Do you have a healthy relationship with your body? Unfortunately, our culture’s tyrannizing preference for thin bodies can ruin exercise as a way to feel good mentally. Likewise, it ruins connecting positively with our physicality. For many, the focus on transforming the way our bodies look drained the exercise of its pleasure. Plus, by divorcing exercise from the goal of weight loss, we heal our relationships with exercise and our bodies.
Worries about weight and appearance begin in childhood. Girls as young as six talk about being skinnier and middle school boys take supplements to develop muscular bodies. Why? Social media and ads reinforce the pressure to look a certain way. Luckily, ads and social media images are now more inclusive. Even so, the underlying message we face is that our bodies are “not good enough”.
UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain cites extensive research showing how much influence images have on perceptions. Seeing images of models in magazines and ads leads to depression, stress, shame, and insecurity. So, the constant message they send us is “You don’t measure up”. It’s no surprise that eating disorders increased 400% since 1970.
Developing a positive body image and healthy mental attitude toward our bodies is crucial to our health and well-being. While it seems like accepting our bodies for how they look should be easy, it takes patience. Likewise, learning how to relate to our body in a healthy way is key to our mental health.
People around the world struggle with body image as learning to be at ‘home’ in your skin isn’t simple. But it is possible. It requires us to delve deep and look at where and how we’re not being very kind to ourselves at present. For example, we can treat our bodies with more compassion and gratitude.
Ultimately, the journey to develop a healthy relationship with our body is life-long. Below are some of the practices that I return to often. They’re acts of self-nurture that help me treat my body tenderly and with respect. I hope they help you connect with and enjoy your body:
Nurture your inner cheerleader
A great way to learn if you have a healthy relationship with your body is to notice your inner dialogue. How do you talk to yourself or comment on your body? What are the first things you say to yourself when you wake up? What do you say when you look in the mirror? Is your inner voice compassionate or critical? The more you bring your awareness to your inner voice, the more aware you’ll be of your tendencies.
It’s particularly important to notice when you’re tired or fed up, as often this is when your inner-critic is more present. If you discover that your inner voice is more often than not critical or harsh, you can start to notice it but not ‘engage’ with it. Instead, start to develop your ‘inner cheerleader’, an inner voice that champions you and your body.
We know that improving our self-compassion has been scientifically shown to positively improve our well-being. Most importantly, the work starts within our own minds. So, learn how to speak to yourself as you would someone you love, as you deserve nothing less. Avoid self-talk that reinforces a problematic relationship between exercise and food.
Firstly, mentally separate food from exercise. We should give ourselves permission to enjoy a meal regardless of the calories we may have burned that day. Focusing on calories interferes with listening to our body and reinforces a thin ideal. If we’re hungry or craving something, we don’t have to earn it to eat it. These thoughts tie food to movement in a negative way:
- I didn’t work out today, so I can’t have that cookie.
- Even if I’m exhausted, I have to work off that snack.
- I’ll take that exercise class, so I can enjoy my lunch.
- Sadly, I ate too much yesterday, and need to work it off.
Healthy relationship – practice being grateful
When we come to the end of our lives, will we think about how we should have spent more time in front of the mirror obsessing about our looks? Will we worry about our weight? That surely doesn’t convey a healthy relationship with our body. Contrarily, we should worry about important things in life, like spending time with our family and friends. For instance, we should be healthy enough to enjoy that.
Take a few minutes in front of the mirror each morning and begin to practice gratitude for your body. Likewise, notice the beautiful things about yourself. Research shows that people who actively practice gratitude are healthier and less depressed. And they’re also much more resilient during tough times. If you can’t think of anything at first, stand there each morning until you think of at least one.
Eventually, the list of things you love and appreciate about yourself will grow from there. After all, nobody out there is perfect. Not mine, not yours. On the other hand, every positive experience you’ve ever had on this Earth was brought to you, one way or another, by your body. Here’s a body appreciation exercise people incredibly love.
Think of your five senses. A good way to remember them is there are three S’s and two T’s: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Think of one great thing that you experienced today for each of your five senses.
- Sight. My daughter’s smile,
- Sound. The wind through the trees,
- Smell. Coffee.
- Taste. Oh, how I love breakfast!
- Touch. The softness of my pillow,
There are many ways to be grateful for your body, even if it’s not perfect. According to another research, people who practice gratitude every day sleep better and exercise more. When we truly appreciate our body for the incredible machine it is, “Thank you” to your body and all that it does.
Consider self-soothing activities
Have you lately been feeling stressed or anxious? Don’t worry. Luckily, our intelligent system will start to look for ways in which to ease these uncomfortable feelings. Very often though, the things that we reach for are ‘quick fixes’. For instance, these fixes numb emotional pain, including reaching for our mobile phones, eating when we’re not hungry, and watching TV.
In fact, one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is learning how to ‘self-soothe consciously. But, we must soothe in a way that lets us ‘feel’ emotions that are uncomfortable. So, that they can then move through our system. Emotions are ‘energy-in-motion’ and we can either stop that process in its tracks or help complete it.
To do this, we need to create space between the uncomfortable feeling and the actions we take in response. If you find yourself overwhelmed, see if you can pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What exactly does my body need at this moment?” Is it a hug, to vent, to move? Is it to lie down on the ground? Identifying what we need and then seeking it out is a powerful act of self-care.
Therefore, the more regularly we practice this, the easier it gets. In her famous book The Willpower Instinct, Dr. Kelly McGonigal discusses several activities for soothing feelings. However, she concierge these the most helpful ones:
- Going for a walk.
- Talking to a friend.
- Emotional Freedom Techniques.
Several studies indicate we are more likely to consistently engage in activity that is satisfying or enjoyable. We don’t have to go to a gym or even put on workout clothes to get pleasure out of exercising. Something as simple as dancing to our favorite jams at home is great exercise. Remember, having an awareness of how our body feels on a given day is essential to enjoying physical activity.
In other words, untangling food and exercise increases our pleasure in both. First and foremost, exercise should be a fun way to expand our lives, not change our bodies to conform to a cultural ideal. Therefore, consider prioritizing pleasure. What brings you joy? What makes you feel alive? These are the moments when your body feels relaxed, energized, and present.
It might be when you’re snowboarding or playing the piano or being in the company of your partner. However, whatever they are for you, acknowledge them and then do them often. Make joy and the activities and people that bring you pleasure a priority in your life. Your body will surely thank you, as you’ll further build a healthy relationship with it.
We hope these clever keys help you truly develop a healthy relationship with your body. If not, get professional help. For example, people with eating disorders. Others who struggle with trying to develop a more positive sense of self also should consider seeking professional help.
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