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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.