Body Positivity and Exercise

Hello! So I joined the gym, for real (I had a 7 day pass bundle last month, which I wrote about here). Those first few visits felt like baby steps back into living in the land of gym culture while trying to maintain a body positive/non weight loss driven mind set.

Now that I am going to be seeing the weight loss package posters and other potentially triggering stuff on a regular basis, I do think it’s important to exercise fairly vigilant self-care about keeping my mind free of diet culture and outside pressures to "fix" my imperfectly perfect body ;-).

Much of the body positive attitude to fitness is “do what you love/what gives you joy” type thinking when it comes to movement. Which in a perfect world, yes, I would just dance my little heart out all the time. But I have dodgy knees that need a more pragmatic attitude to rebuild them, so I can hopefully dance more in the future (mostly in the privacy of my living room, but still! ;-)).

I do feel like there is a common misconception that people who are body positive don’t work out. I know when I did a Twitter search looking for articles/resources, 99.9% of the results of the word “body positive” combined with “exercise” were derogatory and rude tweets. People are just so dang ignorant and cruel sometimes.

I know that I can exercise several times a week and feel stronger and better for it, but unless I have a weight loss or results type “after” photo to show off as “proof of fitness", not many people will cheer me on. At least not with the same unbridled support they direct at people on extreme diets who are dropping pounds and fat shaming their before pictures.  

And it’s not that I’m looking for anyone’s approval, truly, but it does sting a bit sometimes to know that this way of life is not one that has a built in support system of understanding, not in the way that the weight loss and diet industry have conditioned us to blindly worship reducing our size. It means that we have to seek support from other places, if we need it.

So far I am getting a lot of help and feeling a sense of community from Body Image coach Summer Innanen and her Facebook group, Break the Rules: Body Positive and Anti Diet Community (it is a closed group but anyone is welcome to join who is on the body positive/neutral/intuitive eating track, there are many people at different stages of it participating).

What I appreciate most about the intuitive eating/body positive attitude to exercise is that it is completely kindness/self care driven.

So many people begin fitness routines and get sucked into feeling guilty for not exercising hard enough or often enough or having enough to show for their efforts. Which for me personally, now sounds crazy demotivating. How does beating yourself up/only rewarding yourself for losing weight or inches ever end in anything but eventual frustration and disappointment?

But who can blame us, it's all we know/are taught. Most “fitspo” revolves around NOT respecting or listening to your body in most cases, i.e. “Exercise even if you feel like sh*t, you will feel so much better about yourself after you work out”/no pain no gain nonsense.

I’m not disputing that sometimes you can feel better after exercise, of course you can, but listening to our bodies seems to be something we are encouraged to forget about.

Most everything to do with mainstream fitness motivation is geared at the outside. The “looking good will make us feel good” type fitspo I find particularly sneaky, because what, we cannot feel good about ourselves unless we fit a certain societally prescribed weight limit or size?!

I have mentioned Body Positive Memes before, but truly check out this Instagram and Facebook page by Michelle Elman if you find traditional fitspo frustrating or demotivating. She is great at turning it on its head with humour, showing how insidiously harmful to our self-worth so much of it can be.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or also laziness(!), but for whatever reason I went through a phase of not wanting to exercise much over the past few months, despite having a relatively fun run with exercise last year with my Monday Motivation series.

I think, looking back on it, maybe I was letting go of residual feelings of disappointment that exercise and vague calorie counting didn’t magic away the pounds. If I’m being 100% honest with myself some part of me did still hope to lose weight "accidentally". But at the same time I luckily discovered body positivity when I was beginning to feel a bit negative about my "failure" to lose weight once more (thanks universe!), not to get all hippy dippy on you!

It can be very hard to not treat exercise as a weapon or punishment for food consumed. Even now, for me it is hard not to compile the calories burned at the gym with the calories I might be consuming in my brain, because they are on the displays of most machines. 

It’s why they don’t actively encourage women who are recently coming out of eating disorders to pursue exercise when they are first committing to body positivity and/or intuitive eating/health at any size (so many descriptors, I know!). 

Last week I accidentally started rowing on a machine setting that didn’t display the calories, and it truly felt like a relief (now I just have to figure out how to find that setting on purpose!).

I also felt a bit weird when a young woman weighed herself in the locker room and the machine was saying “This is your fat percentage” – it didn’t say it out loud but you know, just being aware there was a machine that did that did make me remember how crappy everyone felt in high school when the gym teacher would publicly pinch our fat to get our BMI, which is widely dismissed by many nutritionists now anyway!

I thought about how at most times in my life I would have had an urge to get on the scale myself and see what it had to say about my weight and fat percentage, and how much that no doubt would have depressed me and ruined my post workout mood. And I felt genuinely no urge to do that to myself, which was pretty cool and liberating.

So yeah, that’s about it, I guess I just wanted to say that you can TOTALLY be body positive/anti-diet and still exercise if you feel like it, maybe most people know that but I admit when I first got into body positivity it was something I wasn’t sure about myself.

I do think it is important to approach this from a place of feeling relatively secure in your own skin if possible, which I know, can be daunting, much of what we read and hear from body positivity is about the awesome, feel good "after" stage of self acceptance. We are all still going to have bad days, we all have to start somewhere.

