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Prioritizing Health in Exercise

How to cope with a culture of toxic fitness.

Key points

  • Simone Biles's actions encourage us to step back and consider whether we are sacrificing our mental health for fitness results.
  • Resting and recovering is an important part of fitness.
  • Comparing ourselves to others will not help to reach goals.
Source: scottwebb/pixabay

By Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS

Toxic fitness is all around us. “Go hard or go home.” “No rest days.” “The battle is in your mind, not your body.” While these statements are used to motivate people to reach new fitness goals, they also create pressure and guilt. The truth is we don't have to push ourselves to the max to have a good workout. And it is healthy to rest our bodies regularly.

When Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of our time, opted out of many of her Olympic competitions, toxic fitness culture objected and criticized. A toxic fitness mindset doesn’t allow for taking a step back and assessing where we are emotionally.

Biles didn’t just defy toxic fitness culture to protect her mental health, she did so on the international stage. She set a new precedent. Hopefully, her actions will encourage all of us, from professional athletes to weekend warriors, to tune in and take care of our mental health.

Here are some steps to take to prioritize our health over fitness:

Check-in with our mental health while exercising

  • How does this exercise feel to me? Am I excited to do it? Am I dreading it?

  • Do I feel better after exercising? Or am I tired and grumpy? (This can be a sign that our bodies need more rest and/or more food to sustain our exercise routine.)

  • Is exercise the only means I use to regulate my emotions?

  • Am I over-prioritizing exercise while other areas of my life are suffering (i.e., relationships, work, or school)?

If exercise is the only place we “feel good” it is time to look at our relationship to exercise. Exercise can be therapeutic, but it is not therapy. We all need multiple ways to regulate our emotions, take care of our mental health, and if exercise is our only way, it is time to expand the tools in our toolbox.

Check-in with our motivation

Making sure our motivation for movement comes from a positive place is important. If we are exercising because we hate our bodies, we're punishing ourselves and exercising from a place of shame, not joy.

  • Am I exercising to prove something to myself or others?
  • Am I exercising in order to earn the food I eat or simply to burn calories?
  • Do I have a healthy enough body image to have a positive relationship to exercise?

Check-in with our bodies

  • If we are too tired to exercise, we need to honor that. Resting decreases our risk of injury and listening to our body keeps us attuned and safe.
  • If we are craving movement, we need to honor that by moving in a way that feels joyful.
  • When we are moving, if something is hurting, stop and modify the movement. There is no shame in modifications.
  • We must not compare ourselves to others. We need to be present in our own bodies and be proud of whatever it is we’re doing.

Simone Biles said, “Put mental health first, because, if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your score and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to… So, it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor or a person that you really are.” If the star of the Olympics can do this during the biggest international competition, we, as non-Olympic athletes, should take a step back and look at how often we sacrifice our mental health for results. Let’s use this example to prioritize our mental health no matter what else is going on.

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