How To Maintain A Body Positive Attitude to Exercise!

So you have discovered body positivity and you are feeling great! Maybe you have thrown away your scale or ditched all of your diet books and donated/given away all the “skinny clothes” in your closet. Maybe you feel good in your own skin for the first time in a long time. 

But maybe, just maybe, you also want to start an exercise routine, or pick up an old one. Are we allowed to exercise and be body positive/ totally self-accepting at the same time?  How does that fit in with the body positive life?

If you are anything like me you might have previously treated exercise largely as a necessary evil, something to get through to burn enough calories to justify that doughnut/dinner out with friends/whatever food thing you felt you needed to earn through blood sweat and a precise amount of calories.

Ok so maybe we are not all that disordered in our thinking. Maybe we just exercised to shift a few pounds for an upcoming event/to fit in that dress that’s a bit snug/because it’s summer and oh my god shorts. Maybe we just exercised because it was the right thing to do to be “healthy”.

Or maybe we didn’t set foot in a gym or public exercise class for many years because we were afraid our non-toned and skinny forms would be mocked. Maybe we were scared to even be seen to be trying, because we were ashamed of our bodies, because society has taught us to be ashamed of our bodies if we (shock horror!) gain weight or (shock horror!) aren’t naturally thin. 

Maybe we were trapped in a vicious cycle of shame and dieting and self-flagellation for not even daring to move our poor vilified bodies, because somewhere along the way we learned that we didn’t deserve to feel good in them if they didn’t look a certain way or shrink when we commanded them to. Also maybe we tried a few times, and gave up, and are pretty sure we hate exercise anyway!

I am here to say that, after joining a gym for the first time in TWENTY years last fall and sticking with it for far longer than any other exercise regime I have had in the past decade, that you can be body positive and exercise*, I promise you.

Keep Your Head Up  

Unlike other fitness missions of misery, you are no longer focused like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible on losing weight or making your body look a certain way. You absolutely must start this from a place of as complete self-acceptance as you can manage. You will hear plenty of self-flagellation and weight talk and weigh in’s in the locker room. You will see weight loss posters masked in creepily less obvious by the day language on every surface if your gym is anything like mine. Honestly just going to the gym and walking out not being influenced by the stuff is a huge achievement in itself. I don’t recommend the gym if you are feeling fragile or low in confidence, it is necessity for me because I live in a city, so aside from random classes or my living room there’s not too much else I could do for exercise.

Try New Things

Figuring out how we actually enjoy moving our bodies is another learning curve with the body positive life, as opposed to "Must burn the most calories/become a ninja warrior!" or whatEVER has driven us in the past. For me I try to move my body with yoga and Pilates at home for more pleasure, and dancing, but I do need to go to a gym to keep my dodgy knees in gear. And I have come to mostly enjoy it once I am there (some days I am just not in the mood, and that is ok too!). Honestly having been so out of the loop with gyms, a lot of the machines have changed since the last time I went. I am glad I caved and had a session with a personal trainer to show me how a few things worked that I wasn’t sure about. I have taken a couple of classes that pushed me out of my comfort zone, to be honest the classes at my gym are pretty high intensity, but I am still hopeful I might find one I can build up to.


Don’t look at the calories burned on the machine display. Just don’t. Hide them if you can. I find when I make the mistake of adding the calories in my head I slip into old depressive mindsets, even though I no longer count calories in. Because honestly, I spent my thirties counting calories on various diets (well maybe less so on low carb), but like, it’s built into my DNA, and it’s just tedious and gets you nowhere. I have maybe gained a small amount of weight since I dropped out of diet culture (I don’t weigh myself, just going by clothes), but it’s not something I wish to focus on if I am to maintain a happy self -accepting mind set. 

Do the number of calories burned reflect how awesome you are for dragging your butt out to exercise? Do they mean anything at all? Most daily caloric advice for women is BOLLOCKS. A TODDLER is supposed to subsist on 1200 calories, a common caloric recommendation for women on diets, how messed up is that! Also if you are doing weight training or other strengthening exercises those things aren’t easily measured, but obviously you are doing something positive for your body regardless, so why fixate on some dumb numbers on a cross fit?

