I'm usually a outdoor jogger, but when the temperature dips, I head to my local gym for a few months of indoor running. The adjustment from wide open spaces to a room full of treadmills and TVs set to Big Bang Theory is always a shock to my system — not least of all because the second I enter a gym, I struggle to stay body positive. When I'm running on the road, I'm focused on the buildings I pass, people I see, the nice armoire that someone in that apartment building is throwing out — judging myself barely enters my mind. But at my gym, surrounded by mirrors, my focus is suddenly on me: Why does this part of my body look like that all of a sudden? How come everyone else here is so much faster than me? And are they noticing that they're faster than me, too?
I know about the importance of body positivity, about why I should love and value my body for a million reasons that have nothing to do with the way it looks. But once I'm surrounded by those mirrors — and signs for the upcoming "bikini body bootcamp," and flyers for the winter weight loss competition, and the giant mural about "pushing our bodies to the limit" — it can become a struggle. A struggle that I then get down on myself about — uh, you know better than to have this bother you!
"I think it's important to remember that when a gym or fitness studio uses these types of sales tactics, they are essentially strategizing to profit off of your insecurities," Jessi Haggerty, a personal trainer who also instructs other trainers on how to make their practices more body positive, tells Bustle. Research has shown that negative body image self-talk can put people at risk for dangerous health outcomes, from disordered eating to depression; despite this, words and imagery that prop up harmful ideas about body image remain standard at many gyms.
If you're feeling triggered or shamed by the atmosphere at your gym, your best bet, of course, is to find a body positive place to work out, through an organization that unites body positive fitness professionals, like the Body Positive Fitness Alliance. But what if you live someplace where the only option is a gym filled with mirrors, calorie counters, and banners about how "summer bodies are made in the winter?" I spoke to several body positivity experts about ways we can make our gym experiences more body positive — both for ourselves and for the rest of the world.
Know That You Don't Need to Stare at a Mirror (Or Calorie Counter) To Work Out Correctly
The first, and most practical, step to take is to steer clear from the things that make you feel critical of your body. Meghan Kacmarcik, a "non-diet dietician" and nutritional therapist, tells Bustle that folks who are struggling with mirrors should "position [themselves] as far away from the mirror as possible" in classes. "When you're working out," says Kacmarcik, "how your body is moving is far more important than how it looks, so there's no need to watch yourself in a mirror. If you have concerns about your form, let your instructor know and they can correct as needed. Otherwise there's no reason to stare at yourself in the mirror, especially if that's going to kick-start your own negative self-talk."
Haggerty advises that you can also "ditch your tracking devices and scale, and place a towel over [the] treadmill dashboard where it displays calories burned." Not only is watching the calorie counter not essential for an effective workout, it can actually distract you from registering what your body is actually feeling when you exercise. "Eliminating external feedback make it easier for you to tap into your body's internal cues," Haggerty says.
Don't Just Go On Autopilot — Check In With Your Feelings
My first instinct in dealing with my gym has often been to just to try to block the whole thing out — the gym, my feelings, everything — with super-loud music or an engrossing podcast. But I find it never quite works out like I think it will; my eyes still get drawn to the mirror, and my brain to a feedback loop of negative body talk.
Dani Tsukerman, owner of Brooklyn, New York's Very Personal Training, suggests that instead of trying to numb out, exercisers can make an effort to check in with their feelings before working out.
"Before you go, be aware of how you're feeling," Tsukerman tells Bustle. "Be aware if you're overwhelmed, or you're stressed out, or you're anxious, or you're being obsessive about your body. And then accept it, and try to get yourself back on track." Easier said than done, Tsukerman admits. "But over time, the more you practice doing it, the earlier you'll catch yourself."
Tsukerman — who says she struggled with disordered eating and obsessive exercise, and founded Very Personal Training after studying fitness while recovering — stresses that self-compassion is a key part of working out mindfully. "You have to really be your own friend with it, not your enemy," says Tsukerman. "I think a lot of people go into the gym [thinking that it is] their enemy. They use working out as a punishment, or the answer to everything... [but] it's more about moving, and being happy with what you did, and feeling successful in what you did, then feeling punished by what you did." Tsukerman advises checking in with how you feel in the moment, before, during, and after working out, and honoring those feelings — so if you promised yourself yesterday that you'd take a cycling class today, but when the moment comes, you feel a lot of resistance, don't beat yourself up; instead, find another activity that feels better.
Figure Out Why You're Working Out
One of the first steps to actively rejecting body shaming messages at the gym, says Haggerty, is to take "some time to identify your own fitness goals that are focused on function rather than aesthetics, or well-being rather than weight loss." This can be anything from improving strength or flexibility, to managing your mental health — just as long as they're your own, and genuinely meaningful to you.
And there's no answer that's not "big" or "important" enough to count. "Our fitness culture can be really extreme and make us believe if we're not doing intense workouts everyday, we're doing exercise wrong," says Kacmarcik, "which couldn't be further from the truth."
Once you've figured out your reason, Tsukerman recommends making it a part of every workout: "Before you workout, set your tone. Really start slow. Do a full slow warmup for a good 10 minutes, and breathe deeply so that you can center yourself ... After your workout, try not to just escape the gym as fast as possible because you're so relieved that it's done. Do your full cool down, and acknowledge what you did." Take pride in what you accomplished: "Pat yourself on the back for it, really," says Tsukerman.
Figuring out your goal and focusing on it won't just make your individual gym visits easier; as Haggerty notes, if you know what you want from exercise, "when you see the 'bikini body' or weight loss messages pop up, you can give yourself a gentle reminder that as seductive as these messages can be, they are not aligned with your own goals or values."
Tell Your Gym How You Really Feel
But having a more body positive experience at the gym doesn't have to start and end with your own experience. You can also make it clear to your gym that you're happier and more interested in working out when they skip the body-shaming signs, classes, and language.
"Every large business has a customer service line for feedback," says Tsukerman, as well a manager who should be available to hear your feedback. "Or speak to your trainer, who you think might be able to influence somebody there."
You don't have to be angry or confrontational when talking to your gym about body negative messaging (though, of course, you can be if you want to). You can simply say that you would be happier working there with different signs or messaging. "I think any business is happy to hear feedback," says Tsukerman. "Even if it's not really great feedback. Any good business is gonna want to know what their customers are thinking."
Haggerty suggests leading with the positive (i.e. saying, "I love coming to the group exercise classes at your studio") and making your own values clear, then letting your management know what aspect of the gym has had a negative impact on you, and encouraging them to do better ("I'm hoping you can work with your instructors and help them find some more body positive language." )
Be Open to Alternatives
No matter how hard you try to focus on your own goals, or how often you speak to your gym's management, you might still find yourself having a stressful, body-negative time at the gym. Haggerty suggests that everyone "find alternative methods of movement that don't necessarily involve going into a gym, like an outdoor or at-home activity, for the days where you're just not feeling like doing the additional mental work of rejecting diet culture." Kacmarcik urges exercisers to keep trying different gyms until we find one where we feel happy.
This year, I decided that while I dislike being cold when I jog, I like having all the joy of running sapped out by a trip to the gym even less. So I invested in some ultra-warm winter running layers and some sneakers that are less likely to slip on ice, and I'll save my gym visits for days when the snow, ice, or temperature are completely unbearable. It's not perfect. But it's better. And when it comes to me and my body, I hope that can be enough.