or two to cross-train and go to a dance class or yoga class, go for a swim, ride your bike all over God's green Earth or set up an obstacle course to complete.
One of my favorite things to do right now is to go to hot vinyasa yoga at my gym when Melissa is teaching. I love Melissa's class because she plays hip-hop, folk, indie and rock music, and encourages her class to dance in all of our sweaty glory while we're working through our flow. She also encourages us not to get caught up in the specifics of the flow she taught us and to listen to what our bodies need. It's a fun class that promotes body love and it's one of my favorite things to do during the week.
- Be mindful of your relationship with food. A lot of us have weird or toxic relationships with food. Many of us are emotional eaters (e.g. we eat when we're bored, stressed, sad, etc.). A lot of us use food as a reward or punishment for exercising or not exercising, which means eating stresses us out or makes us feel guilty. Our distorted relationships with food are fueled by a variety of factors, including culture, lifestyle, upbringing, ability and/or desire to cook our own food, addictions (hello, have you heard about America's sugar addiction?) and obsessive weight loss goals (read more about one writer's obsession with weight loss here). It's important to be aware of our relationship with food so we can turn it into a healthy relationship versus a toxic one if needed, which helps us stay thankful for our bodies in moments when we eat a donut or two.
I try to view food as fuel for my body, which means I make a point to eat whole foods, drink less alcohol, drink more water, cook more and limit sweet or processed treats to only one or two times per week. Sometimes, I go through phases where I eat like a complete sugar-addicted barbarian, but I'm trying to minimize those days and weeks, especially while training for my half marathon. I'm also trying to minimize my "food guilt" when I eat things that aren't very good for me. I would recommend speaking with a dietician about your weight loss or fitness goals to get a personalized plan for eating that will help you reach your goals.
- Do it for you. Ultimately, you need to make a commitment to fitness because you love your body and want the best for it. You have to do it for you and not anyone else, because it's your body and you are the one who gets to live in it.