The Power of Reframing ‘Exercise’ As ‘Movement’

Moving your body doesn’t have to be intimidating or exhausting — and this perspective shift can boost your motivation.

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Thanks to gym advertisements and viral fitness influencers, your mental image of “exercise” might involve huffing and puffing while lifting bulky weights or dripping sweat all over the spin bike seat. In turn, you might think any physical activities that aren’t as back-breaking — a walk through the park, an hour spent weeding the garden — simply don’t “count.” And if that’s the case, what’s the point, right? It’s hard to feel motivated to exercise when that means something long and exhausting — which you may also not have the time or energy to tackle. 

Essentially, this all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to physical activity isn’t doing you any favors. One potential solution to this unhelpful outlook on exercise? Reframing “exercise” as “movement.” Instead of setting a daily goal to “exercise for 30 minutes straight” or “crush a high-intensity workout,” for example, you might aim to simply “get in some movement,” whether it be with a stroll around the block, a few gentle stretches, or a swim. Though simple, this tweak to your internal dialogue can make fitness much more approachable and enjoyable.  

To be clear, those demanding workouts can be beneficial for your health, and there’s nothing wrong with including a healthy challenge in your routine if that feels satisfying to you. But everyday, low-stakes activities — such as mowing the lawn, biking to the local coffee shop, and walking your dog — can also help you meet the physical activity recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and shouldn’t be disregarded. Ahead, experts break down how shifting your focus away from “grueling exercise” and toward “joyful movement” can have significant positive effects on your mental health and motivation.

How Focusing On ‘Movement’ Can Keep You Motivated

The common belief that exercise has to look a certain way or involve a specific level of exertion isn’t surprising, says Denise Cervantes, C.P.T., an ACE- and NASM-certified personal trainer with Herbalife Nutrition. Some experts in the fitness industry — as well as peers — may shame folks who aren’t as experienced with working out or are opting for less-intense movements — which can make those individuals feel excluded and uncomfortable in gyms, she explains. And these sentiments can then slash those folks’ motivation to show up to fitness spaces altogether. “People need to feel accepted and included, especially in something that involves their bodies and doing movement for their fitness,” adds Cervantes.

Reframing “exercise” as “movement” is one way fitness as a whole can be made less discouraging and more welcoming and inclusive. In fact, embracing the idea that “all movement is good movement” can actually encourage you to be more physically active, according to a 2018 review published in Current Problems in Cardiology. Here are specific ways this perspective shift can keep you motivated.

Increases Confidence

When you can’t meet the high expectations of the traditional fitness industry (think: running for an hour, doing 20 push-ups on your first attempt), you may feel embarrassed or inadequate. But when you realize movement doesn’t have to be that intensive, physical activity feels less threatening, according to Tony Kemmochi, Psy.D., a licensed sports psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City. “When you feel you’re capable of completing a task, you feel more motivated to do it,” he says. And research backs this up: Having confidence in your abilities may enhance motivation, and, more specifically, is positively linked with intrinsic motivation (aka the drive to accomplish something for internal satisfaction, not external rewards).

Becomes Less Time- and Energy-Consuming

Realizing movement doesn’t have to be a totally exhausting affair can also help you realize how much you’re already moving — and how easily you can add more movement into your day. “When you use a general term like ‘movement’, you can start to broaden your horizon about what movement is and can look like for you,” says Barb Puzanovova, C.P.T., a non-diet, Health At Every Size-aligned, ACE-certified personal trainer in Nashville. “Movement becomes more approachable, a part of your life rather than a separate item on a to-do list.” For example, playing catch with your puppy in the backyard for half an hour may feel much more approachable and achievable than, say, tackling a sweaty 30-minute cycling class between work and dinner.   

Makes Fitness Enjoyable, Not Punishing

Not only can “movement” feel more feasible than straight-up “exercise,” but it can also feel more enjoyable, particularly if you’ve had negative experiences in fitness spaces and believe “exercise = punishment.” “By reframing ‘exercise’ as ‘movement,’ you begin to unlearn the negative association with moving and start to train your brain to see movement as something positive,” says Sharon Ryan, a licensed associate counselor with Thriveworks Counseling who specializes in self-esteem, disordered eating, and anxiety. Over time, prioritizing activities such as playing kickball in a rec league, dancing around the kitchen while cooking dinner, or rollerskating through town with your friends can all help you create a positive connection with physical activity, and in turn, may keep you motivated. 

