Part 5 of the What Does This Have To Do With Wellness? series.
Trigger Warning: this post contains discussion of slightly disordered eating as well as struggles with body image.
You might have noticed that I haven’t yet talked about fitness. And that’s because I think fitness is a very difficult and often triggering subject for many. It can easily get tied up with diet culture, and have other unhealthy implications for body confidence and self-image. It’s also incredibly personal for a variety of reasons (physical ability, access to equipment/classes, lifestyle etc.)
So, I wanted to be careful when expressing my thoughts on this topic. But fitness can also have a huge impact on our mental health and physical wellness for a lot of different reasons – not just limited to your weight or how many abs you have.
My relationship with personal fitness and “being in shape” has changed significantly through my lifetime. And I feel like now (in my mid-twenties) I finally have a grasp on what role I want fitness to play in my mental health and wellness, and I think overall a more realistic and healthy approach.
My Journey with Fitness
I have always been very active. Growing up I rode horses and competed in Eventing & Dressage. I started dancing at age 8, and eventually competed in that too. I also played soccer for a couple summers in high school and my family and I would go camping in the summers and would go on daily trail hikes. I mostly thought of myself as a “fit” person and I enjoyed feeling that way.
In my 1st year of University I hit my lowest point. I was busting my butt at the gym every day and was possibly in the best shape (in terms of strength and stamina) that I had been in since I was dancing competitively a few years prior, possibly ever. I was lean and muscular and I was thin, at my smallest I got down to about 117 pounds and was almost all muscle.
But on the inside I was actually more anxious and self-conscious than ever. I was constantly counting my calories and trying to eat as “healthy” as possible. Or at least I thought I was eating healthy when in reality I was obsessing over my food in an unhealthy way, and underfeeding my body. But more than anything my motives for being “fit” were in entirely the wrong place.
My boyfriend at the time and I had split up and that had really hurt my self-confidence. I told myself that if I lost weight and became super fit that I could win him back. After about 6 months of this I hit a breaking point and because of that I completely fell off of working out. I would go for walks or occasionally go to the gym but I pretty much gave up on what I thought of as “fitness”. This lasted quite a while, and I gained all of the weight that I had lost back, and probably a few extra pounds too. But, this was the first step in a slow journey back to a healthy relationship with fitness.
One that had nothing to do with impressing other people, my appearance, or my self-worth. I had to completely change the way I thought about fitness. I had to change my motive, I had to try get back to what exercise was about when I was younger: fun, and the wonderful experiences my body could allow me to do (climb mountains, dance on stage, and ride horses!). My motive had to be about caring for my body and mental health, it had to come from a place of self-love, instead of the pursuit of a “perfect” gym bod.
So What Does it Have to do with Wellness?
I can say without hesitation, it is not about 6 packs and sculpted booties.
There is so much toxic culture about fitness. Pressure to be thin. A flatter stomach. More muscular, but not too muscular. Tanned, toned, and lean. And I don’t think this has anything to do with real fitness. Fitness for me is about health, body confidence, love, comfort, strength, flexibility & balance. It’s about hopefully being able to do the things you want to do with your body.
Fitness should be about caring for our minds and physical health. Strength, flexibility, cardiovascular health, skeletal health etc. It needs to be sustainable, maintainable, and a positive contribution to our sense of self-confidence. It should make us feel strong and empowered. It should be motivated by a want to explore our bodies, maintain our health, and an act of self-love.
I’ve realized more than anything that fitness is about being connected and in communication with your body and it’s needs. It’s about living in harmony with your body and it’s a balance of both movement and rest. The more in-tune we are with our bodies the more we can listen to how it communicates how and what we are feeling.
Maybe crazy workouts are for you, and if so great, and maybe you do have a six -pack, but they don’t automatically make you healthy or well. Wellness is a bigger picture that includes mental, physical, and spiritual health, and that often means not having 6-pack abs.
Nowadays my fitness looks very different than it used to. Instead of brutal-full-body-sweat-inducing workouts full of self-loathing, I love to go on walks with my dog, I love yoga, I like to hike while holding hands with my husband, and I teach dance at local community centers. I teach my students to enjoy dancing and explore the ways it can express your feelings, or tell a story, not because it will burn calories or make you skinny. We don’t do burpees until we barf, or do ab burn challenges.
My stomach is not as flat, and my legs and arms aren’t as toned, and I carry some extra around my mid section, but loving myself is worth so much more than the rest of it. Throughout the years my relationship with fitness and also my body has changed a lot. It has ebbed and flowed in how positive it is, in response to a lot of different circumstances, and I will tell more of these stories in later posts.
So, is being in shape a sign of wellness?
No, not necessarily.
I hope that this inspires you to feel good in your body, and exercise to care for your body, not punish it. Our bodies do tons of amazing things for us every day, let’s celebrate them.
P.S. Come back next week for part 6 (the second last post of this series)! Check-out part 4 from last week.