When a potential client first comes to me, their mindset around exercise has been formed from a lifetime of opinions from others. Most of us have not had much opportunity to discover how we feel about moving our bodies on our own. Instead, we’ve developed our reasons to exercise from our parents, our gym teachers, our significant others, diet culture, magazines and movies, and society at large.
And that’s a problem when you consider that how we think about exercise has a lot of power over our ultimate relationship with exercise. When a potential client comes to me with a not-so-good relationship with exercise, it’s likely that their mindset about exercise falls somewhere in this range:
- Exercise exists for burning calories and atoning for the sins of what I eat
- Exercise is only for losing weight
- Exercise is a way of being “good” when I have been “bad”
- Exercise is something I “should” or “have” to do (and if I’m not doing it I’m lazy and terrible)
- Exercise is something I “should” do but I’m too busy to fit it into my schedule
- Exercise requires going to a fear-inducing gym where I will be judged by other people for my body, my lack of ability, or both
- Exercise is only for bougie fitness people
- Exercise has to make me sweat buckets and be sore for days or it doesn’t “count”
- Exercise is the worst
No wonder so many people begrudgingly exercise or forego it all together. Those sentiments about exercise aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
Remember when exercise wasn’t exercise?
It’s unlikely you’ve always had negative associations with exercise. Let’s take it back to when you were just a tiny tot, before anyone had told you anything about exercise. Before any gym teacher made you get on a scale in front of your classmates or forced you to complete a humiliating mile test. Before your first diet or the first comment about your body that hurt you.
Back when exercise and moving your body weren’t a chore, but they were play. A time when you were exploring your surroundings with your body as it awkwardly grew. Maybe you were climbing trees, running on the beach, scootering, staying off the floor because it was lava, playing tag, racing on the monkey bars, and so much more.
Back then, your mind and your body were one unit, working in tandem to discover the world around you.
But for many kids that changes when adults start talking to them about “exercise.” It can change if we start to realize our bodies are different from other kids. It can change if we experience trauma to our bodies, like injury or assault. It can change if we diet, if we learn our bodies are not good enough, or if we come to believe that our bodies are our worth (and thus, if they don’t look a certain way then we are worthless).
And as the connection between mind and body weakens, when we become floating heads who would prefer not to think about our hated bodies, suddenly anything to do with “exercise” starts to feel like a lot of the crappy things in that list above.
Begin to shift your mindset to unlock your exercise potential.
Viewing exercise as a way to compensate for the food we eat or solely as a way to change how our bodies look is encouraged and rewarded in our culture. But these mindsets encourage us to look at exercise as a tool for fixing what’s broken. They turn exercise into a means to an end instead of something that is valuable on its own.
But this can become very problematic. For example, linking food and exercise together means using exercise as a way to offset the food we eat. That brings with it a sense of obligation to exercise and a negative relationship with food. It takes away our autonomy and ability to listen to the needs of our individual bodies. Instead of focusing on hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, we end up disassociating from our important inner cues and eating according to external food rules, the scale, or the treadmill calorie counter.
And when we expect exercise to change our bodies, we can become so focused on that singular goal that exercise has no meaning unless it results in body change. When we make choices about exercise based on what kinds of body change might happen, we miss out on so much of the joy and beauty moving our bodies can lead to. We easily get unmotivated if the changes we want don’t materialize, or we may experience feelings of guilt and shame.
So why the heck are we exercising if it’s not to burn off that cookie we ate last night or to finally get those Carrie Underwood legs? That’s a great question.
I’ve compiled 20 reasons to exercise that have nothing to do with food or weight loss to help shift your mindset around exercise and inspire you to move your body:
1. Endorphins. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde was right all those years ago! When we exercise, our bodies actually do release feel-good endorphins that put us in a better mood.
2. It’s something fun to do with friends. I love delicious food and pretty cocktails as much as the next person, but I definitely get bored when all of my outings revolve around restaurants and bars. Next time you’re looking for something fun to do with a friend, maybe plan a hike or a walk, start a game of pick-up basketball at your neighborhood court, head to the climbing gym, or try a free fitness class in your city.
3. Reduces stress. For many people, exercise has a stress-relieving effect and is an important tool in the destress toolkit. Just make sure you have other tools in your toolkit, too, or your relationship with exercise could become too dependent.
4. Improves your relationship with your body. If you can successfully leave behind the diet culture and #fitspo nonsense, exercise can actually help you have a better relationship with your body. Exercise can strengthen your mind-body connection and give you a sense of gratitude for all the ways your body supports you in your life.
