I’d like to tell you that I’ve always had a healthy relationship with working out, but that would be a shameless lie. The truth is, as someone who is in very imperfect recovery from an eating disorder, that more often than not, I’ve viewed working out as a way to shrink myself; a means to an unhealthy end; a way to prove that I’m a “worthy” human being by reducing the size of my waist and the circumference of my thighs. And since staying active is paramount to actually living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it hasn’t always been easy to notice when my relationship with working out has been anything but toxic.
In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that more Americans are working out than ever before, a revelation that many would consider to be positive at face value. But when we’re living in a culture that’s obsessed with thinness, fad diets, and extreme (and often expensive) exercise routines, more people working out isn’t automatically a good thing. While only 3% of the US population suffers from a diagnosable exercise addiction, it’s far too easy for any one person’s relationship with working out to lean towards unhealthy at best, and detrimental to their overall health and wellness (including their mental health) at worst.
When we’re constantly inundated with messages about “good food” versus “bad food” and “burning calories” and “cheat days” and “problem area workouts,” it’s easy to see how what was once considered a beneficial and healthy workout routine can morph into an unhealthy crutch that leads to disordered eating habits and exercise obsession. We don’t need to focus on “shrinking” and “toning” and “lifting” and “sculpting” when we’re working out. Instead, we simply need to find a way to move our body in a way that makes us feel good.
So if you’re able to avoid the following things, chances are your relationship with working out is a healthy one. And if you’re not, know that you’re far from alone and there are support systems available to you that will help you establish a healthier, more sustainable exercise routine.
1. You’re not afraid to cancel a workout to hang out with family or friends
There’s a fine line between “prioritizing you time” and “bailing on socializing because you’re anxious about missing a workout” — and only you can know the difference. If you find yourself canceling social plans to sneak in another workout, you might be relying on those moments of exercise far more than you should. Working out should not trump every other area of your life. Hanging out (or these days, Zoom hanging out) with family and friend should matter just as much (if not more) than getting in a 60 minute HIIT workout. If you don’t care about missing a SoulCycle class so you can attend a Zoom Happy Hour party with your girlfriends, it’s a good sign that your relationship with working out is leaning in a healthy direction.
2. You don’t berate yourself for missing a workout
If you’re not afraid to cancel a workout in the name of some social time, then you won’t beat yourself up over missing a workout because your kids turned feral or you had a pressing deadline or you simply didn’t feel like it. Your relationship with working out is healthy if you don’t feel like the world will end if you skip a session or two. Constantly working out does not a healthy person make. Your body (and your mind) deserve and need breaks. Never feel guilty when you take one.
3. You don’t use working out as a substitute for a meal
If you’re counting calories only to formulate workouts that will essentially erase those calories, you’re going down an unhealthy path. Working out should not be viewed as a “punishment” for the food you have eaten, be it quantity or type. And while I’m no health or nutritional expert, I can say from lived experience that viewing a work out as a substitute for a meal is a very unhealthy mindset. A trip to the (virtual) gym shouldn’t be viewed as a way to erase or negate a meal, but simply a way to move your body and remind yourself of your strength,
4. You don’t mind giving yourself a day (or a few days) to rest
Your body needs time to repair and refuel following a workout. This is especially true if your workouts are intense. When you work out, your muscles’ glycogen stores are depleted, which is why you feel tired and sore following a fitness routine. If you don’t give your muscles the chance to replenish those levels, you’ll feel fatigued longer. And that’s just the physical aspect of rest. Working out is also a mental exercise, and your brain deserves the time and space to rest, too.
5. You don’t believe in “no pain, no gain”
Your relationship with working out is healthy if you routinely take the time to really listen to your body and give it what it needs and wants. If you’re exercising to the point of physical pain, your workouts aren’t healthy — they’re damaging. Feeling uncomfortable — or a “burn” — during an exercise routine is typical (and even feels kind of amazing sometimes). But feeling pain and then convincing yourself that you have to push past that pain in order to receive the results you’re looking for is a red flag. Knowing when to stop is at least as important as knowing how to push yourself.
6. You don’t feel the need to hop on a scale as soon as your workout is complete
Ask yourself why you’re working out. Is it because you want to feel strong and connected to your body? To grow your strength and establish a more mind-body connection? To feel more like yourself in your body? Or is it to fit into a socially constructed and undoubtedly unhealthy beauty ideal that equates a person’s worth to their pants size and a number on a scale?
If you’re racing to the scale moments after a workout, or using the amount of pounds you’re losing as the only barometer for success in your fitness journey, it’s time to reevaluate your relationship with working out.