There are multiple layers of the human experience, and it's wise for us to learn about and care for each one. The arena of physical fitness can be difficult for a number of reasons. It makes sense that we can have trouble with it when we consider the many unhelpful cultural narratives underlying our experience with our bodies.
Even despite widespread efforts to change attitudes around physical appearance, it remains a central piece of how we gauge our value--our worthiness, lovability, and success. It doesn't help that the standard often presented for seeing oneself as "fit" is rarely realistic.
But it is a mistake to neglect a vital area of self-care just because we must also work around the bad stories we've picked up about it--and those that continue to be slung our way.
In fact, keeping the discipline of physical exercise in your rotation has mental health benefits as well. A few of these are outlined in a recent Psychology Today article by Dr. Ron Friedman:
"Consider the following cognitive benefits, all of which you can expect as a result of incorporating regular exercise into your routine:
Prolonged mental stamina
Exercise has also been shown to elevate mood..."
Taking care of our bodies is essential, but that doesn't change how difficult it can be when our bodies hold painful (and false) stories about who we are.
If you struggle with engaging with physical self care, the answer lies in changing your mind.
Take the Religion Out of It
Ever notice that, in a mostly secularized culture the one place we still routinely use language about "sin" and "guilt" is around fitness and dieting? We transgress when we indulge in pizza or ice cream or a lazy evening on the couch, and must atone with bland health food or increased exercise.
But positive changes made from a place of punishment have the shortest shelf-life. If you are wanting to make running in the morning or cooking with fresh ingredients part of your routine, it's exponentially harder when you are telling yourself that it's because you deserve to suffer.
This makes you focus on the aspects of the activity that are unpleasant, and more importantly is done in agreement with the idea that we are unlovable or not worthy until we have achieved whatever goal we've set in our minds.
You'll get exhausted fast.
So focus on what you want from this, and learn to see it as a gift to yourself. Name the benefits you hope to reap and decide you're working for them because you deserve to enjoy them.
Listen to Your Narrator
How do you talk to yourself when you're struggling to get motivated for a workout? What's going through your mind as you eat that kale salad--or that bowl of pasta?
Some people insist that self-shaming is an effective means of motivation. But even if it works sometimes, you are still left with a hateful, critical voice harassing you through the day. You're not going to enjoy anything you achieve with that going on in the background. And worse, you could end up projecting it at others.
So if you're struggling with a voice that calls you names and rips you to shreds when you opt for the pasta or pizza, instead of letting it bring you down and hoping that it'll spark change, try talking back like someone who loves and supports you no matter what. (This feels weird and takes practice because we have done the opposite for so long).
It may seem counterintuitive, but oftentimes taking the weight of guilt and shame out of a decision actually empowers us far more than the religious mindset was ever going to.
And whatever love, whatever approval, whatever permission to enjoy life you're withholding from yourself until you achieve that goal--dare to believe you deserve it now.
Mike Ensley is a counselor and the owner of Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, CO.