Bringing Self Compassion to the Gym

You’re at the gym. You’re on the elliptical. You’ve gotta psych yourself up. Sure, tunes are blasting through your AirPods, but towards the end of a workout, that might not be enough for the final oomph. Instead, a little voice starts up in the back of the mind to get your legs pumping faster, faster. Maybe this voice is frighteningly indicative of a high school coach or peppy like that spin cyclist you can’t afford to visit (cough, Soul Cycle, cough).  

This is the poor man’s personal trainer.

In a recent paper titled “Burning off the fat oppression: Self-compassion exercises for personal trainers,” researchers Vicki Ebbeck & Shannon Austin lay out the repercussions of personal trainers utilizing their own bodies to promote their skills as trainers and the fat bias that may result.

For trainers, their appearance is the ad for their abilities. As such, the pressure to be thin, sculpted, and/or muscular are intensified for trainers. In turn, this can emphasize the common biases against fat bodies and pass on negative mindsets and abuse towards larger clients.

Most of us are not personal trainers; However, most of us are our own trainers. For those of us without a guide, our minds are in charge of our work-out, so what happens when — like a negative trainer, our internal dialogue is laced with negative messaging like “five more minutes because you ate that cookie,” “push for that summer body,” and “spring break is around the corner.”?

Instead, self-compassion in our own workouts can make our self-lead workouts more positive.

Ebbeck and Austin recommend three key exercises for trainers. They aren’t all applicable to a lone workout, but their essence is. First, try focused breathing while reflecting on the attributes you need and want for yourself and others. On each breath, mentally repeat the word like a mantra: “Patience… Patience… Strength… Strength…” Their other two recommendations are more helpful: journaling and reflective thought.

While putting actual words to paper might be too big an investment, the logic behind journaling is legitimate. Essentially, it requires thoughtful analysis of what you think and do, and why you do so. For example, if you’re mentally telling yourself to push through a leg cramp to prepare for spring break. Where is that messaging coming from? To know when to do the next time something like this happens, trace back to the roots of these negative thoughts — back to the media, societal pressures, or internal insecurities that relate back to your body and health. Ebbeck and Austin’s third exercise,asks a trainer, or you, to consider how they’d treat a client or friend in the same instance. If your friend said to themselves what you told yourself, how would you respond? Treat yourself like a friend, your dearest and closest friend.

Sydney Holets, freshman Creative Writing major at Hamline University and Self-Love Advocate, believes that compassion in your workout begins well before the workout itself.

“One thing that helps with being positively motivated to go to the gym is shifting the mindset of ‘I have to go to the gym’ to ‘I choose to go to the gym’. This makes it seem like less of a task that you are forcing upon yourself, and more of something that you are voluntarily choosing to do for your own wellbeing,” Holets says. “By shifting the power from force on yourself, you gain personal autonomy and the exercise feels more rewarding since you chose to go to the gym, rather than choosing to do something else that may have been less beneficial.”

Once there, positive self-talk and self-forgiveness should be a part of the routine.

“Forgiveness is something I always preach to others when it comes to self-talk and exercise.” Holets says. “We are so quick to criticize ourselves, especially when we are working out and paying more attention to our bodies. Maybe you skipped a day at the gym in favor of self-care, homework, or spending time with friends. Maybe at the gym, you think you didn’t work hard enough or that you’ll never make enough progress. If we let our critical voice become louder than our voice of improvement, then it makes it harder for us to go to the gym and actually enjoy it.”

Instead of letting the mind ruminate against forgiveness, Holets recommends trying a positive mantra:

-“I choose to go to the gym so I can be healthier. I choose to work out so I can become

stronger.”

-“I forgive myself for not going to the gym yesterday. I forgive myself for not being able to

finish my workout or reach my goal.”

-“I am powerful, strong, and worthy of taking care of my body in this way.”

-“I deserve to exercise and grant my body grace.”

At the end of the day, exercising isn’t going to be a positive addition to your routine if it’s infused with negativity and self-hatred. As Holets said, “It’s important to remember that we are not separate from our bodies: our bodies and minds are one. When the mind is feeding the body negativity, that’s the feeling that you will embody.”

Learning to overcome ingrained negativity is difficult, it’ll take practice—just another exercise to try.

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Vicki Ebbeck & Shannon Austin (2018) Burning off the fat oppression: Self-compassion exercises for personal trainers, Fat Studies, 7:1, 81-92, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2017.1360670