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How Fitness Can Be About Something Other Than Changing Your Body

Certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT shares an excerpt from her book, Body Mindful Yoga, which seeks to guide readers to learn how to affirm their bodies in this week’s blog post. The book includes a variety of mental, physical, auditory, and visual practices designed to help you establish an awareness of your inner dialogue and incorporate “body mindful” language into your life with the intention of improving body image and self-confidence. 

Motivational sayings about working out are highly beneficial for many people, inspiring them to make fitness a priority in their lives. However, sometimes words and phrases that incite the spirit of combat are embedded in motivational fitness language, making the act of exercise about battling or manipulating one’s body rather than enjoyment and health.

Because fitness training has its roots in warfare and survival, current social and cultural messages about personal fitness for the non-soldier or noncompetitive athlete reverberate with themes of combat and threat. The language of warfare, complete with messages of self-sacrifice (like “No pain, no gain”), is overwhelmingly pervasive in the fitness industry. One need only scan the motivational workout memes on social media or the headlines in fitness magazines to spot combat language. In the name of self-sacrifice, the seemingly highest ideal, we are beckoned to join the Great Body Battle: to fight fat, burn off flab, and turn soft flesh as hard as steel. We are sold the belief that, like warriors, we must do battle and push at all costs to tone and tighten, burn and shred, and eliminate bulges and bumps. From these messages we are taught that our bodies are the enemy.

The lengths we will go to get fit and feel validated, like “working out until I drop dead” or “pushing it to the limit,” may seem like a small cost to pay when compared to the tradition of ancient warfare. However, personal fitness is not an act of war, and our body is not an opponent. Still, due to a desire to embody fitness in a world that can feel unforgiving to the unfit, many of us try to survive by containing, training, and shaping our bodies into an acceptable size. Even if that “ideal” size is reached, the inescapable language of warfare in fitness culture may leave us feeling uneasy and always on guard, for sometimes it can seem like we can’t entirely trust that our bodies will not turn on us by gaining weight, turning soft, or failing us in some other way. Therefore, to be(come) fit is a personal battle reinforced by the social ideals that keep fitness tied to a militaristic mindset versus one based purely in health or enjoyment.

Without fail, the focus on working out and changing our bodies intensifies in the beginning months of the New Year, with marketers convincing us we need to lose weight, join a gym, and eat less. The repetition of these messages can cause us to question if we “fit” in and flare up body image concerns. Can you relate? If so, we promise you aren’t alone. And we also would like to offer a new, more affirming way to embrace fitness in your life—and it begins with your words.

One of the most profound ways we lose hold of our personal power is through our language, especially when we negate instead of affirm, belittle instead of empower, chastise instead of validate ourselves. Our language is everything: it shapes our reality, reinforces our body image, and reflects how we feel about ourselves. How we absorb or internalize others’ words and how we speak to ourselves directly impacts our body image and self-esteem.

One powerful way to release hold of the belief that you must workout to change your body is to challenge the combat language that you read, hear, or say to yourself and find the higher personal or spiritual gift in doing the activity in the first place. For example, let’s take the popular slogan, “Just do it.” “Just do it” remains heavily mainstream, as does the brand it represents. These three little words have become synonymous with “Go for it” and are found on posters, mugs, T-shirts, bags, keychains, stores, and gyms. Motivational images of this slogan abound on the internet and social media. With such a strong physical and digital presence, “Just do it” is embedded in the social consciousness, both inside and outside the fitness world.

This slogan can be internalized in different ways. For some of us, “Just do it” truly is motivational and even helpful in overcoming fear, trying something new, taking a risk, or confronting a challenge. For others, moments when “just doing it” isn’t an option for whatever reason can lead to feelings of inadequacy, comparison, guilt, and shame. Others might also interpret this slogan as the pressure or obligation to exceed healthy limits.

Take pause and consider these questions: How do you interpret “Just do it” in your life? What are the positive and negative connotations of this slogan for you, and how do they influence how you feel about your body and abilities?

To begin chipping away at any disempowering connotations of this expression in your life, try integrating words that honor your body in your inner dialogue. We encourage you to find your own expressions or mantras, but here’s a few examples to help get you started:

  • I am capable.
  • It’s okay to ask for support.
  • Giving my all includes honoring my body.
  • I am fit in mind, body, and spirit.
  • I flow between rest and effort.

Bring this language into your workouts and when you hear that voice inside calling you to “do battle” with your body. These gentle reminders will go a long way in giving you permission to workout for enjoyment, health, and other higher personal and spiritual benefits, such as connection with nature or community, to improve heart or mental health, to increase energy, to improve mood, and simply because you live being active. Embracing the joyful qualities or health benefits and integrating more positive and uplifting language about fitness into your inner dialogue and conversation will reduce the “combat” energy in your life and open you up to appreciating your body and experiencing more joy in your activities.

Adapted from the book, Body Mindful Yoga, by Jennifer Kreatsoulas and Robert Butera. Reprinted with permission from Llewellyn Worldwide.


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