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From Punishment to Pleasure: Developing a New Relationship with Exercise

When it is not tethered to the goal of weight loss, pursuing fitness can be a source of integration, pleasure, and healing -- a way to practice peace with your body.
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I am intrigued by how many people responded to my suggestion to stop criticizing your body and start critiquing our culture's devotion to thinness with anxiety that I was somehow (intentionally or not) promoting obesity. So let me be clear: refusing to participate in our culture's obsession with thinness doesn't mean abandoning the pursuit of good health. My suggestion is simply that practicing peace with your body -- i.e., developing a more harmonious, kind, nurturing, accepting, and loving relationship towards it -- is a more viable path to health than going to war with your flesh by getting caught up in weight-loss aspirations and fantasies of thinness. In fact, one of the best ways to practice peace with your body is to give it the exercise it needs.

Exercising in a way that promotes harmony, kindness, nurturance, and acceptance of your body may require a paradigm shift in the way you think about and pursue fitness. Studies suggest that the vast majority of women who work out do so with the primary aim of losing weight or maintaining their figure. In a society that idealizes the slender body, exercise has become virtually synonymous with burning calories. The problem is that this approach turns the pleasure of physical movement into a form of punishment. According to this mentality, you need to spend hours pounding the treadmill to "atone" for the "sin" of having eaten dessert. But the "sacrifice" of your sweat is worth it because of the feeling of "purity" it engenders.

The religious overtones of such a workout ethic are not coincidental. This weight-loss oriented approach to exercise is an integral part of our culture's widespread devotion to thinness. Advertisements for fitness programs or products encourage us to seek redemption by burning fat. "Health" magazines proffer 10-minute workouts that promise not only to "tone your body" but "lighten your spirit." In short, this commercially-sponsored, exercise-to-lose weight paradigm reflects and embodies the quasi-religious, cultural myth that being thinner will somehow "save" you, that with every pound you lose, your problems will also disappear.

Unfortunately, this sacrificial-punitive approach is hardly enticing for those who would most benefit from more hearty physical exertion. Nor does it offer much wisdom or balance for those who are prone to working out excessively. And yet, this is the dominant way exercise is thought of and pursued in our image-obsessed culture: forget about how your body feels before, during, and/or after a workout; the crucial thing is how it looks -- and this is especially true if you're female.

Advertisements for fitness products and programs contribute to the notion that the ultimate purpose of exercise is losing weight and being "attractive." "Join Now! Shed Pounds! Look Great!" a commercial for a fitness center entices. Shamelessly, such rhetoric conflates physical fitness and appearance. Despite the reality that neither health nor beauty come in one shape or size, the message we get from popular culture is remarkably consistent: exercise>lose weight>be healthy>look good>feel better. Indeed, the ubiquity of this formula obscures other approaches to exercise, particularly those that do not put you at war with your body.

The subtle violence embedded in the exercise-for-weight-loss paradigm is captured in the metaphor of "burning." Whether you are encouraged to burn calories or fat itself, such rhetoric tacitly fosters a antagonistic relationship with your body, as if your body were "the enemy." Ironically, this very antagonism is at the root of many unhealthy eating and exercise habits.

Developing a more harmonious relationship with your body means learning to enjoy physical activity that gets your heart beating. This is where this paradigm shift comes in.

What if, instead of seeing exercise as a road to thinness, you focused your attention on the ways it makes you stronger, increases your energy, relieves stress, strengthens your mind/body connection, and thereby promotes your general well being?

When it is not tethered to the goal of weight loss, pursuing fitness can be a source of integration, pleasure, and healing -- a way to practice peace with your body.

Exercising for energy, stress-reduction, and strength can take multiple forms. The key is to find activities you enjoy. If you're not inclined to working out at the gym, you might join an athletic team, practice tai chi, play tennis, or go golfing, hiking, dancing, or rollerblading. You need only observe the natural tendency of children to run, jump, skip, and play to understand your body's need to be physically active. This need does not disappear as we grow older and spend less time at the playground, and our spirits suffer if we ignore it. Whatever you do, let go of thoughts about burning calories. Simply take pleasure in the opportunity to move and be more present in your body.

Enjoying your body through exercise depends on knowing its limits. Exercise does not have to be overly taxing to be effective. Anything from mowing the grass to going for a walk can give you a way of processing distressing thoughts and difficult emotions. If you have a history of exercising excessively, your challenge is to pay attention to the physical cues your body gives you. Instead of adhering to rigid time or distance requirements you may have established for yourself, you can practice being flexible by slowing down and taking a break when you start to feel tired or achy. If you're worn out from running, for example, you might shorten the distance, slow your pace, or try walking instead. These are acts of kindness towards your body that can replace the punitive habit of pushing it beyond its limits. The point is to find forms of movement that harmonize with your actual physical needs, rather than adhere to some ideal or standard you have in your head.

While for some people exercise can be addicting, others find it nearly impossible to get moving. This is not because they are "weak-willed" or "lazy." Exercise resistance is a complex problem and there are many reasons to feel unmotivated. Traumatic experiences that involved our bodies, including unwanted sexual experiences, can impair our connection to the energy that moves us. Many of us grew up with social or familial messages that reinforced an inactive lifestyle. Some of us who enjoyed playful activity when we were younger lost interest when it became focused on competition. Whatever your physical history, identifying the impact of such experiences is a vital part of re-inhabiting and enjoying your flesh.

Practicing peace with your body means finding a balance between the activity and the rest you need. In this paradigm, overall health -- mental, physical, and even spiritual -- replaces weight loss as the primary goal of exercise. Of course, this approach does not preclude the possibility of losing weight as a result of physical exertion; it simply doesn't make it the primary or ultimate goal.

When exercise is not motivated primarily by a drive for thinness, it can be a kind of spiritual practice. Think of the way that physical exertion changes your breathing. Is it any coincidence that, etymologically speaking, "breath" and "spirit" are connected? When we get the exercise we need, we breathe better, and our bodies/spirits are healthier because of it.

If it sounds strange to think of physical exercise having a spiritual dimension, this is only because the dualism of our modern mindset (i.e., since the time of Descartes) convinces us that our "bodies" and "minds" and "spirits" are unambiguously separate. But the simple fact that exercise -- when done for the sake of pleasure, health, energy, stress-relief, and strength -- makes you feel better is a testament to the deep and indivisible connection between these various aspects of ourselves.