5. Eliminates or improves pain. I can’t tell you the number of clients who have come to me with back pain that we were able to eliminate completely or mostly by figuring out their strength imbalances and working on them. This is true for pain experienced in other areas of the body as well. Muscle weakness and a lack of mobility is often the source of the physical pain we feel, so getting into the habit of moving our bodies again can help eliminate that pain.
6. Boosts self-confidence. With consistent exercise over time, you will improve in whatever you’re working on, whether that’s running faster, achieving deeper splits, getting higher jumps, or lifting heavier weights. Focusing on your dedication and improvement can have a self-confidence boosting effect. Plus, I’ve seen time and time again that confidence found through exercise tends to have a pourover effect into the rest of my clients’ lives
7. A better night’s sleep. One of my clients recently had to take a break from exercise to recover from an injury, and she noticed that she didn’t sleep as well when she wasn’t exercising regularly. That’s not uncommon. Regular exercise can help us fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
8. Keeps bones strong. Bone strength is near and dear to my heart because my grandma suffered from osteoporosis towards the end of her life. Doing weight-bearing activities makes your bones stronger/denser, which helps prevent osteoporosis and broken bones later in life.
9. An excuse to explore the outdoors. Outdoor exercise is an opportunity to further explore both your own neighborhood and the world at large while also reaping the benefits of being out in nature. My love for hiking and beautiful scenery has taken me all across the U.S., and my husband and I have explored many cities by bike. I also have friends who do really cool aerial retreats in different countries.
10. Delays cognitive decline. You may have heard that the best way to protect your brain in old age is through puzzles and other mental challenges, but it turns out physical exercise is far superior. We know through research that exercise is one of the best ways to fend off dementia and Alzheimers for longer.
11. Helps alleviate depression and anxiety. Exercise has been proven to help with depression and anxiety in many people, and I have seen this firsthand with my clients and myself. However, having depression and anxiety makes it much harder to get yourself to exercise, so that piece has to be addressed first in order to experience the benefits.
12. Builds aerobic capacity. Aerobic capacity, or cardiorespiratory fitness, reflects the rate at which our bodies can use oxygen and convert it into energy during exercise. We lose a little aerobic capacity every year as we get older, but we can cut that loss in half with regular exercise.
13. Reduces blood pressure and lowers risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. We’ve all heard by now how exercise has an incredible effect on our immune system and disease prevention in our bodies. Even better? Research shows that you can get these health benefits from exercise regardless of if you lose any weight.
14. Builds muscle mass. Doing weight-bearing activities increases the amount of lean muscle mass in your body. Muscle mass is the most metabolic tissue we have, so the more muscle mass we maintain, the better our metabolism hums along. We also lose muscle as we age which can make daily activities more difficult, but strength training can improve that downward trend.
15. Allows you to reintroduce play in your life. As we get older, we tend to get further and further away from the effortless play of our childhood. With so many different kinds of movement available to us, exercise is one fun way to bring play back into our lives, which does a body and mind good.
16. Improves memory and focus. Studies show that memory and focus are two areas of cognitive functioning that exercise can help sharpen. Better memory and focus can help us in our work and daily lives.
17. Makes daily activities easier. One of the best parts of gaining strength for me has been the autonomy doing so has given me outside of the gym. Because of how strong I am now, I can wrangle my dog’s huge food bags, move furniture, put my suitcase in the overhead bin, open pickle jars, and more. Becoming stronger through exercise has given me a sense of independence in a world that assumes women are less capable.
18. Helps you live longer. I don’t know about you, but I want to give myself a fighting chance to be a badass old lady with killer style and lots of life wisdom to spare. Exercise plays a part in helping us live longer because it slows the aging process of our cells.
19. More energy. Exercise acts as a natural stimulant that can increase daytime energy levels so you’re crashing less. Hurray for natural highs!
20. Makes you a total badass. Admittedly, I have no studies to back this up. But anecdotally, all of my clients who have made a habit out of exercising feel much more badass as a result. And they should! With so many different things competing for our attention, it’s challenging to commit to a regular exercise routine. So when we actually pull it off, it makes us feel pretty amazing.
The most important reason to exercise is to exercise for you.
It’s okay if you don’t care about some or even most of these reasons to exercise. You just need to center on the ones you do care about. Keep your attention on the reasons to move your body that feel most meaningful to your life and who you are as a person. You may even have some other ones in mind that I haven’t included on this list.
Ultimately, if you’re exercising for your own benefit instead of as punishment, you’ll be much more likely to keep moving your body. And moving your body can be a truly magical thing.