Unfortunately, we live in a society and culture that perpetuates the idea that the purpose of exercise is to change how we look. More times than not, social and media messages around exercise, movement, or working out are accompanied by some notion of getting lean, losing weight, or getting “shredded," so on and so forth. This type of framing seems to be so prominent, that many people believe that the ONLY purpose of exercise and movement is to obtain some sort of aesthetic goal.
Although not often talked about, there are some noteworthy downsides to the aesthetic-driven approach to exercise. One is that, ironically, it may lead to a decrease in motivation. When you exercise to change your body’s appearance and don’t “see” results, you start to feel deterred from continuing. Then you ask yourself, “What’s even the point?” or you say things like “It’s not even working!” Additionally, this can lead to comparing yourself to others, which can set you up for poor body image and undermine your own progress. And finally, it can potentially contribute to all-or-nothing thinking, such as not even bothering with a small walk or stretching or mini yoga session because it doesn’t really “count” – which is so far from true! Even the smallest bit of movement can reap some of these incredible benefits:
1. Exercise improves mental health, boosts mood & relieves stress
Perhaps one of the most immediate effects of exercise is its lifting impact on mood and emotion. In a meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on mood, anxiety, depression, and emotional states, researchers found that exercise leads to alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, and elevated mood post-workout.
Additionally, the stress-relieving effects of exercise are no secret. When we move or exercise, it gives us a chance to clear our heads and be in the present. Whether it’s a slow hike or a sweaty strength training session, both can offer an escape from the stress of daily life, offering clarity and perspective that can be otherwise difficult to find. These emotional benefits aren’t just immediate; researchers have found that consistent movement in nature settings improves your emotional and mental well-being, even when not in an exercise state.
2. Exercise Improves your relationship with the body
So often, people engage with exercise in an attempt to “fix” some bodily flaw they perceive. When results are not yielded quickly, it can lead to feelings of failure and de-motivation from exercising. Yet, with a non-aesthetically driven approach, the amazing thing about movement and exercise is that it can function as a reminder of all that your body is already capable of doing! This approach opens the door to mindful movement, which optimizes our awareness of what type of movement makes us feel GOOD. And when exercise becomes a source of enjoyment, we are far more likely to engage in it.
3. Exercise Improves flexibility, functionality & overall health
Another pro of movement and exercise, completely unrelated to its body “molding” effects, is its’ positive impact on day-to-day movement. That tweak in your neck when you sleep, the tension in your thighs when you sit down, or the way your back seizes when you lean down, may all be alleviated by implementing more enjoyable movement into your life. By engaging in more movement and exercise, our muscles become stronger and more flexible, and you don’t need to become a Level 10 gymnast to reap these benefits, even a small walk or some slow yoga can improve general flexibility.
Additionally, movement increases blood flow to our organs and digestive system, which results in a smoother and more optimally functioning digestive tract. Furthermore, exercise and movement are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and even cancer. Furthermore, there is an array of evidence that indicates exercise/movement can stabilize energy levels and improve sleep quality: which can be useful when breaking away from the cycle of caffeine-fueled highs to pitiful levels of exhaustion.
Honestly, the list goes on and on about the benefits of movement and exercise. But the point I am trying to make here: you don’t need to be a star athlete or commit yourself to transform your body's appearance to benefit from movement and exercise. If anything, a non-aesthetically driven approach offers MORE benefits because we are motivated by what makes us feel GOOD and is intrinsically beneficial. When we FEEL the difference, whether or not we SEE the difference becomes virtually insignificant.
I’m not saying having aesthetic goals is completely wrong and you should avoid it altogether; I’m just saying that it may be worthwhile to examine your relationship with movement/exercise and challenge the popular narrative around it. Exercise should be a source of joy, pleasure, and excitement – not stress. It should make you feel BETTER about yourself, not worse. You deserve to appreciate, respect, and enjoy your body and all that it can do!