Some people may benefit from this mindset shift more than others. For instance, if you find the word “exercise” triggering — maybe you’ve exercised obsessively in the past or someone has encouraged you to exercise while shaming you about your weight — focusing on the word “movement” may be more helpful, says Kemmochi.

How to Reframe ‘Exercise’ As Movement

Realizing that movement doesn’t have to be intense, grueling, or painful will likely take some time and effort, so be patient. Thankfully, though, “there are so many ways to reframe exercise as movement,” says Ryan. “The most important thing to do is choose an activity you love to do.” From there, try to put the following tips into action to start making that mental switch. Just know that you may benefit from working alongside a HAES-aligned trainer or therapist if you’ve struggled with an addiction to exercise, have a health condition, or don’t know where to start, according to the experts.

Remember Movement Is About Feeling Good, Not Being Good

Unlike what diet culture may have you believing, movement isn’t something you “have to do” to “be good,” morally speaking. Movement — or exercise, whatever you like to call it — is about making you feel physically stronger and mentally happier, all in a way that feels right for you. In fact, simply getting your blood flowing can provide some health benefits, says Cervantes. “That blood flow not only feels great, but it helps your brain function better, to think a little more clearly and be more efficient in your workday.” And she’s not mistaken: A 2020 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that aerobic exercise boosts blood flow to the brain and can help improve memory function. 

Try ‘The Movement Rainbow’

Practicing an activity Puzanovova calls “the movement rainbow” can also help you switch your mindset and help you find activities that feel doable — not daunting. Here’s how it works: Write examples of “all-out” movements (think: running three miles, powerlifting) on one side of a page, then what “doing nothing” (think: lounging on the couch) looks like on the other side, says Puzanovova. Then, think about one to three simple activities you can do that fall somewhere in between those two intensities, she suggests. “Maybe that [list] looks like: Take a 45-minute class, go for a 30-minute walk, stretch for 10 minutes,” she says. 

This activity can help you find basic types of movement that are more accessible and adaptable for your physical and mental state. And, as a result, it may make you more likely to keep those activities in your routine. Research backs up this idea too: It’s easier to make healthy habits, well, habitual when the actions are simple, according to a 2012 study published in the British Journal of General Practice. In other words, you’re not “going easy” on yourself by choosing straightforward activities (such as gardening, walking, dancing) rather than highly complex workouts.

Forget the Numbers and Focus On the Experience

In some fitness spaces, you’ll see an emphasis on numbers and outcomes: minutes jogged, calories burned, reps completed. Kemmochi says that’s the problem: That emphasis may cause you to think you have to be perfect and successful in every single endeavor — which takes out any pleasure and motivation you might otherwise feel. “Focusing on outcomes often leads to a judgmental and conditional mindset ([think]‘I didn’t meet my goal, so I failed or it doesn’t count’),” he adds.

And that mindset simply isn’t helpful, as it conditions you to view the experience as means to an end rather than something meaningful, says Kemmochi. “It’s difficult to stay motivated to engage in an activity if you lose joy in the activity itself,” he says. Plus, if you focus too heavily on outcomes (a factor that may not be in your control), you’re more likely to feel disappointed, burned out, and stressed — all of which can contribute to depression and anxiety, he notes. On the flip side, if you’re not concerned with how many calories you burned, for example, you’re able to better choose activities that fulfill you. You can choose any type of movement, not just the workout machines that tell you how many calories you’re burning.

Journaling after a workout or physical activity can help some folks be more intentional about focusing on the pleasure they got from the experience, says Kemmochi. He suggests writing about how you felt and any positive changes in your thought patterns. For example, did you worry less about how you looked during this Zumba class than last week’s?

That’s not to say you have to completely let go of your fitness goals — just be mindful of your intentions, which may change each day, recommends Kemmochi. “The key is to make sure that these performance measures won’t turn into ‘the purpose,’” he says. That’s when movement becomes less enjoyable, less motivating, and more stressful, he explains. 

The Takeaway

Reframing ‘exercise’ as ‘movement’ can help you realize it doesn’t have to be intense or long-lasting to “count.” Whether you stretched, walked your dog, or attended a dance class, you moved your body. That’s great! Don’t downplay that. Instead, focus on doing what you can and having fun so movement can become an enjoyable, sustainable, healthy part of your life.

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