One of the Health-At-Every-Size principles is “life-enhancing movement,” which is described as, “physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.” Seems like a reasonable approach, yet, if you’ve ever spent any time in mainstream culture (ahem, all of us have!), you’re guaranteed to have some preconceived ideas of what counts as exercise.
Mainstream messages like, “no pain, no gain,” depictions of fit people as almost exclusively thin and white, and hundreds of workout plans promising you everything from health to beauty to happiness set millions of people up with false-expectations and an unrealistic approach to fitness. Most of these plans disregard the science behind moving and even more only address physical health.
These messages are so pervasive in our world, it’s hard to even recognize where our own definition of joyful movement stops and society’s expectations begin. The first part of discovering what joyful movement means to you is untangling some of our preconceived notions of exercise. Being aware of the messages that don’t have your best interests at heart is key to being able to identify what truly brings you joy, not just what society tells you should bring you joy.
Let’s explore some common misconceptions…
- I have to workout for xx minutes/x times per week for it to count: The biggest health gains from physical activity come from doing something instead of nothing. Increases beyond 90-minutes/week results in incremental health improvements in general, however, for any individual those benefits might be outweighed by lower quality of life in other areas. Health is a balance of physical, mental and emotional health.
- If some is good, more must be better! In the same vein of misconception #1, constantly pushing yourself to take on more days or longer workouts isn’t necessary to get the health benefits of physical activity and may actually sacrifice other areas of health, like your relationships or work life.
- Exercise only happens in certain places or only includes certain activities: Your body reaps the benefits of getting your blood pumping, no matter where or how it gets there!
- If you aren’t pushing yourself to the max, it doesn’t count: This misrepresentation of fitness as sweating profusely, huffing and puffing, and ready to collapse is actually a bit dangerous. The best benefits from exercise happen at 50-70% of your max heart rate; this means you should be able to speak in whole sentences, though you may not easily carry out a full conversation.
- Exercising will make you look a certain way: The big selling point of most fitness programs! Whether they promise a six-pack in ten weeks, losing inches or bulking up muscles, your genetics actually dictate your looks for the most part.
- Exercise is only for people who look a certain way: Unfortunately, all those images of a very specific type of person (thin, white, affluent) lead to a lot of people believing they don’t belong in gyms or other ‘traditional’ exercise venues. I can’t change all those exclusive messages (I wish I could), but perhaps this will allow you to see these messages for what they are: a marketing strategy to sell people on an unattainable illusion.
- Exercise will make you a better person: There is a sense that people who work out are inherently better people than those that don’t. They are supposedly hard-working, persistent, care about their health… the list could go on and on. Let’s take a moment to reflect on whether this is really true. Are people who work out regularly actually better than people who don’t? Everyone has demands on their time and they must prioritize, yet if someone choosing time with family over time at the gym, does that really reflect poorly on their moral character? Or someone who is prioritizing mental health at the moment? Additionally, some people have means to outsource daily activities of living (cooking, cleaning), freeing up time to workout, but most of us don’t have those options.
- Certain activities are better or healthier than others: For example, people tend to think of running as the epitome of healthy exercise, but this strenuous activity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Runners experience a lot of wear and tear on their joints, shin splints and stress fractures. My point is not to convince people who love running to stop running, but to show why people shouldn’t push themselves to do an activity that isn’t enjoyable just because it has a certain reputation.
- I need to eat a certain way to get the most out of exercising: For people who aren’t fitness professionals, there is no way of eating or drinking that will change what you get from working out. Formulas for when to eat protein vs. carbs, or how to replenish electrolytes only pertain to folks who do this for a living, for hours every day, or in extreme heat (I don’t recommend this for 99% of people!)
- Eating (insert food item here) negates my whole workout! Even though the health and wellness industry loves to associate diet and exercise, the benefits of physical activity are 100% independent from your diet.