Keep Your Body Positive Head On

Try to be as “neutral” as possible if your body changes from the exercise. I hold my hands up here to say THIS IS REALLY HARD GUYS. We are SO conditioned to see muscle tone and any shrinkage as massive improvements and “goals” and blah blah blah. The mainstream attitude to female fitness has seemingly morphed into something bordering on fetishized, body sculpting in an almost bodybuilder type way. I have actually found my thighs have gotten a bit bigger from using the weight machines and my other exercise (rowing and biking), yes they have a bit more definition, but they have a bulky muscle at the top that is new, and the other day it really freaked me out.

The general body positive advice for exercise is to do what gives you joy which is all well and good in an ideal world, and it is true if you love what you are doing it is much more motivating. But I haven’t read much so far on how to deal with possible changes to our bodies from the exercise, especially if you are someone who has ever had an unhealthy body image or dysmorphia in your history.

I'm still learning here myself. For me, the answer to getting a bit more focused on my appearance than is healthy for me is...

Take A Break If You Need To

Don’t let your exercise routine become obsessive or controlling. I have been to the gym less this past month, at first I was attributing it to boredom and laziness (always a possibility with me!) but with a little bit of reflection I realize that I was maybe starting to fixate on the changes in my body in a way that was a slippery slope.

I have definitely built more muscle and tone, no I haven’t lost any weight, but the physical changes are tricky not to internalize as “improvements”, and I just really, really don’t want the way I look at my body to become judgemental or unhealthily appearance focused again. I have come too far to slide into “I’m down a belt loop, maybe if I ate salads not sandwiches for lunch I could be a size 14 again”.

Because trust, it’s dumb. I had a salad last week for lunch (I generally do eat light-ish lunches if I am gymming it because I feel sick if I exercise on a full stomach), but anyway, I had a salad, and by the time I got home from the gym (I went once this week ;-0) I was STARVING. I felt faint. I hadn’t felt that level of hunger in awhile. Not since I was dieting. It was unpleasant.

It reminded me of the starvation that leads to bingeing. Of course I still get hungry, Intuitive Eating encourages you to try to eat when you are around a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale– hungry but not ravenous. This isn’t a hard and fast rule by the way, a lot of people find that if you treat hunger and fullness cues like a staunch rule you can still slip into dieting type thoughts. If you are quite full but still want dessert or a snack maybe just wait a little bit. 

I digress… so yes, I had a slow month fitness wise, but it has made me reconnect with myself to break my routine a bit, to stop focusing more than necessary on my exterior and physical exertions. I have taken time out to try meditating and read a bit more and just had a bit of a slow down. And I fee l better for it. I tend to feel guilty if I don’t go a certain amount of times during the week, so it was good for me to take that pressure off of myself, and actually, I am missing it again and thinking maybe I should try another class/change my routine up.

So yes, on that note, my final bit of advice would be…

Take Care of Your Mental Health First

Basically, do the OPPOSITE of everything that diet/wellness and fitness culture tell you to do. DON’T push yourself past your limits, DO treat your body with care and respect. Try to do things that you enjoy, for as long as you feel like. Some days I have literally half the stamina I do on others, and I respect that. 

Of course it feels great to build strength and what we can physically do, but don’t feel like every attempt at exercise is some challenge to break a previous record. Just do your best. And remember you are a freaking warrior for trying to take care of yourself in this world in this way, without letting anyone tell you what shape you should be or how strong you should be or how you should eat or any of that toxic diet culture crap that consumes way too much of our brains if we let it.

I will say that this is the longest I have stuck to any exercise routine in many years, yes I have lazy weeks, but because I am not constantly measuring myself for some goal I might not attain, my motivation remains fairly even keel and solid. I move my body because it makes me feel good, truly.

Yes, some days it's harder than others, but I like feeling stronger and less injury prone, I like being less tired from sudden bursts of exertion (and it has to be said my cardio training is pretty low, but I do see a difference in little things). I am fitter than I have been in a long while, but I feel the invisible pressure to lose weight still (or visible, my gym is alway selling weight loss plans on every surface), but there are some great resources online now for people in larger bodies looking to exercise thanks to the body positive movement.

