Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
“8 Weeks to the Perfect Abs.” “The Ultimate Fat Burning Diet.” “The Fast Way to Drop 20 Pounds.” The line between fitness and body shaming can get pretty blurry sometimes. Unfortunately, you don’t have to tread very deeply into health magazines, forums and blogs to find articles promising a bikini-ready body or thin-worshipping motivational posts that leave just the faintest bad taste in your mouth.
It’s unfair to blame the entire fitness community for those developments, of course, but if you’ve struggled before with body image, you know how easily physical health and beauty can become intertwined. And most people aren’t very happy with how they look. Surveys regularly report that a higher percentage of both men and women are dissatisfied with their appearance and weight.
Interestingly, though, research shows that just exercising improves body image—regardless of results. A University of Florida study, for instance, which looked at body dissatisfaction among those who had recently started a fitness program, found that participants felt better about their appearance just from working out, even if they hadn’t lost any weight. That means that exercising really can improve body image—but only if you go into it with the right attitude.
Here’s how to launch a fulfilling, health-focused routine, no matter your size or fitness level.
Stop exercising to “work off” food
It goes like this: you kind of overdid it when Barbara brought those homemade brownies into the office. So you think, Okay, I’ll just do an extra mile on the treadmill tonight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that—nutrition is not a zero sum game. Some calories may be more nutrient-dense than others, depending on where they come from. Sugary, carb-laden foods can even affect your workout, meaning you have less energy to tackle that extra-long run. In fact, a really bad diet might throw off your sleep schedule as well, so you’ll have even fewer energy reserves to draw from in general.
Additionally, labeling foods as “bad” or “good” vastly oversimplifies nutrition, which in reality represents a complicated blend of fats, carbohydrates, nutrients and proteins. Even chocolate, as it’s been well-documented, can have certain health benefits if you do it right. And assigning yourself extra time on the treadmill to work off dessert reinforces the notion that exercise is punishment, and that food is inherently bad. Similarly, don’t reward yourself for a hard workout with an extra scoop of ice cream—it all stems from the same thought pattern.
Redefine your workout goals
A growing body of evidence suggests that runners who stay motivated through external factors, such as fitting into a swimsuit or shedding the pounds, are less likely to stick with their workout programs than those who do it for themselves. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the majority of people who do workout do so out of a feeling of obligation, rather than a sense of pleasure in the activity.
If you’re finding it hard to peel yourself off the couch, a little shift in perspective may make all the difference. In particular, it’s useful to focus on how running makes you feel. Do you enjoy the fresh air and the time to yourself? Do you find yourself calmer and more relaxed afterwards? Prioritize your running goals to include these kinds of motivators. For instance, rewrite your goals statement so that your number one aim is to have fun or feel good. Once you revise your thinking, the rest of the workout will come easy.
Express gratitude for what you can do now
So you’re having one of those days where you have to fight to put in 15 minutes and your legs feel like they’re anchored to the ground. And that next training goal feels about a zillion miles away. It happens to the best of us. Even professional runners struggle through their runs sometimes, and the truth is, if you feel like a million bucks every time you run, you’re either not challenging yourself—or you’re some kind of running robot.
As experienced runners, it’s easy to get caught up in clearing the next hurdle, but you’ll probably experience more satisfaction when you try to focus on your day-to-day effort rather than that big race. Take time to appreciate your body and its efforts, no matter how hard you had to struggle to hit the trails.
Ask for help when you need it
For the most part, we runners like to fly solo—if we wanted a lot of company, we’d take up a team sport! However, sometimes a partner can offer the support and encouragement you need, especially if you’re going through a rough spot: when you just can’t seem to hit your goals or are trying to bounce back from an injury, for instance.
But not everyone has a buddy that can work around their schedules and preferences. That’s where personal training can help—they get paid to be your cheerleader! Many trainers now consider themselves body positivity advocates, focusing more on the process and less on results. Look for trainers whose websites and profiles revolve around improving their clients’ energy, health and lifestyles, rather than how you’ll “get ripped” or “be cut.” After all, working out should be a celebration of your body and your physical fitness journey—in order words, your life—and that’s way more important than what size skinny jeans you wear.
About The Author: Jesse Silkoff is an avid runner and tennis player. He currently resides in Austin, Texas where he works as the President and Co-Founder of FitnessTrainer, the leading online marketplace to find a local personal trainer that can help you achieve your health and wellness goals.