Join WIFA™
Back to Blog

Maximize Your Fitness Gains by Ditching Diet Culture

fitness nutrition self care women's health Jan 20, 2022

Maximize Your Fitness Gains by Ditching Diet Culture

by Marjorie Hopkins

The most unwell I’ve ever been was at a time in my life when I made exercise a priority. I know you’re probably wondering how that can be, and rightly so! It’s no secret that physical activity has a myriad of health benefits. It is supposed to help us stay strong and mobile, help us combat negative mental health, and be a positive outlet for our emotions. With that logic, more is always better, right? I thought so, I really did, right up until I found myself in a hospital bed with a hollow stomach and thinning hair. You see, I grew up, as most of us do, with the diet-culture-laced messaging that exercise is punishment. Workouts had no other purpose than to burn calories. I thought that I was practicing self care by doing exactly what the diet culture dominated fitness world said was right: putting moving my body above all else. What I now understand is that the only way to get maximum well-being benefits from physical activity is to make your exercise routine into a self care ritual rather than a punishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not asserting that regular exercise can’t exist in the self care world. However, I am saying that, in order for physical activity to benefit our wellness, we have to dismantle the notion that it is punishment. We have to ensure our movement comes from a place of actual self care. Think about it: self care is defined by Harvard Health as paying attention to and supporting one’s own physical AND mental health. It has the ability to make us more productive, happier, more empathetic, and more. As every flight attendant says: you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. Self care is the proverbial oxygen mask of life. And when it’s joined with ritual, it brings our wellness to a whole new level, as healthy rituals have been shown to have a positive effect on well-being. We can’t just practice self care one time and expect it to have a lasting effect. Making self care into a ritual is the logical choice. Unfortunately, turning exercise into a self care ritual is more complicated than simply fitting more fitness into your schedule.

After my aforementioned hospital visit, it took many more years for me to learn that engaging in physical activity with a diet-culture centered, compensatory mindset is not, and will never be, self care. Even in recovery from the eating disorder that landed me in that emergency room, I continued to use exercise as a form of compensation. Then, I was assaulted. I developed PTSD and spent weeks walking through the world unfeeling, as a shell of myself. And the only thing that was able to reach me when nothing else could was exercise. One Muay Thai class I attended on a whim snapped me back to reality and became the first step to me seeking real help. It was then that I understood exercise had the potential to be an act of self love, if only I worked to separate it from the diet culture that had made it my enemy.

Forcing yourself into a physical regimen that is laced with dread associates movement with punishment, which takes away from mental health. It makes sense: constantly working out in a way that does not leave you with some sort of enjoyment or satisfaction devolves quickly into an ‘I need to do this because I want to eat X or because I rested for X amount of time.’ This can lead to a disordered mindset around movement which negatively impacts our health. When my exercise routine became the metaphorical monster perpetually looming in my schedule, it became a tool for self harm rather than self care, which led to an exercise addiction, eating disorder, and countless injuries.

However, when we make the conscious decision to kick diet culture to the curb and dismantle the notion that exercise is punishment, it can truly become a ritual for self care. Diet culture tells us that our level of physical activity is connected to our morality. The more we stick to a strict workout schedule, the ‘better’ we are, or so we are told. In turn, when we inevitably have to make a shift in our workout regimen, we see ourselves as ‘bad.’ What does this mindset add to? Mental and emotional stress. On the other hand, when we move our bodies from a place of true self care, we can experience higher confidence, more flexibility around movement, time to ourselves, feeling powerful, feeling joy, improved emotional and mental health, trauma recovery, mind-body connection, and much more.

Since that one Muay Thai class, I have put in the work to dismantle diet culture in myself and the fitness world so physical activity can be a part of my self care toolbox. It took a fair amount of patience, getting to know my body, slowing down when I move, separating food from movement, and tearing myself away from a focus on numbers. That’s just what it looks like for me. It can also look like workouts making you feel satisfied when they’re done, workouts that you enjoy, or workouts that remind you that you can accomplish difficult things. It can look like fitting physical activity into your life rather than forcing your schedule to fit around it. It can look like missing a scheduled movement session because something came up, or you don’t think it will benefit your body that day, without a second thought.

If you’re looking to honestly make exercise into a self care practice rather than punishment there are many first steps you can take. For one, you can start to journal about how you feel before and after your scheduled exercise sessions. Journaling can help you pinpoint if what you’re doing is beneficial to your wellness overall, or if it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. Another avenue to take, if you are able, is hiring a weight neutral coach. Said fitness coach can help you try different forms of movement in a safe and controlled environment while encouraging you to listen to your body. Additionally, you can make sure you slow down during exercise and make a point to connect to your body. Notice which muscles activate during each move, how hard they’re working, and how the effort makes you feel overall. Finally, try setting an intention before each scheduled movement session. Is your intention to relieve stress or boost your mood? Go for it! Are you noticing your intention is veering more toward punishing yourself or your body? Perhaps skip the movement and find another form of self care for the day.

It took me years of my life and a ton of experimentation to understand what adopting a self care exercise routine looks like. I’ve discovered that strength training and long walks are what most benefit my overall wellness, meaning physical, mental, and emotional and, while I’m not exercising as much as I used to, my well-being is the best it has ever been. Diet culture has morphed movement into something we ‘should’ or ‘have to’ do, but what if we could take movement back and make it something we want to do? I hope, in sharing my story, I can inspire others to shift our mindset around physical activity, thereby dismantling diet culture in the fitness world.

Learn more about WIFA Vox and the WIFA Writer's Academy!