9 Body-Positive Ways To Get Motivated For Exercise, Because Good Health Isn't About Being Skinny

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 21: Aisha Johnson (C) and other enthusiasts perform yoga in Times Square during an event marking the summer solstice on June 21, 2013 in New York City. Thousands of yogis will attend the free day-long event in Manhattan on the longest day of the year. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

I hate motivational Pinterest boards. Hate them. I am allergic to affirmations, funky fonts, hyper-hopeful quotations posted over photographs of suspiciously tan people saluting the sun, odes to thigh gaps, close-ups of bulging ab muscles in excessively clean gyms, and anything about jogging on beaches. We all need a push sometimes to get out of the house, put on sneakers and go for a run/punch/swim/kick/extended dance sequence. But so much of the available motivation, even under the guise of "inspiration," seems based on self-hate: I do not look like that, one day I may look like that and therefore be worthy of love/sexual attention, my body as it is does not meet the standards of these shiny posters and is therefore a thing to be punished into submission

Scientists are now becoming interested in the relationship between what they call appearance-based exercise motivation — deciding to do 100 sit-ups because you hate your stomach — and how it affects our patterns of exercise behavior, including how much we do and whether it affects our body image. Early findings are obvious: Going into the gym for body-negative reasons, particularly if that starts during adolescence, won't help your self-esteem or your attitude to exercise. 

So here, instead, are nine body-positive ways to motivate yourself into getting your sweat on.

1. Think in terms of strength, agility, and well-being — not weight loss.

It's fairly easy to introduce some bad thinking about your current body's "grossness" when it comes to weight loss. Everybody's attitude to the scale is different, but unless you need to keep your eye on the pounds for medical reasons, think of them as a side effect as you train your body to reach its full potential. Try to picture it as leveling up, like in a video game. Think about your exercise in terms of improving your strength, and how far you can go, how high, how long. 

2. Recognize your achievements.

The whole on-to-the-next-one element of modern exercise can be a bit draining. You shouldn't stay in the same Zumba class long after it's become easy for you, but equally, it's a damn good idea to celebrate every time you move up and can do more. Take a moment to appreciate how cool your body is and how far you've come, and keep track of your progression so that you can look back on it and reflect on how cool it is.

3. Break through your jiggle anxiety.

A new campaign in the U.K. is focussing on eliminating one of the main reasons women don't exercise: They're afraid that people will judge them. For being fat, for being slow, for starting at the bottom and falling over in yoga class. All the glossy women on Pinterest don't seem to face this fear, but the This Girl Can campaign highlights it as one of the big things standing in our way. You will look unglamorous, but you are taking care of your health and having fun doing it, so tell yourself repeatedly: Anybody who judges me can go get bent.

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(And a note: If anybody does judge you or make you feel bad about your level of skill or body, do not go near them ever again. I stopped dancing because, at one of my first dance classes, the instructor told me I "dance like a cheese grater." I'm going to start dancing again, and she can shove it.)

4. Embrace your inner hippie.

Outdoor exercise is generally regarded as better for you than sticking to the gym; it's a mix of beautiful nature scenes, relaxation, sunlight, and lower stress (and might help your immune system). So if you're planning on a run or bike ride or tai chi routine in the local park, enjoy your surroundings, commune with the birds and the bees, and take a deep breath of the outside air. It's science.

5. Practice internal boasting.

Motivation doesn't have to sound like "today I will do better." It can also be "yesterday I was AWESOME, and today I will be AWESOME AGAIN." Often we think that this kind of thinking is best kept for those hilarious weight-lifter dudes who holler and smack their chests like King Kong, but it's also a good way to get out of the "I tried so hard in the last class, so for the next week I can slack off" mentality. We're beings of equivalence, but that approach doesn't work with exercise. Let your own brilliance motivate you. Don't be ashamed — you're rad.

6. Replace motivational images with motivational moves.

Take down those pictures of people with bodily attributes you want (I had a collection of images of Beyoncé's thighs at one point; I feel you) and replace them with images of people who look like you doing things you'd love to achieve. Running a marathon? Doing a full split? Standing en pointe? Curate your own set. 

7. Chase the pleasure.

There is a point in exercise called "the white moment," coined by Olympic weight lifter Yuri Vlason in his memoirs: 

At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly comes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment, you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precise moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work hard for years, just to taste it again.
This is obviously the product of insane amounts of work, but there is pleasure to be found in exercise more generally, in the form of endorphins and mood-lifting. Pain will occur, but if you refocus on the pain as productive and happiness-making, it'll be easier to make those first steps.

8. Let mental health motivate you.

The philosopher Damon Young, who wrote the School of Life's How to Think About Exercise, is convinced that much of modern motivation about exercise is focused on a bad divide: people are convinced that their bodies are just houses for their brains to be shuttled from place to place, while in reality they're actually deeply, wholly linked. 

Exercise isn't just about expanding muscles and upping your reps; it's a part of wellness, of reuniting your mental and physical elements, celebrating yourself, being humble and focussed, and building a consistent sense of self. It teaches us good mental habits. Sounds airy-fairy, but "I am building good mental habits so I don't go crazy" may get you out of bed more than "I want Taylor Swift's calves."

9. Try to think of it as time off.

Exercise as chore is a sure way to make it slip to the bottom of the to-do list. Reprogram it as space just for yourself, for self-improvement, thinking, and the pursuit of personal goals; Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking has a huge list of historical figures who loved their exercise as a chance to sort out intellectual difficulties and get some peace, including Charles Darwin, Thoreau, the Stoic philosophers, Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Rousseau. This took the form of long solitary walks, but it can be shared by other, more hard-working pursuits. 

It's a mini-holiday at its best, a drudge at worst. Get the balance right and you'll never want to take your sneakers off. But remember: Either way, you're beautiful. 

Images: Giphy

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