We’ve all heard of the fantastic benefits of exercise.  It seems to positively affect just about every disease state in the book as well as positively supporting most mental health conditions.  Studies have shown exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, helps your body manage blood sugar, and helps keep your memory sharp as you age.  Exercise helps you regulate mood and anxiety, increases energy, and also improves sleep, digestion, and your immune system, and more.  With this many proven health benefits, why don’t more of us make exercise a regular part of our lives?

One piece of the answer is somewhat counter intuitive.  Fear of future health problems and/or shame about living in our bodies exactly as they are, are NOT effective long term motivators for many people (granted there are exceptions.)   We can move through an exercise routine by sheer will for a while, even years, but, for many people, if it’s not enjoyable, it won’t last.  

Think of the exercise regimens you may have initiated in the past.  I remember times in my life where I told myself (with and without a sacred vow) that I would run X amount of miles daily every morning.  I would manage this for days or sometimes even weeks before I threw in the towel.  What was wrong with my plan?  I KNEW this was good for me.  Unfortunately, I had left out of the equation the fact that I don’t even like running.  Especially first thing in the morning before breakfast or my coffee.  

I’m proposing the hypothesis that in order for something to be sustainable, it must be pleasurable.  Motivated by joy, instead fear or shame.  The Heath at Every Size movement (HAES™) has coined the term “joyful movement” to indicate a sustainable way to incorporate exercise into our lives.  Joyful movement can be seen as physical activities that are associated with pleasure, rather than following a specific routine of regimented exercise for the primary purpose of weight loss or health outcomes.

When I am working with a client to heal their relationship with movement, we have 3 primary objectives:  One of our goals is to disconnect movement from body shape/size or long term health markers.  This may seem daunting.  Keep in mind baby steps are OK.  For this goal we decenter weight and other numbers.  How do we do this?

We do this by focusing on the second goal:   We focus on how the activity makes us FEEL.  How does our body want to move today?  Does doing some gentle stretches to open our heart chakra help us feel whole, vital, alive, calm right now?  Or maybe its swaying our hips to our favorite song that helps us feel grounded and in the moment.  How does something like strength training fit in?  Can it be joyful movement?  It’s different for everyone, but for me, I would say yes.  Lifting weights or doing core strengthening helps me feel strong.  I feel empowered and capable when I do something hard.

Lastly, we let go of “what counts” as exercise.  I used to think things like “no pain, no gain” or “I must exercise for X amount of time a day for weight control.”  We begin to acknowledge that gardening is movement as is going on a nature stroll or practicing a simple dance move for 3 minutes.  It all adds up, and most bodies like to move, if freed from fear and stigma.

You can take a first step toward practicing joyful movement by asking yourself how you liked to move as a child.  Would this feel good today?  Did you like to bike or maybe go bowling?  As a child, my friend and I loved to choreograph dances.  Once we choreographed a yoyo-dance routine to music which we practiced endlessly for days.  We then showed the routine to our parents and received limited appreciation.  The end result wasn’t as important as the process during which we moved our bodies joyfully and laughed and laughed.

Separating Movement from body size and shape and health markers can be complex.  Another part of this puzzle (and often an even bigger piece) is stigma and shame to live in our body exactly as it is. The following articles may shed more light on this subject of stigma, which was not addressed in this article. 

Fitness levels trump weight for living longer

Stigmatization of the overweight affects their level of physical activity

Read as much as you can about the HAES approach to movement.  Another action step would be to contact Shannon at Starkel Nutrition to set up an appointment for more support on your journey toward healing your relationship with movement.

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your future journey to body and mind health.

Written by Certified Nutritionist, HAES & trauma-informed practitioner, Shannon Fenster, MS, CN, LMT