Consider the New Year resolution of being more active: gyms market themselves as the vehicle for a new you. As a society, we lap it up, committing hard earned cash to establishments which, in general, are not frequented by March. The images of fitness fanatics as toned, slim and athletic encourages us to set goals to look like that in a matter of weeks, when it could be a lifelong journey.
There is an entire industry built on the perception that exercising is for either bulking up or slimming down and it is driving the way we see ourselves around the bend. The adverts and images we see around us communicate that this is what is valued by society, but when that is unattainable, we lose motivation and our inner voices talk of failure and our perceived unattractive body image. When did exercising become a strain on our mental health?
Of course there are benefits to exercising, that do not include the glamour gym photos, action workout videos or finally fitting into that item of clothing which litter social media feeds. We know exercise is, in general, effective in keeping our bodies healthy, but knowing that doesn’t instill a sense of enjoyment or excitement at the prospect of getting moving. So this is where we need to stop. We need a new narrative.
With a closer look into the science of what happens to us when we do exercise, there is arguably a greater impact on our overall well being that is taking place which knocks the socks off that idea of simply getting in shape.
When we are active, endorphins (nature’s own painkillers) are released into our bloodstream and give us that ‘feel good factor’ during and after exercise. This feeling improves our self-esteem and fuels the drive for more. For some, the chemical release feels so good that it becomes the reason for regularly exercising.
There are an increasing number of studies which are recording a positive link in the reduction of mental health issues, such as depression, in those who engage in moderate, regular exercise. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand suggests that “at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week can improve mood and decrease anxiety and stress”.
There are the fringe benefits too. A fitness journey can be a solo venture, but it can also be a social one: sharing the exercising time with friends or family, or even meeting new like-minded people, will provide opportunities for socialisation, where perhaps there wasn’t any. Then there is the idea that regular fitness promotes a sense of achievement to your day. Small wins like these will bolster our mental health further.
Centering your narrative around the wellbeing benefits, here are some pointers to put you on a fitness path that is more about you than any gym poster claims to be.
Make it fun
Movement and exercise doesn’t need to be slogging away on the treadmill or straining under massive barbells. What it does need to be is fun. You want it to be something which you look forward to, something that is enjoyable when you are doing it, something which you look back on and say ‘Hey, I really enjoyed that!’ So think outside of the box, consider what you liked doing as a child. There are an endless number of dancing videos to popular music online, classes for spinning and courts and parks available for tennis, badminton and more. There are laughs and smiles to be had, regardless of your budget. Get creative and have some fun.
Make it meaningful
Take the time to consider why you are wanting to exercise. It is all too common for people to share that they want to be skinny or muscly, but why do they actually want that? Is that because society apparently values those with such physiques, or is it more meaningful and they have come to a realisation that strength is important to them, or their long term health will benefit from a reduced body fat percentage. If the latter rings true, then the goal isn’t about being lean, the goal is much more personal than that. So there needs to be a clear distinction here, because your reason for turning up to exercise means nothing to others, only you. Put yourself at the centre of why you are doing this and exercise for the feel good factor, not the look good factor.
Make it achievable
Setting realistic targets is paramount to long-term success. There is no doubt that we all want to achieve radical success, but that looks different for everyone and it also takes time. When considering how you want to feel in your own body, what activity you’d like to excel in, or how you’d like your physique to look, remember that is the long game. Being successful on a day-to-day basis is all about starting small, and this will lay the foundation for your next steps. The NHS in the UK created a regime where people aim to be able to jog 5km - the first week is almost entirely about walking. The gradual introduction and increase of jogging is central to the 9 week programme. This should be an example to you of an effective approach to long term success, break down what you want and create an achievable strategy to get there.
A large part of success is being able to see your results. This doesn’t need to be arduous, it is all about a basic log for your own reference that you can come back to and appreciate your journey. Try keeping a mood log for a week or two, it can even just be on the notes app in your phone. Choose an emoji to show how you feel before exercising, and then one afterwards. The classic Before / After photos are a quick example of what you could do, but try not to miss any days in between where you were also being successful! These will quickly become your personalised motivational resource.
With that being said, exercise doesn’t have to become the most important part of your day, or even your week. It is about recognising that it is always going to be there as a pathway to feeling better in ourselves, so long as we control our narrative, stay in tune with our reasons for getting active and keep it achievable. Just by getting active, those endorphins will work their magic and positively impact our self image. Because, in the end, you are doing it for only one person - you. Read more about adding fitness into your routine.