Sunday, 19 June 2016

5 Tips for Body Positive Fitness

I don't talk much about fitness on Instagram. I don't take gym selfies (mainly because I don't go to the gym), I don't post screenshots of my workout stats or pictures of my salad. The reason for this is that I never want to be the source for someone else's negative comparison. I never want to encourage the idea that being physically fit makes you morally superior, or that eating avocado makes you a better person, even though I really do love avocado. People's relationships with food and exercise are damn complicated, and I never want anyone who follows me to feel pressured, damaged, unworthy or generally bad about themselves for not being a paradigm of physical fitness. Because when it comes to body positivity, physical fitness is largely irrelevant anyway.

I know, I know, there are countless body positive advocates out there who preach the exact opposite. How true body positivity is about self improvement and 'taking care' of your body. I get hundreds of comments along the lines of:

"If you really loved your body then you would exercise and stop eating junk food, instead of promoting unhealthy lifestyles."
"As long as you're healthy it's fine."

But guess what? How many miles you can run doesn't determine whether you're worthy of self love. The number of vegetables on your plate don't dictate whether or not you should hate your body. Nobody should hate their body, regardless of health and fitness. True body positivity isn't about creating yet another exclusionary standard that judges people's value based on how their body looks or performs physically. We all get to go to the bopo party, workout gear not required.

Before we dive into the sweaty, lycra clad essence of this post, it's important to make a few things very clear:

  • Fitness in not in any way a requirement for being body positive.
  • People who live with disabilities or chronic illness and are unable to exercise are still worthy of self love.
  • People who have struggled/are struggling with eating disorders and exercise addiction, who don't workout in order to protect their mental health are still worthy of self love. 
  • People who don't have access to fitness equipment, educational resources about exercise, or simply can't afford to prioritise a healthy lifestyle, are still worthy of self love.
  • People who lead sedentary lifestyles by choice or necessity are still worthy of self love.
And those are just a few ways that people's relationships with food and exercise are damn complicated, and not ours to judge. If we have conversations about body positive fitness without recognising their circumstances as valid first, then we risk being ableist, classist, triggering and insensitive. So for those of you who recognise yourself in one or more of the circumstances above, let me just say it again for you loud and clear - you are still worthy of self love.

The reason I wanted to write this post is because several people have asked me how body positivity and healthy lifestyles can co-exist. Does working out make you a bopo traitor? Is it okay to have fitness goals without it being about weight loss or #bodygoals? How can you exercise without self hatred creeping back in? And as someone who struggled with serious exercise addiction and has now found a happy relationship with movement, I wanted to share a bit about how I got there. So these are tips for those of us who are able and want to pursue fitness in a positive way, without judgement or fear of falling back into the diet industry trap.

1) Fuck fitspo

The fitness world has a seriously heavy focus on appearance (obvious statement number 1). In recent years more than ever, this obsession with using exercise to obtain the 'perfect' body has created a culture of fitsperation that we can't escape from. We've been completely brainwashed into believing that being physically fit has to come with thigh gaps and washboard abs and glutes of steel. We've forgotten the simple truth that fit bodies come in all shapes and sizes. This is bad (obvious statement number 2). But seriously, it hurts us in so many ways.

It makes us think that if we don't look like a stereotypical gym bunny, that we don't belong in fitness circles. It makes ignorant people think that they can determine our health based on our appearance. It's given us yet another beauty standard that 95% of us don't fit into and therefore feel inferior against. It makes the diet industry even more millions (billions). And ultimately, it strips fitness of its most important goal - improving how your body feels, not using exercise to torture yourself because of how your body looks.

So start focusing on the feeling. There are so many amazing benefits to exercise that have nothing to do with dropping dress sizes. The endorphin rush (instant happiness), the feeling of accomplishment, the stress relief, the newfound strength, the improved sleep, the invigorated sex life, the ability to run and leap and dance and generally kick ass harder and longer than before. THAT is what fitness should be about, not making yourself miserable over body fat percentages. You can read more about my hatred of fitspo here.

