How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Exercise That Lasts

Restoring your relationship with exercise can make movement more flexible, accessible, and enjoyable. Put these expert-approved tips into action to start healing your own.

Women Exercising Together
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Over the course of your lifetime, there's a good chance that exercise has consistently been pushed as a weight-loss tactic — and nothing more. Think about it: Your mom may have frequently said she needed to go on the elliptical and "burn off" all the calories she ate at breakfast. Or, your high school health teacher might have promoted running as a way to keep your "BMI" low.

And that ideology often sticks with you as you grow older, thanks to the influence of diet culture and societal fatphobia, says Barb Puzanovova, C.P.T., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, ACE-certified personal trainer in Nashville. "Even though that is true — exercise is a way for you to expend energy — I would say that's not a great reason to move your body," she says. "There's just so much more to gain from movement beyond burning calories."

The problem: Along with other factors, believing that burning calories — and potentially living in a smaller body — is the key benefit of movement can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with exercise. And ultimately, these approaches to physical activity can lead to serious impacts on your mental and physical health.

But healing your relationship with exercise is possible. Here, fitness experts break down the signs your relationship may not be as healthy as it could be and lay out the steps you can take to restore it.

What a Healthy Relationship with Exercise Looks Like

A healthy relationship with exercise is just like any healthy relationship you'd have with a friend or a partner: It's founded on compromise, flexibility, and communication, says Puzanovova. "Just like you listen to a partner, you listen to your body and respond to it," she explains. "It's sustainable, adaptable, and based on trust and respect." For example, when a major obstacle (say, the pandemic) affects your ability to follow through with your usual fitness routine, you're able to take a beat, check in with the state of your body and mind, re-evaluate your needs and goals, and adjust your program as necessary — without feeling anxious or panicky about it, says Puzanovova.

On the flip side, an unhealthy relationship with exercise may be strict and unaccommodating — you might struggle to take rest days, even when you're ill, injured, or too tired to function. Or, you might push yourself through strenuous exercises, even if a modification would better suit you, says Puzanovova. "You could be really tied to reaching a specific outcome and get really rigid with it, so if you have a day where you need to adjust or modify that routine, it's suddenly going to send you down a shame spiral," she adds. "And if you skip a workout, you feel really guilty about it."

Barb Puzanovova, C.P.T., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, ACE-certified personal trainer

A healthy relationship with exercise is sustainable, adaptable, and based on trust and respect.

— Barb Puzanovova, C.P.T., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, ACE-certified personal trainer

Similarly, you might have an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to your routine; either you power through all 60 minutes of circuit training without making any tweaks, or you don't exercise at all, adds Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., C.N.C., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, NASM-certified personal trainer in Texas. "A lot of people think that they need to be super disciplined to stick to a sustainable exercise practice," she says. "But in reality, what you need to do is listen to your body, especially when you're sick or tired — exercising would be counterproductive in that case." The opposite holds true as well: If you have a deep avoidance of exercise, and you feel anxious even thinking about doing some forms of movement, that's a sign your relationship with exercise could be improved, adds Puzanovova.

But your relationship with exercise doesn't exist in a vacuum. "Your relationship with food and with movement go hand-in-hand," says Rodriguez. "I think diet culture impacts our perception of exercise, and it's taught people to associate exercise with feelings of shame and guilt [through] body shaming and [creating] the pressure to shrink their bodies." That's why an unhealthy relationship with exercise may also be linked with obsessing over calories, both those you consume and those you burn during a workout, she says. And research backs up this connection: Folks with anorexia nervosa commonly engage in compulsive exercise (having extremely driven and inflexible exercise patterns, combined with an inability to stop exercising despite noticing its negative effects), according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

The Impacts of an Unhealthy Relationship with Exercise

In the short-term, a fraught relationship with exercise can stir up constant feelings of guilt (say, if you didn't have time to do a workout or you couldn't lift as heavy as you did a few days prior), says Rodriguez. Because of that all-or-nothing mindset, you may struggle to get in any form of movement if you're taking a break from your usual hardcore gym routine due to, say, work schedule changes or vacations. "It might feel really difficult to adjust to life's seasons," adds Puzanovova. And by constantly pushing yourself to your limit in the gym, you might feel too mentally and physically exhausted to engage in other activities in your life, such as social outings or everyday errands, says Rodriguez.

Over time, an inflexible approach to exercise, particularly if you're not taking enough rest days or scaling back your workouts as needed, can potentially lead to injury, says Rodriguez. Overtraining syndrome — a condition associated with a long-term imbalance between training and recovery — is also a possibility. "If you exercise too much for weeks or months at a time, you put your body at risk of overtraining syndrome," Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl, previously told Shape. "...If you continuously get in the way of your body rebuilding itself from the damage of the previous workout(s), [such as by skipping rest days], you take your body to a place of chronic stress." In turn, you might develop greater exercise-induced muscle damage, experience mood disturbances, and fatigue more quickly. Your performance might also take a hit, according to research published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

Ultimately, you may end up burnt out with movement altogether. "You might get to the point where you just never want to exercise again because of all the negative effects it has on your mind and body," adds Rodriguez. And cutting all movement from your routine can be just as harmful as going overboard; not getting enough physical activity is linked with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression, research shows.

How to Heal Your Relationship with Exercise

If you pick up on some signs that your relationship with exercise could be healed in some capacity, you may benefit from putting a few (or all) of these expert-approved tactics into action.

