You Have the Right to Remain Sedentary

Even if something has health benefits, we’re not morally obligated to do it.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

While there’s no questioning the benefits of regular physical activity, the dominant culture (aka Diet Culture) promotes the message that people who “look the part” of physical fitness are healthier, more attractive, and more successful than everyone else. It teaches us to associate our value as humans with what we eat, how much we exercise, and what we look like.

This cultural glorification of “discipline,” and praise for bodies with minimal fat and visibly toned muscles, turns health-related behaviors into moral imperatives.

Meanwhile, a global pandemic has derailed our typical routines, and recent events have highlighted systemic racism and ignited long-overdue conversations about social justice. With so much unrest, of course, we’re not all sticking to the workout regimen.

If you’re shaming yourself for moving less than usual these days, it may be time to question the system that taught you to associate diet and exercise with your self-worth in the first place. Developing a peaceful relationship with physical activity can help you free up space for focusing on the larger priorities that may be calling for your attention.

Here’s how you can start:

Tune into your inner wisdom. There’s endless information out there about what to eat, how much sleep we need, how much physical activity to get, and how much money to save.

It’s great to educate yourself, but information from the outside world cannot replace information from your inside world. 

We all have internal cues telling us when we feel tired, hungry, thirsty, or restless. We know when we need a hug and when we need to be alone. We know when we feel empowered from physical activity and we know when we feel overtaxed by it.

Unfortunately, over time, many of us lose touch with this inner wisdom. While we may want to listen to our internal cues, the dominant culture feeds us rules we must follow in order to achieve its version of health.

Many of us have become slaves to step counters and calorie logging tools. While these tools can provide data, you get to decide how much significance to attach to that data. You certainly don’t have to draw conclusions about your success or self-worth from those numbers.

If you’re afraid that you won’t move “enough” without the feedback from a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor, perhaps you’re out of touch with your body’s cues. Your body has its own definition of enough that varies day by day.

To reconnect, try leaving your devices behind next time you go for a walk or run. Pay attention to how your breath moves in and out, feel your heartbeat, and notice whether you feel tired, energized, or ready to turn around. Remember, enough is not a number, it’s a feeling.

 New Africa/ Shutterstock
Whether or not you exercise is nobody's business but your own.
Source: New Africa/ Shutterstock

Move for joy, not for appearance. Diet Culture tells us that if we exercise, we’ll have leaner or more muscular bodies. Many people latch onto this (often false) promise to motivate themselves. This is a trap, as for most people, genetics prevent us from attaining a body that our society has deemed “ideal” without making it a full-time job and turning to disordered behaviors.

In fact, many people who don’t look the part of what society holds up as a physically fit person are quite athletic, while many who fit the cultural ideal of fitness are severely restricting their food, compulsively counting or tracking nutrients, dehydrating themselves, or abusing medications to achieve their “healthy” physiques.

Research has demonstrated that engaging in physical activity for health and enjoyment leads to more positive outcomes than doing so to pursue an aesthetic goal.

Rather than pursuing fat loss or visible abs, you may want to strive for increasing your speed, stamina, or flexibility, and pay attention to how your body feels before, during, and after you move. See if you can connect to the forms of movement that feel fun or playful for you.

Respect your limits. The dominant culture promotes a shame-based narrative and “no days off!” mentality. For many of us, this message can feel punishing and drive us to pursue a moving target, never feeling like we’ve achieved enough to relax.

Over the long-term, humans don’t thrive in extremes; we thrive with balance. Give yourself permission to find the balance that makes your body happiest. Perhaps after a few days of activity, you need rest. Maybe after lifting weights, your sore muscles crave some stretching. 

Pushing your body to extremes can create a compulsive relationship with exercise, or lead to illness or injury. Keeping open channels of communication between mind and body will allow you to tune into what will benefit you the most on a given day. Respect your limits, and recognize that your version of balance may look different from someone else’s.

Learn to see health as subjective. Most of us have heard about the benefits of exercise for so long that it can feel rebellious or somehow wrong to admit you just don’t really value being active. Often when we’re socially conditioned to believe something is important, we don’t stop to question whether that thing is genuinely our priority, or whether it’s just something we’ve been taught we are supposed to prioritize.

Diet Culture teaches us that we should care about health, and we should care about it specifically in the context of diet and exercise. It teaches us that we are good if we pursue this type of health. But perhaps your version of healthy is more about sleep, sex, or spirituality than it is about step counts and spinach. 

Maybe your version of healthy is about security and survival. After all, research shows us that health outcomes are highly influenced by social factors like community support, discrimination, and socioeconomic status, as well as mental health and environment. Food and movement are only a few small pieces of the puzzle.

The Diet Culture version of health is inaccessible to those who lack the financial security, leisure time, and physical ability required to prioritize expensive protein powders, gym memberships, and cauliflower rice.

Even those who do have the resources to carry out this version of health are not obligated to do so.

We each deserve the autonomy to decide for ourselves whether and how physical activity fits into our lives, without the moralizing, judgment, and pressure of Diet Culture’s messaging.

If you enjoy physical activity, great: Seek it out in the ways that are most enriching to you.

If you don’t, you have every right to focus on whatever else you want. What you feed yourself and how you move (or don’t move) your body is nobody’s business but your own.