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Give Diet Culture The Boot and Reclaim Exercise!

When you think of the word “exercise”, what pops into your mind? Maybe you think of great memories playing soccer or basketball as a kid, maybe you think of a walking buddy you love to meet up with on the weekend…but you may also think of times when exercise felt shaming or frustrating. In our office, we sometimes debate even using the word “exercise” versus less loaded terms like “movement”. The reason for this is diet culture. 

Diet culture tells us that exercise is meant to be unpleasant, shaming, and not worth it unless you’re losing weight. That doesn’t sound very motivating or fun to me! Fortunately, once we look behind the curtain, we see that the wizard of Oz is not great or powerful and diet culture is full of lies. Once we understand the lies and misconceptions about exercise, we are free to choose movement that makes us feel good and to move our bodies out of love for ourselves rather than to “fix” ourselves. Let’s talk about how to do this!

So, first let’s define our terms. In a nutshell, “diet culture” is a way of thinking about bodies that assumes:

  1.  thinner always means healthier

  2. some foods or dietary systems are “clean” while others are not

  3. the sole purpose of exercise is to lose weight or force your body into a different shape

  4. all bodies should look and move the same way

Diet culture is a tricky monster, and it has shape-shifted into many forms. Sometimes it is cloaked in “healthy eating” or “being fit”. Sometimes it doesn’t emphasize thinness but pushes other ideals about body shape and size that are just as damaging and unrealistic. It also assumes that if you are experiencing a health struggle, it’s just because you’re eating the wrong foods, not doing the right cleanse or health fad, or not exercising. So many of us internalize this idea that our body shape/size or our chronic health condition is a sign that we have failed and need to try harder. This message is cruel, ableist, and untrue. 

Diet culture then pushes us to adopt habits that are more likely to harm our overall health. This can include:

  1. exercising as a punishment for eating or to “earn” food

  2. food restriction or excessive fasting (which can lead to a cycle of restrict and binge)

  3. getting upset with yourself or viewing your exercise efforts as “not worth it” if your weight or shape is not changing

  4. giving up on exercise altogether because you don’t fit the diet culture “ideal” (in reality, none of us fit that ideal and that is 100% ok!)

Health is complex and individual. We are often tempted to seek one-size-fits-all answers because of fear of not measuring up. Fear pushes us toward extremes and absolutes. On the other hand, approaches based in solid science, empathy, and sustainability will typically move us toward an answer of “it’s complicated” when it comes to health. 

So, now that we’ve laid out the situation, what is the alternative? I’m glad you asked! Everyone’s journey will be a bit different, so take what seems helpful to you and leave the rest. 

Possible ways to reclaim your relationship with your body and embrace joyful movement:

  1. Explore activities you already enjoy or would like to try. There are sooo many awesome ways to enjoy movement, from paddleboarding to cycling to hiking to tai chi to rock climbing to gardening to seated yoga. If you hate a certain type of movement, the good news is that you don’t have to do it! Try something else and find your joy!

  1. If you enjoy setting exercise challenges or goals for yourself, try out goals that have nothing to do with weight, calories, body measurements, etc. Do you want to learn how to play a new sport? Run further or faster than you did before? Lift heavier weights? Spend more time outside? 

  1. Resist the message of “Oh, I couldn’t do that kind of activity. That’s just for people who _____.” Sometimes we get the message that a certain type of movement is only for a certain type of person. As long as you (and perhaps a medical provider who you feel truly listens to you) understand your body’s needs and you take precautions to learn how to do an activity safely, go have fun and explore all the awesome things your body can do!

  1. If you’re looking to welcome new friendships into your life right now, group exercise can be a great way to do this! (Especially if the group already has a foundation of body positivity and inclusivity.) MeetUp is a great place to look for a group of people who are into the types of movement you enjoy. If you’re in the Grand Rapids area and would like to try out a group fitness class in a supportive environment, we would love to invite you to join us for a class at The Well Being

  1. Wear clothes that you like and that feel comfortable, especially when exercising. Trying to force your body into something that does not fit can create the feeling that your body is wrong, when in reality that item of clothing is just not what you need.

I hope these ideas help you on your journey to find joy in movement and choose what you want your relationship with yourself to be like, body and mind. Be well and be empowered to radically choose your path, friends!

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