The summer before I started high school, I studied teen magazines like they were holy texts. It was 1995, and I was determined to enter ninth grade looking more like the cool-girl models in Seventeen and YM. I still remember a YM article on “faking a better body.” The article listed so-called problem areas readers should presumably feel self-conscious about — “big butt,” “bloated belly,” “thick calves” — along with tips for disguising them while sweating your brains out trying to mold your actual flesh through exercise.
The message was drilled into me that exercise was designed for one thing: becoming as skinny and toned — and thus, as desirable — as possible.
Now, after years of researching and writing about women’s fitness culture, I know that articles like that one were part of a long tradition. Since the birth of the contemporary fitness industry in the 1950s, exercise evangelists have sold women on the idea that moving, strengthening, and caring for our bodies are most valuable when they promise to make us more beautiful. When Jane Fonda told her ‘80s aerobics disciples that “discipline is liberation,” she cemented the message that, for women, freedom came from treating our bodies like projects to be worked on forever.
Seventy years of messaging can be hard to shake, both personally and culturally. “Women still face pressure to exercise for the same reason we have for decades, which is to be thin and desirable,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., a historian of fitness culture at the New School and the author of Fit Nation. “And these days, to also be cut and have nice biceps and abs.”
Recently, however, there has been a growing cultural shift — backed by a growing body of scientific research — to recognize that exercise’s true power has nothing to do with physical appearance and everything to do with improving our mental and emotional well-being. It has the potential to be a tool of true self-care — one for self-determination and a strength that extends beyond our muscles.
When we exercise, we trigger our body’s chemical reward system, releasing a cascade of feel-good hormones. We increase the dopamine receptors in the brain, allowing us to feel more joy and less stress. When we move in sync with others, our brains become primed to feel a greater sense of social connectedness. Exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, and to fill us with a sense of purpose and hope for the future.
But here’s the catch: Our motivations for exercising matter. When we work out mostly because we feel like we should, the guilt and pressure can interfere with the body’s reward system, blunting some of the positive effects, says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Joy of Movement. “It often creates an experience where you’re reinforcing shame or self-judgment or fear while you’re exercising.” For this reason, reframing our relationship with fitness can have an enormous impact on our overall well-being.
I spoke with leading fitness changemakers for their best advice on how to begin to exercise on our own terms — and find joy along the way. Here’s what I learned.
Revamp your social media feeds.
Scrolling through post after post from fitness influencers who are all thin and visibly toned can convince even the most body-assured they need to work toward a “better” body, when actually, it’s our feeds that need a makeover.
As a first step, try a “social media cleanse,” suggests Stephanie Roth Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Manhattan who works with clients to form healthy relationships with exercise. Unfollow any accounts that directly or indirectly make you feel like you need to change your body to be happy — and, just as important, start following ones that make you feel good in your own skin. (Her Instagram account is a great place to start.)
“Social media in itself can be so toxic if we let it,” she says. “But if we’re really intentional about the pages we follow, we can also learn.”
Goldberg recommends cultivating social media feeds that showcase a diversity of bodies and fitness information and push back against diet culture and the idea that exercise is primarily about looking a certain way. Not only does this “change the visual cues that we see daily,” she says, but it can also begin to rewire our fitness value system.
Go on a quest for joy.
Maybe it’s a legacy of the “no pain, no gain” fitness culture of the 1980s, but many of us have internalized the message that for exercise to “count,” it has to involve suffering. And yet, not only can this punitive mentality curb some of the benefits of movement, but research suggests that the more we enjoy a workout, the more likely we are to do it again. (Kind of a no-brainer, if you think about it.)
If you haven’t yet found a physical activity that you truly enjoy, embark on a fitness joy quest. Try whatever workout piques your interest. Maybe it’s trampolining, or maybe it’s walking briskly around your neighborhood while listening to a favorite podcast. Maybe it’s lifting heavy objects.
The key is to stay curious and accept that you may try a few workouts before finding one you love, says Katie Horwitch, a fitness instructor in New York City and founder of the online community Women Against Negative Talk (WANT). “People often feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t enjoy a workout, but really it just means that it’s an option you have crossed off the list.”
