Redefining Your Relationship with Exercise

Do you have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with exercise?

By Rebecca Jaspan MPH, RD, CDN, CDE

Here at Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition and Yoga, we work with each client to neutralize and thus, improve their relationship with food and body. Moving your body, aka movement or your relationship with exercise is part of this wholistic relationship. While “exercise” can be important for your mental, physical and even spiritual well-being, it is truly a delicate matter that needs constant curiosity and observation. Ideally, one moves their body in respect to their energy levels, emotional needs, and to even create energy rather than using movement to deprive, limit or reduce the body. Read on to determine if you may be exercising in an “unhealthy” way and how to move towards having a positive relationship with movement.

Most already know the benefits of exercise for our bodies are endless, if done while honoring your physical and mental health. Exercise can strengthen our cardiovascular system, specifically increasing the heart muscle’s capability to pump blood efficiently to all of our organs. Exercise stimulates enzymes that remove LDL cholesterol, which is linked to heart disease, from the blood to be excreted out of the body through digestion, while increasing HDL cholesterol, the type of cholesterol that helps clear cholesterol from the blood. Increased muscle mass can even help the body become more sensitive to the hormone, insulin and thereby help to reduce blood sugar in someone with polycystic ovary syndrome or diabetes. One study showed that just 20 minutes of movement reduces inflammation in the body and increases the immune response, helping to prevent infections. Finally, movement is such an important part of managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Exercise releases endorphins, which interact with opiate receptors in the brain that reduce our perception of pain and gives us a feeling of general well-being.

Exercise does so much for our bodies, but there CAN be too much of a good thing! If you identify with these four statements, it’s time to redefine your relationship with exercise.

  1. “I work out for nothing less than one hour. Anything less is pointless.”
    “I didn’t break a sweat, so it doesn’t count.”

    Have you told yourself this before? It is very likely you have an “all or nothing” mindset about exercise. You settle for nothing less than what you set out to accomplish no matter how excruciating the experience or injurious this maybe to your mind, body and or spirit.
  2. “I hate running but I have to do it.”
    “I hate training but I do it to prevent feeling guilty.”

    Exercise should not be tortuous. Some people have exercise resistance and need a little push to get moving and feel comfy in their bodies. This is different from the person who chooses to exercise as a form of compensation. If you exercise to give yourself permission to eat without guilt or to maintain a certain number on the scale, it is time to redefine your relationship with exercise. You are likely to burn out and get injured.
  3. “I run to eat.”
    “I practice yoga every morning to get it out of the way.”

    Do you own the t-shirt that reads “I run to eat?” Do you identify with exercise as a means to lose weight or control your appearance? If you find that your motivation to exercise is purely for weight loss, it is time to redefine your relationship with exercise. Ask yourself “what would I do for exercise if there was no chance of my appearance changing?”. While exercise may affect weight gain and or weight loss, here at LCWNS we recommend exercise be for the purpose of making yourself feel energized from the inside out. Everyone deserves to eat. Everyone needs to eat, regardless of their movement. And every day the mind, body and spirit have different needs. When exercise becomes a compensation for your nutrition intake, you may be headed towards exercise bulimia.
  4. “I have a stress fracture, but spin anyway.”
    “I just had surgery, but need to exercise despite being in a cast.”

    Do you or have you exercised with an injury? Rest days in between workouts are important for reducing the risk of injury. Intense exercise creates tiny tears in our muscles, which causes our body to adapt and make us stronger. But overworking muscles may cause these tiny tears to turn into real injuries. This also explains the importance of longer rest periods when sick or injured. Listen to your body and celebrate what it has the ability to do on any given day.

Five Ways to Move Towards a Healthier Relationship with Exercise:

  1. Move into “gray” thinking instead of “black and white”.
    Adopt a more malleable approach to exercise. While a one-hour workout one day might be exactly what you need, another day your body might be tired and satisfied with 10 minutes. It is important to have some flexibility and learn to listen to your body when it is telling you to push itself or to hold back. Melissa Toler, a former wellness coach turned writer, speaker, and educator after realizing that the traditional wellness paradigm was reinforcing harmful body standards, reclaimed her own definition of movement to find pleasure. Her strategies include not using a clock and stopping when she has had enough, deciding how her body feels at the moment and the type of movement she will do, and not setting weekly goals. She says that “movement is sustainable when it connects us to pleasure and joy rather than calories burned.”
  2. Find a community or workout class that is weight neutral or weight inclusive and fun.
    Make sure this is a place that is not focused on appearance and a place where you can feel comfortable. Anna Chapman, founder of Body Love Yoga, created a safe space for people to connect with their bodies and to make yoga accessible for all bodies. She is passionate about helping people find movement that feels joyful and good as well as movement that calms the nervous system. Try finding some activities you love. This is known as joyful movement and changes every day. Consider what serves you and try new activities, such as yoga or Zumba. At one eating disorder treatment center, they are conducting virtual 15-minute joyful movement sessions. Be curious if it will bring you joy and energy or will it cause you to feel in control and have the list checked off?
  3. Find three reasons you love to move that have nothing to do with changing your appearance.
    Do you notice a difference in your mood after you exercise? Exercise has an incredibly important role in mental health. A study done by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 15 minutes of intense movement (such as running) or on hour of easy movement (such as walking) reduced the risk of major depression by 26%. Do you love how strong your muscles feel after a good workout? Maybe that rush gives you more energy and productivity for your day. These feelings will motivate you to keep working out regardless of the number on the scale. If you are exercising for weight loss, please stop. Exercise is a celebration of your mind, body and spirit. Ask yourself, “does this form of movement celebrate me on this particular day?”
  4. Unfollow people on social media who do not serve you, such as fitness influencers with rigid workout regimens.
    Following influencers with rigid or extreme fitness advice or workout regimens can be triggering and may lead to harmful behaviors and losing a connection with your innate ability to choose what movement feels good to you. This study showed that women between the ages of 18 and 25 demonstrated an association between Instagram usage and increased self-objectification and body image concerns, especially among those who frequently viewed fitness accounts. Instead, follow accounts that promote positive messages about food, body, and movement or follow inspirational quotes and accounts promoting mental health.
  5. Increase your rest days by one day at a time. If you are exercising daily, decrease to six days a week. If six days a week, then decrease to five days a week.
    Keep in mind, resting for a longer period of time during eating disorder recovery is important for both physical and psychological recovery. Some types of movement can increase cognitive rigidity and cause you to feel less connected to your body, which may be harmful in a time when you are reestablishing a connection to your body. Over exercising, especially when not adequately nourished, can also increase the risk of low bone density, fractures, compulsive thoughts about food, and increased body checking. The Truth About Exercise Addiction (read the book) is a great resource to explore your relationship with exercise.Finding your motivation to exercise for reasons other than changing your body will benefit not only your physical health, but your mental health and ensure you have a lifelong healthy relationship with food and body. Here at Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition and Yoga, we believe movement is part of life if done with self-compassion and respect for your mind, body and spirit. We offer weight-neutral yoga online through our zoom group classes and On Demand yoga memberships as well as private 1:1 sessions with founder Laura Cipullo, RD, CEDRD – S and RYT.


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