2) Listen to your body (and mind)

You know the classic fitness phrase 'no pain no gain'? Well screw that. Exercise does not have to equal pain. Sure, if you're doing something intensive there are bound to be moments of woAH this is HARD I am pushing myself! But most of the time you probably shouldn't be thinking oH GOod LoRd I AM GOING TO DIE. Respect your body's limitations and know that limitations are okay. You don't need to be hyperventilating within an inch of your life to benefit from physical activity, and you definitely shouldn't be comparing what you're doing to anyone else. There's no shame in going at your own pace, in fact, your own pace is perfect. Even if that means a slow walk while everyone else runs past you, it's good enough. 

I used to push myself beyond pain every time I exercised, I thought that unless I gave 110% it was worthless, I wouldn't have burned enough calories or lost enough weight (of course that's all I thought exercise was about). Now I respect how my body feels, I know when enough's enough and I'm fine doing the easier version if I'm just not feeling the burn that day. And never again will I pressure myself into a workout that my mind is screaming against.
Your mental health is more important than your physical fitness levels. There is no guilt in the land of bopo fitness, no obsession over missed sessions, no shame about leaving early. And to any of my ED warriors reading this and dealing with exercise addiction like I was - you are allowed to be still. Let yourself heal.

3) Forget your reflection

When I was 9 I joined an after school dance aerobics class, it was full of can-cans and laughter and I loved every minute. One day however, my mum got a call from the school asking whether they should be worried about the luminous shade of purpley red I turned when exercising, and whether this was a pre-existing medical condition. Basically, I have the tendency to turn into a raspberry during intensive exercise, to the extent that it apparently concerns people. I also sweat. A lot. It is not pretty. And for a long time that stopped me from doing any outside activities or enjoying any movement without embarrassment. But we're not required to be pretty, ever. Especially not when we're hammering the treadmill, splashing around in the pool or dancing our socks off just for the fun of it. Seriously, get your sweat on. And wear whatever the hell you're comfortable in - pyjamas, lycra, baggy old tshirts, dinosaur onesies, if you can move in it, it's good.

4) Kick diet culture out

This is the root of so many of our bad relationships with exercise, and it's what fitspo thrives on. If we keep seeing fitness as nothing more than a way to burn calories or punish ourselves for over indulging at dinner last night, it's always going to be a guilt-based obligation. We're always going to dread putting our trainers on and beat ourselves up for not going fast enough. At my worst I couldn't even walk around my house without fixating on how many calories it burned, I had to add an extra hop or jump, I had to run the stairs, I had to do another rep, another lap, another round until either someone caught me or I blacked out. Banish the calorie burning talk. You don't need to spend the whole time picturing how it might change your body, focus on how your body feels. Feel the air on your skin, feel your breath filling up your lungs, take in everything around you, the view, the smell, the touch - hold onto that.

5) Food is fuel, and more

This is a blog post in itself, but I'm gonna keep it simple here. If you want to adjust your nutritional intake to help further your physical health and fitness, you can totally do that without the diet demons creeping back in. Again, no calorie counting, no guilt, no shame. No 'good' and 'bad' foods, yes there are foods that have more nutrients and might make your body feel better (hello avocado), but don't fall into the diet trap of righteous clean eating or forbidden foods. Think about adding in the nutritious stuff, rather than banning the less nutritious stuff. You can have your greens and your dessert and benefit both your body and your mind. Remember that extreme restriction isn't healthy, mentally or physically. Remember that you deserve to eat whatever the hell you want, always.

Cool fact - studies have shown that we absorb way more nutrients from our food when we actually enjoy what we're eating. Which basically means that for all those years you forced yourself to eat dry salad and flavourless meals because they were 'good for you', it wasn't all that good for you at all. The study found that the people who ate their salad with a tasty dressing absorbed a lot more vitamins and other healthy stuff from their meal than the people who left it plain and didn't really like it. And since we have better things to do with our lives than obsess over calories, pass the dressing.

So there are my 5 tips for body positive fitness, from a former exercise addict turned occasional yogi, crosstrainer owner and serious dog walker. It is possible to heal your relationship with exercise and reclaim the movement that makes you feel alive. Get out there and try new things! You might find a lifelong passion, you might decide that working out really isn't for you, you are worthy of self love either way. Keep sweating (or not), my fellow red faced bopo babes.