Better yet, says McGonigal, flip the script and think about movement as a way to add more joy to your life. Before you embark on your quest, take a moment to reflect on the areas of your life that may be lacking. For example, do you want to feel more connected to others? Like you’re taking on challenges that are meaningful? To experience the joy of music, of nature? To feel more spiritually grounded? From there, she says, seek out a workout that promises to create the context in which you can experience whatever it is you’re looking for.
At the end of a new workout, ask yourself three questions.
Finding a workout you enjoy doesn’t necessarily mean finding one that’s easy or gentle. Nor does it mean you have to enjoy every moment of the experience itself. We often derive the greatest satisfaction from physical activities that encourage us to challenge what we thought we were capable of, and to overcome fears and obstacles. “When you are no longer associating the challenge with calories to burn or body parts to fix, it’s easier to get a clear sense of whether that intensity and that challenge is meaningful and helpful to you,” says McGonigal.
A useful way to determine if a workout is serving you, says McGonigal, is to ask yourself these three questions when you’re done: Do I feel better about myself? Do I feel better about the future (either your ability to face the future and/or a general sense of optimism about the world)? And do I feel better about my place in the world?
If the answer is yes to most or all of them, you’re on the right track.
Exercise to do good for others.
If you’re looking for an easy way to add greater meaning to your workouts, seek out opportunities to exercise that support your community. Research suggests volunteering to help others can improve our mental health and boost our happiness. Why not combine it with the mental health benefits of exercise for a double boost?
Enlist a friend to go on a hike that benefits the environment, picking up litter along the way. Volunteer with a local youth fitness program. There’s also the tried-and-true approach of signing up for a 5K run or walk that raises money for a charity you care about. McGonigal is keen on a program out of Austin, Texas, in which locals can volunteer to take shelter dogs on runs, offering both humans and canines a taste of freedom in movement.
Savor the experience of moving just for you.
Fitness culture has a long history of encouraging moms to exercise — but usually in the service of improving our physical appearance. And yet, moms have the potential to gain so much from exercise that has nothing to do with getting your “pre-baby body back,” says Petrzela. Perhaps more than anything, an opportunity to simply be, rather than fill a role as parent (or partner or employee).
In a recent workshop Goldberg held with parents, a theme emerged: They were hungry for downtime in which they weren’t just staring at their phone but enjoying “some kind of meaningful time that is just about them.”
When it isn’t viewed as a chore, exercise can fill that need quite well, she says. “It is really important for parents, and moms in particular, to find time to prioritize themselves — and to set the example for our kids that it’s okay to also take care of ourselves and not just be martyrs all day long.”
Create a feeling of belonging.
Many of us have had the experience of walking into a new-to-us fitness space and feeling deeply self-conscious about, well, everything, from our size to our age to the pattern on our leggings. “It’s horrible to feel like everyone is doing everything but making eye contact with you,” says Latoya Shauntay Snell, an ultrarunner, body acceptance activist, and Instagram influencer. “It’s also hard when it feels like people are staring at you but making no type of contact.”
If you’ve found a space where you feel welcome, make an effort to help others feel the same. “If you see someone standing alone in the corner, go up and ask them some questions,” says McGonigal. Not only will this potentially help others, but “it’s the easiest trick in the world for creating a social environment that welcomes you, and makes you feel connected.”
Snell follows this guiding principle: “How would I welcome in me? How would I want someone to celebrate me? I think the best thing we can do is start off with a ‘hello.’”
Lawton, R. N., Gramatki, I., Watt, W., & Fujiwara, D. (2020). Does volunteering make us happier, or are happier people more likely to volunteer? addressing the problem of reverse causality when estimating the wellbeing impacts of volunteering. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(2), 599–624. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00242-8
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., a historian of fitness culture at the New School and the author of Fit Nation
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Joy of Movement
Stephanie Roth Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Manhattan
Katie Horwitch, a fitness instructor in New York City and founder of the online community Women Against Negative Talk (or WANT)
Latoya Shauntay Snell, an ultrarunner, body acceptance activist, and Instagram influencer