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5 Things That Helped Me Finally Separate Exercise From Weight Loss

olivia muenter
@oliviamuenter

I’ve never categorized myself as someone who counts fitness as one of their hobbies. Still, I’ve spent most of my life being regularly active in one way or another. Growing up, I played sports year-round—rarely did a season go by that I wasn’t enrolled in a basketball camp or team activity. In college, I would stay up all night (as most college students do) only to go to the gym at 5 a.m. and walk on the StairMaster for hours, feeling guilty for everything I had consumed the night before. I would later go through other exercise obsessions—a spontaneous decision to train for a half-marathon, a SoulCycle phase, an obsession with walking 10,000 steps a day. Still, through it all, I never considered myself someone who enjoyed exercise or craved it. Instead, I thought I needed it. It was a necessary counterpart to eating and to existing in my body, a body that I never felt was quite good enough. 

I can remember people saying, “Oh, so you’re a runner?” and feeling confused. I was training for a half-marathon and running five or 10 miles a day, but the question baffled me. “Me? A runner? No, not at all,” I would say, laughing. In fact, I wasn’t even quite sure if I enjoyed the running itself. I simply thought in order to eat anything, I had to also be burning it off. I had to be on some sort of fitness journey in order to exist. I believed then that if I ate “too much,” then exercise was what had to follow. Fitness, in any form, wasn’t something I enjoyed or found energizing (although I probably would have said that then), it was a consequence, a necessary form of punishment. After years of this body-hating mindset, though, I slowly rebuilt my relationship with food—and eventually, with exercise, too. And though it did take years, I finally enjoy exercise regularly in a way that has nothing to do with weight loss. Here’s what helped me get here. 

01 of 05

I Stopped Weighing Myself and Counting Calories

For many years, I weighed myself every single morning. I was religious about doing it in a certain way—always just after waking up, always totally naked as to make sure I wasn’t adding a single extra ounce. I would record the numbers on my phone and watch as they went up and down and stayed the same, as everyone’s daily weight does. When the number was low, I felt elated. When the number was slightly higher, my whole day was ruined. And as much as I focused on these numbers, I also focused on calories. I was obsessed with zero-calorie foods and artificial sweeteners. Obsessed with burning more calories than I was eating—always maintaining a deficit. And it was exhausting. Not only was it time-consuming and toxic, though, it also negated any enjoyable aspects of exercise.

Even if I had a workout where I felt amazing, that feeling would be negated as soon as I saw the scale go up or when I realized I hadn’t burned quite enough calories. When I stopped focusing on all these numbers, I was able to actually enjoy exercise for how it made me feel—not how many calories or burned.

02 of 05

I Focused on Strength

Similarly, once I stopped being obsessed with numbers, I found that I was open to a ton of different types of exercise. I tried out pilates and yoga (turns out I like the former a bit more) and didn’t worry about whether or not either was burning enough calories, or that muscle weighs more than fat. Instead of being obsessed with a number on the scale, I started enjoying seeing more muscle definition and strength in my arms and legs. Running was no longer a way to burn as many calories as possible, but an opportunity to feel my legs become stronger over time.

03 of 05

I Got Rid of Ultimatums and All-Or-Nothing Thinking

For many years, exercise was a weight-loss mission for me—not a hobby or an enjoyable activity. This mindset meant when I didn’t hit certain goals (how often to work out, how many hours to workout, how many miles to run per week, etc.), then I felt like I had failed. When I skipped workouts or took breaks, I felt ashamed I didn’t have enough willpower to do more. When I only worked out for two days a week instead of seven, I thought I was lazy. Now, I listen to my body. And though I try to workout four days a week, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. And that’s OK. Sometimes it’s more than four days a week. Whatever my week looks like, though, I’m flexible and give myself grace (and, importantly, rest). Because of that, exercise is no longer an all-or-nothing activity for me but one that I do when I want to, because I actually enjoy it.

04 of 05

I Started to Prioritize Mental Health Above All

At the beginning of 2020, I told myself that I would prioritize working out because it makes me feel my best. No other ultimatums, no other goals, no other results in mind. I simply told myself that making out makes me feel better mentally, and that I should try to do it more often. It was as simple as that. It wasn’t attached to weight loss goal or a certain number, but simply the fact that my anxiety was less when I worked out. Turns out, this made a huge difference in getting me to actual work out. I started to believe that completing a workout and feeling mentally great afterwards was enough—even if I hadn’t lost two pounds or run 10 miles or done 100 squats.

05 of 05

I Don’t Restrict Food

For most of my life, exercise was completely intertwined with food. If I had fast food, I needed to take a 6 a.m. spin class. If I ate more bread than I normally did, I had to run five miles. It also worked the other way. If I wanted to go out to an indulgent dinner, then I needed to prepare for that by exercise for a certain amount of time. Now, I don’t diet and I don’t restrict food. Because of this, I no longer obsess over how long I workout or what type of workout I’m doing. I no longer think about calorie burn or time spent on an elliptical. I simply eat what I want when I’m hungry and that’s it. Turns out, exercising is a lot more enjoyable when you’re not using it as a way to shame yourself for eating pizza. 

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