For me personally, having plenty of body positive and intuitive eating reading material and other (mainly online) support is essential to maintaining my feelings of self acceptance. I have cleared my social media of most everything that does not help me - apologies clean eaters and dieters, but I have to protect my own mental health above all else with this thing.

I would love to hear if you have had any experience of exercising without dieting, if you are interested in it yourself here are a few links that I found super helpful! :-)

-Christy Harrison: Food Psych podcast #82:  Intuitive Exercise & Overcoming Deprivation
(ok I admit I haven't listened to this one yet, but every Christy Harrison podcast I have listened to has been amazing, this one is next on my list!).

-Malinda Diel (txshortcake): There are lots of awesome plus sized yogis to choose from on Instagram - but I'll be honest, just as with thin yogis, I find a lot of their feeds daunting/impossible seeming. Diel describes herself as a beginner yogi but she has lots of daily, accessible seeming postures. I find her pictures inspiring and (in theory!) achievable.

-Michelle Elman: How to Get Started in the Gym: Body Positive Exercise: 10 minute video from the always cheerful and sassy Michelle (of aforementioned Body Positive Memes) - I really like what she says about "exercise until you get bored" - because I have naturally been doing this lately, before I even watched this, so I guess I am on the right track!

Thanks for reading!



  1. I'm not going to lie, I kind of don't understand what you are going through on this? I'm trying! I guess I just have never been involved in any gym/workout/diet culture so I feel totally clueless, like I do with a lot of pop culture.

    I'm glad that you are continuing to document your journey though!

    1. Lol I don't understand it half the time myself! Basically I am just trying to exercise without old obsessive self critical if I don't lose weight thoughts creeping in. Which is hard if most of your life any attempt at exercise has been weight loss motivated, and when 99% of social media and the current style of gym "wellness" is targeted at making everyone feel like they should lose weight/be on a restricted diet. Or at least that's how it feels as a fat-ish person!;-o

  2. Hi Steff, boy did you ever touch on a lot of issues that get my dander up! As someone who has had a chronic illness most of her life, one which practically by definition is about activity of any duration and intensity triggering setbacks, I encounter so many irritating though perhaps well meant ideas about exercise being the cure for everything that ails you. I think it's probably important to move, in a way that appeals to you, as often as you can. It's great if you can build strength, stamina and cardi-vascular endurance and if you can count yourself among the lucky ones. Blaming people with health problems for causing those problems through lack of exercise is probably the one that irritates me the most. It's so often not true but so many people think it is. Both my partner and I were formerly very active or at least spent our lives trying to be. The will was there and sometimes so was the ability. Chronic illness/autoimmune diseases took it away from both of us. Struggling with weight is an issue we've both experienced too, though that is easier to manage than the exercise. There is no good body of studies showing that exercise leads to any significant weight loss. Weight loss comes from changes in eating habits and those are a challenge. Probably we all have to find what works for us. For my partner and myself it's eating low carb because there is never that feeling of deprivation and hunger that can cause a person to binge. Not everyone is prepared to eat this way though and it's easy for my partner and me to give up most carbs because they cause other problems for us. Fitspo on Pinterest is annoying. I'd say people for whom fitness, thinness and general health comes easily tend to be quite ignorant of how lucky they are and put it down to effort. For those who really do put out a huge effort and succeed, they are rare and perhaps deserve to feel proud of themselves but it still doesn't follow that because they could do it anyone else can. I used to use gyms and go to yoga classes but that isn't a reality for me now. It's great if you can find one where the pressure to be perfect or even to care about weight loss when your goal is fitness then that's really great. I hope it works out for you and that you can figure out how to disable that damn calorie burn counter because it's pointless anyhow. It takes far too much effort just to burn off an apple. It is my belief that the fitness industry has prospered by misleading us about the truth. The truth is that exercise does not contribute much to weight loss but that's what the market desires so that's what they tell us. Oh dear, this might be turning into a rant. Be well, take care of yourself as best you can and do what feels right for you. It takes strength as a person to do that in the face of all the wrong attitudes and misinformed advice that will be thrown at you. I do hope this was coherent. xoxo

    1. Thanks for reading Shawna, sorry of it stirred up any annoyances! I have some experience of people close to me having physical disabilities, I used to work with the differently abled in college. I also found that after my cancer experience the sheer vulnerability of our bodies is startling and no one should take being able bodied for granted. In an ideal world. And you are so right, the fitness industry is very exclusive and glorifying of the most able and "fit" bodies with very little regard for people of different abilities. The gym I belong to is by no means without diet culutre, there are posters on nearly every surface, even in the bathrooms(!) about weight loss. It's the only one I can afford though and I have been bolstering myself for some time now with the body positive affirmations and other support/self care tools, so I am still feeling good about the skin I am in. I actually feel sorry for the young women I sometimes overhear berating their "imperfect" bodies, I am genuinely glad I am not them. I am glad you have found a way of eating that works for you, for me personally eliminating food groups is something I cannot sustain (and tbh have no desire to!). I would rather be a little bit fat and happy ;-) But it has taken me a looooong time to reach that place. xx