More and more health professionals are seeing the light that to motivate people to get fitter maybe fat shaming is not the best way. Not necessarily where I live, unfortunately, but in the States it is definitely a growing thing. Choosing self acceptance at the bare minimum over self loathing is just so, so much more motivating in my opinion. I recommend it.

*I know I have written a Body Positivity and Exercise Post before, but I thought it might be helpful to check in almost a year later with where I am at – this thing is a learning curve for me in every way too! I read my previous post and think I sound like an overexcited fairly oblivious puppy! The wisdom of time, etc. ;-0

New Body Positive Book Wish List/ things I have heard good things about:     

Also if you are new to or curious about any of this body positive stuff I am babbling a bit more about it this month as part of a Self Care September photo a day challenge on Instagram, come say hi! Or just follow the #selfcareseptember hashtag, and @radicalbodylove 's posts for the bopo take on the theme.


  1. Lot's of good information here! I'm currently trying to help my husband, and I feel that respect and baby steps is the way to go.

    1. Thanks Heather :-). I am no expert and I only have the experience of being a bit bigger than average/"straight" sized as they say in bopo land, and learning to accept/deal with that and find my own way back to exercise. I am kind of like your husband in that I am married to a slim person who doesn't gain weight despite eating like a trucker (not saying you do at all!) but you know what I mean, I do think naturally thin people have different metabolisms imo but also they do mostly seem to eat intuitively, which is something anyone who has dieted or had food issues often has to relearn, it's tricky.

  2. Wow, I have to say this is one of the best posts I've read in a really long time and it's something I feel I needed to read. We really are conditioned to view exercise in one particular way, and often as a necessarily 'evil' but long term it's just too damaging to think of it that way. I'm going to take everything you said on board, thank you! :)

    Julia // The Sunday Mode

    1. Thanks for stopping by Julia, glad it resonated! :-) x

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I've completely fallen off the exercise wagon again, but I want to find a way back in because moving my body makes me feel good. You're absolutely right that gyms are full of traps for the unwary, even those that try to kid on they're not putting weight loss front and centre - it's what sells, and they know it. That point about ignoring the calories is a vital one, calorie counting has never been something that has worked for me and turning food and exercise into numbers to be added and subtracted is terrible for my mental health. It's a comfort to know that there's somebody ahead of me in this journey!

    Lis / last year's girl x

    1. Thanks Lisa! I honestly am so conflicted at times/ get so p*ssed off at gym/fitness culture, but my knees are fecked and I need access to the bikes and weights to keep them as healthy/strong as I can. I totally agree once you are exercising and getting the good endorphins it's easier to stick to a routine, but also once you let it slip it's like ugggh why bother. But not relying on shame/wanting to lose weight to motivate me has weirdly kept me going more steadily at this than in a long time, they really are short term motivators. I feel like the body/fat positive way of life helps to bolster your psyche from the inside first and that really does make a difference, I admit I immerse myself in it as much as possible, it helps to have support. There is a great Facebook group I can share with you if you are interested? :-)

  4. I've noticed that I am the most positive about my body when I do not think about it. For example when I was thinking that I 'need to' shed a few pounds it was a long and never ending journey of me finding things that are 'wrong'. However when I am in a happy place, simply enjoying the life positivity comes naturally to me. I am not sure if I am explaining myself here. Love, Iga

    1. I think I know what you mean - it's kind of the eventual goal of body positivity and intuitive eating, to get people who have spent their lives on diets or having issues with food to a more natural, easy, healthy relationship with food, as well as learning to accept and ideally even like/love our bodies whatever shape they are. I know for example when I was younger and accidentally fell into intuitive eating/not thinking about food and my body so much, I was also happier. Diets and the philosophies behind them encourage us to criticize/never be satisfied with ourselves, in my experience and from what I have seen. SO it's natural that letting go of that self critical thought cycle would make you feel lighter and happier! :-) xo

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