How to Establish & Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Exercise

I began my fitness journey at the start of my freshman year in college. Throughout my childhood, I’d been involved in a variety of sports from gymnastics to lacrosse, so entering college was the first year that I didn’t have a built-in exercise plan. Right away I got really into running, something I used to hate back in high school, and found myself frequenting the gym five to seven times a week. For me, the gym was a form of therapy; a way to unwind at the end of a day full of classes and clubs, to sweat out my stress and tune out the world with headphones in. 

At first, I didn’t question whether my workout routine was “healthy” or not. I went to the gym when I wanted to and skipped it when I didn’t feel up to it. But somewhere along the way, my mentality shifted. It was a subtle change, but I found myself feeling less and less flexible about my fitness routine, seeing my trips to the gym as fixed and mandatory. Looking back, it’s safe to say that my mindset on exercise had become a bit obsessive. 

Flash forward to the last few months of my senior year and I don’t have a perfect relationship with exercise. Running is still a big part of my workout regimen, and honestly, there are times when I push myself too hard and struggle to listen to what my body actually needs. This past year, I’ve tried to incorporate pilates and low-intensity strength training throughout the week. Including more variety in my weekly workout schedule has been a great way to focus on muscle groups I normally wouldn’t and, on a mental level, it has helped me be more open minded. Though I’m still in the thick of my exercise journey, I definitely have more insight on what it takes to create a sustainable relationship with exercise than I did three years ago.  Here’s a breakdown of what I’ve learned so far:

  1. 1. Listen to your body

    This may sound like a no-brainer, but blocking out all the noise about what you should be doing for your body is a lot easier said than done. As humans, it’s natural for us to compare ourselves to one another. In fact, we are programmed to mirror behaviors of the people around us on a cognitive level. But when it comes to exercise, we have to ditch this logic. Our bodies are amazingly complex and powerful and, most importantly, they are all incredibly different! What your friends and family members may need to feel satisfied from a workout may not be the same as what you need. And that’s okay. Maybe your roommates sign up for bi-weekly HIIT classes, but you prefer yoga. Or perhaps everyone in your house is working out tomorrow morning and you want to take a rest day. 

    Oftentimes we subconsciously enforce expectations upon ourselves; because one person is doing “x,” we believe we should be doing it too. Try to fight this itch. If you want to work out and go to that Tabata class with your roomie, go for it! If you want to wake up for a run with your sister, more power to you! But just be sure to evaluate that you’re planning your workouts in accordance with your body’s schedule, not someone else’s.

  2. 2. Unfollow accounts that make you feel “less than”

    In an age of social media, it’s practically impossible to avoid feelings of jealousy when scrolling through your feeds. And hey, we’re only human, so a little envy over someone’s cute sweatshirt or killer bikini pic is normal. That said, there is undoubtedly a place where this sort of jealousy can turn into insecurity and self-deprecation. If you feel yourself checking up on accounts that make you want to change your body, diet or work out in order to lose or gain weight, it may be time to unfollow

    Part of having a healthy relationship with exercise is having a healthy relationship with your body. If your fitness goals are shaped not by a desire to stay active and take care of yourself, but rather by wanting to look a certain way, you may be setting yourself up for a toxic mentality. It’s not to say that you should avoid accounts about exercise and diet, but proceed with caution and be aware of your reactions to the content on your screen. Many of these accounts can be fun for food and workout inspo, but, with an unhealthy mindset, they may become a source of self-doubt and negative feelings. 

  3. 3. Fuel up!

    Pretty smoothie bowl surrounded by fruit.

    Don't go into a workout without giving your body the nutrition it needs to perform. Consider the age-old metaphor that your body is a car. If you don’t put any fuel in the tank, the engine won’t run. The same goes for your body. If you don’t eat when you’re hungry before a workout, you more than likely won’t feel or do your best.

    Planning to workout in the afternoon? Aim for a balanced breakfast with carbs, proteins, and fats like oatmeal with fruit and nut butter, or eggs with toast and avocado. If you don’t want to eat a full meal before exercise, opt for a snack like a banana and nuts, or some Greek yogurt with fruit, both of which are nutrient-dense and can tide you over to the end of the workout. 

  4. 4. Don’t be afraid to make a change

    Person Wearing Brown Bubble Jacket

    You don't have to stick with the same workout routine forever. This may sound obvious, but sometimes when you get in a comfortable groove with a particular workout plan, it can be intimidating to switch things up. Maybe you’ve always been a diehard strength training lover, but you want to incorporate some more cardio. Or perhaps you typically favor long distance running, but want to try out more low-intensity exercises like yoga. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to branch out and experiment with what suits you best. You may just find a new favorite workout move! 

    Most of all, it’s important to keep in mind that your relationship with exercise doesn’t have to be static. Treat yourself with kindness and patience and allow  time to try new things during your workout sessions. Allow yourself this freedom, regardless of the outcome. Part of maintaining a healthy connection to exercise means not enforcing rules upon yourself for when you work out or  what your workout should look like. 

Whether you've personally had a rocky relationship with exercise or you’re completely satisfied with your fitness regimen, we’ve all been confronted with unrealistic pressures to exercise more or less to look a certain way or fit into a certain ideal. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I hope this article provides some wisdom on how to reject those pressures and find fulfillment wherever you are in your exercise journey.