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August 25, 2015

When It Comes to Exercise, Focus on Health

When It Comes to Exercise, Focus on Health

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

By Dana Rademacher, intern at The Emily Program

We all know exercise is an important aspect of our overall health and well-being. One thing I love about exercise is that there are an infinite amount of types and styles, so everyone can find an activity that meets their lifestyle and needs. With swimming, walking, yoga, running, dancing, basketball, tennis, and everything in between, there is just about something for everyone. However, it can sometimes be hard to find the right motivations and to have the right mindset behind exercising.

From various media and our weight-obsessed world, one would assume that exercising solely to lose weight or to achieve a certain look is why most of us work out. However, viewing exercise this way can be harmful. It implies our looks or our weight are the most important part of our life and being, not our overall health. There are plenty of other reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with weight, like improving your mood or helping you get better sleep, and these should be the focus; not weight loss or a perfectly toned body.

I know it can be hard to reimagine how you think of exercise and I have definitely struggled with it before. It all started when I noticed I gained some weight after my time spent abroad. That is when I began telling myself I needed to start exercising again. I began noticing parts of my body that I wanted to improve. I wanted the body that I used to have…which really meant that I was dissatisfied with who I was in the present, and all for gaining a few pounds.

I started working out more. I started running, which isn’t my favorite, but I thought I was making a positive change for my body. However, it actually turned out to do more harm than good. I wasn’t doing the physical activities I enjoyed. This in turn led me to despise exercise. I would dread it. Then, since I didn’t enjoy my workouts, I was never excited for them and it put me in a bad mood every time. Instead of feeling relaxed and rejuvenated from exercising, I was more stressed out and it took a while for me to realize I was not doing my body any favors by working out just to lose weight.

I slowly realized that first and foremost, I needed to exercise in a way that I and my body thoroughly enjoyed. Actually, what helped me most to focus on overall health and exercise was a yoga class. It was the first yoga session I had attended in over a year and half and to say the least, I was nervous. What if I didn’t know all the poses? What if I am the worst in the class? What if I fall over and smack my head on the mat?

As it turns out, none of my worries became reality and it was the most positive experience I had in a while. The class and instructor were incredibly body positive and motivating. She often reminded us to care for and love our bodies, not overwork them. It was also a very diverse class, filled with men and women, beginners and advanced yogis, all different body types, so I felt more at ease. It was comforting to find a workout space that no matter your experience level or background, you could join right into the exercise and feel comfortable doing so.

I sweat like I had never before in any workout, but at the end when I was relaxing in the final pose, Shavasana, I didn’t even care about that; I was just incredibly proud of my body. I remember thinking at that moment, “Wow, my body is so strong for completing that class, that’s awesome!” Before that class, I really underestimated all my body could do, and I mostly concentrated on what I wanted to change about it. This class helped me see that we can be strong and healthy at any size and that we are not solely defined by how our bodies look; your mind and your entire body’s health is more significant. It also helped me see the importance of enjoying exercise and finding practices that are life-giving to you. Through yoga, working out is less of a chore and is now genuinely an activity I love to do.

It can be easy to pick ourselves apart, but we should always strive to exercise for all the amazing, positive overall health benefits it provides, not just for what it may do for our outward appearance. I’ve actually found through yoga and not fixating on weight loss exercise, I actually have a better body image. To further help with this, I wrote a list of reasons why exercise is valuable for me and why I enjoy it. It helped me set my priorities straight and these continue to be daily reminders to be more body-loving and positive:

I want to practice yoga so I can be more flexible and take time out of my day to relax.

I want to lift weights so my arms and legs are strong and can carry me through my days.

I want to exercise because I know it eases my anxiety and helps me sleep better at night.

I want to exercise for me and my health….not for my outward appearance.

Why do you exercise and what kinds of exercises are life-giving for you? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

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