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Toxic Fitness: Relearning a Healthy Relationship with Exercise

In high school, I was a varsity athlete. I didn’t plan my workouts--my entire life revolved around my 6 day minimum practice schedule. In some ways I loved it! Some of my best friends were on my team and many of my best memories from high school were made with my sports teams. But in other ways it was toxic--my body image became dependent on a grueling regimen of constant training. I forced myself through practice after practice, building up the idea that exercise was something painful and difficult. Something that you need to just grit your teeth and get yourself through. Without realizing it, I was developing a subconscious aversion to working out and, simultaneously, a self-image utterly dependent on it.

Then I got to college. I bounced back and forth between hours in the gym and complete inertia. The high school mentality that a workout didn’t count unless it was three hours long prevented me from everyday fitness, and eventually inertia wholly won out. I’d go months at a time without visiting the gym. I felt inadequate for being unable to keep up with my self-imposed health ideal--what was the point of working out if I’d come up short to my high school self?

Unknowingly, I’d hit a wall in the way fitness culture is designed. Working out to achieve a certain body type or hit a predetermined calorie count might work for some, but it’s always resulted in burnout for me. The mentality of working out as a duty, as something I “had” to do, was draining and more often than not resulted in me shirking my “responsibility” to myself and the body I wanted, to eat chips and stress over coming up short.

My breakthrough came after a long stretch of avoidance. It wasn’t that I’d finally learned to take accountability (something many fitness influencers talk about relentlessly). I was just stressed and bored and needed to release the frenetic energy that was taking over my brain and body and making productivity impossible. 

I was a little embarrassed after that first bout of exercise. I could barely do five kneeling push-ups, and I was frustrated when I compared this to my old accomplishments. But the (needless) self-consciousness was eclipsed by relief and endorphins. It felt good to sweat.

Over time, I’ve stopped competing with past versions of myself. The most important thing I get out of exercise now is stress relief, more fitful sleep, and overall better mental health. I’m not at all suggesting it as a cure-all for the intricacies of mental illness, but it’s a small contributor that I find I benefit from. I’d heard exercise advocated by a few mental health professionals, but it took my own personal mindset shift to allow working out to become healthy mentally as well as physically.

I don’t keep a strict workout schedule now. It’s not something I want to force myself into, so I do it when I feel like it or find the time--sometimes several days a week, sometimes none, but who’s counting? I’m not, anymore. I’ll mix it up now too: jumping rope, yoga, hiking to break up the monotony of everyday cardio or strength. I also don’t set time limits--sometimes I work out for 10 minutes, sometimes over an hour, but I always listen to my body and base the intensity off that. I’ve learned that I like turning to exercise in times of stress, so I keep a mat by my door for easy access and as a reminder to let myself take breaks. 

Moreover, I don’t follow fitness influencers who make me feel bad about myself. One of my friends at LMU has a fitness account, @well.with.el and I follow her because I resonate with the way she talks about fitness. Another account I like, @clairempham provides amazing bodyweight HIIT workouts you can do in your living room. Other HerCampusLMU articles chronicle more fitness videos/platforms/influencers! Overall, I really advocate for girls and women (or anyone really) to be kind to themselves when it comes to body image and exercise. Fitness culture can be mentally toxic, but relearning how to use exercise to stay mentally, along with physically, healthy can reclaim the fitness space as self care instead of an obligation.


Jade Young

Loyola '22

Screenwriting major from Seattle.
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