Reconsider Your Workout Goals

If you find yourself going down a shame spiral or notice that deciding whether or not to exercise is an intensely emotional experience, you may want to reconsider your goals, suggests Puzanovova. Rather than setting your sights on long-term outcomes (think: back squatting a 200-pound barbell, running a marathon), focus on short-term objectives, she says. Ask yourself: "What do I want to feel right at this moment, soon after this workout, or later today?" she recommends. Doing so may make your planned activity feel more approachable if you generally feel overwhelmed by exercise and less of a make-or-break experience if you usually push yourself to 110 percent.

"I also encourage [thinking about] some other short-term rewards and reasons [to exercise] — better mood, better sleep, seeing friends," says Puzanovova. "That sounds counterintuitive to creating a long-term, sustainable relationship with movement, but…you want to find reasons that connect with you emotionally and make you feel like, 'Okay, this is why I'm here right now, and I can feel the effects of it right here, right now.

That means you'll also have to choose a movement practice that aligns with your current goals. "A lot of times, people think they can't sustain an exercise practice because their willpower is too weak, but more often than not, it's because they're not connected to their 'why,' their values, and the things that matter most to them," says Rodriguez. "Being able to connect to your priorities and being okay with choosing activities that align — I think that's the most important thing for a healthy, sustainable relationship to exercise."

Carve Out Time to Slow Down

It's not easy to shake the engrained idea that rest is for the weak and you have to get the most out of every second of your workout. But taking small steps to slow down your movement practice is a good starting point, says Puzanovova. One day a week or during one moment of your next activity, try to intentionally slow down. For example, if you typically skip savasana at the end of your sweaty Vinyasa class, give it a shot during your next yoga practice and slowly increase the time you spend there with each session, she suggests. "I tend to recommend pushing your boundaries of how much rest is okay just a little bit, getting out of your own comfort zone, and saying, 'You know what, I'm going to add a little bit more slowness to my usual pace of moving,'" says Puzanovova.

Shift Your Perspective from Exercise to Movement, Then Add Joy

For some folks, the word "exercise" can have negative connotations, and it's easy to get caught up on what "counts" as exercise, says Puzanovova. Reframing exercise as movement, however, can make getting active feel more inclusive and accessible. "When you switch your words from exercise to movement, you might actually expand your definition of what 'counts,'" she explains. "All of a sudden, you might understand and see that, 'I can actually move more throughout the day without having to do an hour-long, really intense workout that doesn't fit in with my life or my energy levels.'"<< Consider this: If you don't consider yourself to be artistic, doodling a heart is going to feel much more approachable and enjoyable than attempting to paint one of Picasso's masterpieces, adds Puzanovova.

Even if you flip your mindset, movement may feel only tolerable for you — and that's okay. In this case, explore ways to add joy to your activity of choice, says Puzanovova. While going for a walk, for instance, you might listen to your favorite podcast, bring your dog or a friend along, or hit up a coffee shop along the way, she says. "It gets rid of the pressure that movement itself has to be some incredible, rainbow-and-sparkles kind of activity."

Use the 5-Minute Guide

When you're not sure if your body and mind are up for your scheduled workout, ask yourself, "What would five minutes of movement feel like?" suggests Puzanovova. If that sounds doable, ease into your activity of choice for five minutes. When that time period is up, check in with yourself: How do your body and muscles feel? What thoughts are going through your head? Then, ask yourself if you want to continue to move or stop there. "I call that earning your yes," she says. "It's a way to start introducing some consent questions with our own body and to honor your body."

Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., C.N.C., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, NASM-certified personal trainer

You get to choose who shows up on your feed and who you listen to, so find your niche that has values that align with the perpsecvtive you want to create about movement.

— Veronica Rodriguez, C.P.T., C.N.C., a non-diet, HAES-aligned, NASM-certified personal trainer

Align Yourself with Supportive Communities

To start ditching the diet culture narrative and reframing exercise as a self-care practice, rather than a weight-loss tactic, switch up your social media feed. "You get to choose who shows up on your feed and who you listen to," says Rodriguez. "So find your niche [online] that has values that align with the perspective you want to create about movement." For example, you might search for non-diet, body-neutral, body-positive, or Health at Every Size communities on Instagram to learn from others who are working to heal their relationships with exercise, she says. Just as importantly, unfollow the folks who aren't serving you on your journey and are hindering your progress, she adds. After all, exposure to "fitspiration" images that depict "thin yet toned or muscular" female bodies is linked with greater body dissatisfaction and compulsive exercising among women, research shows.

Don't Be Afraid to Work with a Professional

There's no shame in chatting with a mental health professional to come up with a game plan to heal your relationship with exercise. If you notice yourself consistently passing on rest days to tackle grueling workouts, you're frequently skipping social situations to prioritize your workouts, or you have a deep avoidance of exercise in general, you may want to consider working with an expert, says Puzanovova. "I really like to recommend that people also work with a counselor who is trauma- or pain-informed to address the underlying factors [at play]," adds Rodriguez. "So not just looking at your body, but also your psychology and your social life and how those affect your relationship with movement."

Even if you believe your approach to exercise is healthy enough, working with a non-diet, HAES-aligned, and/or trauma-informed personal trainer can do you some good. "There's this perception that fitness professionals just help you lose weight and that's it," says Rodriguez. "But a great fitness professional can help you improve your relationship with movement."

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