As an eating disorder therapist I see firsthand the impact of the diet culture and the negative messages that are aimed at our bodies. I know the research well about how nourishing our bodies with food and physical activity is being constantly corrupted into a message full of shame and fear.
As a result, my standards for a great fitness instructor are much higher than your average gym member. I have challenged quite a few trainers and instructors to shift their mindset. But recently, in a Peloton class of all places, an instructor shifted MY mindset and triggered me to start thinking about my own one-person revolution.
The backstory: How does an eating disorder therapist even end up in Peloton classes?
Over the years my taste in exercise has changed– in part due to aging, cranky body parts; in part due to less time in my schedule. I also just got bored with so much of it. I mean, how long could the magic of step aerobics really last? Not to mention the beating my knees took as I catapulted myself across unsteady stacked pieces of plastic to the fast rhythm of 90s pop. But I still love a good indoor cycling workout after all these years.
How my love for indoor cycling began and evolved
I started doing indoor cycling classes when they first became popular in the 90s, when spin classes were first introduced at my college gym at UCLA. I love them even more today. The loud thumping bass motivates me. Somehow, in a semi-dark room, I can feel like I’m part of a team, yet solitary at the same time. Being a busy working mom of three kids now, though, I have much less unstructured time. Finding a gym class that aligns with my tiny pockets of free time is damn near impossible.
A few years ago I bought a used indoor cycle from my gym. I’ve enjoyed the freedom it offers to work out at home when I want. I was thrilled recently to discover the Peloton app that offers classes you can stream at home. There are many talented instructors, each with their own style of music and teaching. But this isn’t a story about my love for spin classes. It’s a story about my evolution as a therapist and as a human.
The impact of words
In addition to my changing taste in HOW I move my body, my motivation for doing so has shifted, too. Over the course of my career as a therapist, I discovered a love for helping people overcome eating disorders and body image struggles. I couldn’t help but pay closer attention to the comments made by the group fitness instructors whose classes I attended. I have learned from hands-on experience working with my clients that words have a huge impact. They become part of a person’s narrative about their value.
We don’t take good care of things we hate
It turns out the research says the same thing. When we take in the messages from the culture that our bodies are something to be tamed, fixed, controlled, punished, even hated… it doesn’t result in greater motivation to take care of ourselves. It results instead in shame – a belief that we are inherently wrong. The problem with this is that we don’t take good care of things we hate. We typically try to exert more control, and then hate it even more when this fails. I wish I had known this so much sooner!
I have become increasingly disappointed with comments of group fitness instructors over the years, such as:
“Let’s burn off those margaritas we drank last night!”
“Let’s burn some calories in preparation for all the food we’re gonna stuff ourselves with at Thanksgiving next week!”
“Push harder! Imagine how good it will feel to pull on those skinny jeans from high school that you keep in the back of your closet!”
“Give yourself a pat on the back for getting to class this morning! Think of all those people who are still at home sleeping off the hangover from all the eating and drinking last night!”
“Keep going! DO NOT STOP! It doesn’t count if you don’t finish!”
“This isn’t supposed to be easy!”
Group fitness comments can be shaming
I am quite sure these kinds of comments inspire some, but what I know for sure is that they alienate a lot of people, too. They alienate those who feel like their bodies don’t fit in at a gym. (Not everyone has old jeans they consider “skinny jeans!”) The comments alienate those who want to be part of a cycling class, but feel intimidated by having to slow down or decrease resistance because of something the instructor said.
I believe these attitudes about how exercise is supposed to be can result in a negative relationship with exercise for many. Physical activity should be accessible for all! I guess you could argue that those who dislike the talk in a group fitness class should just choose a different type of activity. And they probably do. But I worry that they might just give up physical activity altogether because exercise seems to be for OTHER people– fitter, thinner, more dedicated people. For so many of my clients, physical activity is associated with failed attempts at dieting and weight loss, and so it brings about anxiety.
How I made peace with group fitness
Though annoyed by these kinds of comments, I never wanted to abandon the gym altogether. Over time I got better at mentally blocking out these comments, using self-talk to counter them for my peace of mind, or sometimes offering feedback to the instructor that these comments could be harmful to some. (This was always received well, by the way!)
There was certainly a time when I focused on the weight loss and muscle-sculpting benefits of exercise, like so many others. Now, though, I am motivated more by health (I happen to be genetically predisposed to several serious health conditions), keeping up with the activities of my children, and generally just feeling good. I notice that regular movement offers so many benefits. I have more energy. My mood is more positive. My sleep is better. I have fewer aches and pains.
A Peloton instructor inspires my new vision
In one recent Peloton online cycling class, I was impressed and motivated by the instructor’s comments. She spoke about the importance of self-love, calling it a “one-person revolution.” I thought a lot about this during the class and realized I love this idea! It was a refreshing message in a group fitness class, of all places, and I found it inspired me. Her comments inspired me to write this blog post, but it also inspired me to think of all the ways I have become a one-person revolution in my own life.
Exercise as an act of self-care
I think of physical movement as an act of self-love. I move my body in an enjoyable way to take good care of myself. Many in the eating disorder treatment community prefer to use the terms “joyful movement,” or simply movement or activity, rather than “working out” and “exercise.” Call it what you want. But let it be guided by self-care, rather than punishment or compensation for something bad you did or ate.
What if we viewed our bodies like we do our gardens, our cars, or our pets? It truly brings us joy to take good care of these things! We take time to determine how much water, sun, and shade our plants need. I walk my dog and play fetch with her because she loves it. We wash and vacuum our cars because it makes us feel good to have a clean space to travel in every day.
I work hard to help my clients fight the harmful cultural messages so they can recover from life threatening and joy-stealing eating disorders and body obsession. I am living the one-person revolution on a daily basis. It can be lonely work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding!
My job as a therapist helping people to find peace with food and their bodies is hard. Many don’t want to do what it takes (because it’s stressful to go against the culture sometimes!) and many don’t know how. Here is how I live out the one-person revolution on a daily basis in my life.
My one-person revolution
- I make an effort to engage in positive self-talk. I try hard to challenge and reframe negative self-talk when I catch it.
- When I exercise, I try hard to focus on how it makes me feel, and how it can enhance my overall health. I try to find motivation in treating myself well, rather than in the empty promises of weight loss or making up for “bad” eating.
- Periodically, I get rid of clothes in my closet and drawers that don’t feel good on me anymore. They don’t hang around as a reminder of how far I’ve fallen. I instead try to have self compassion for my changing body.
- I try not to body check. This means I don’t linger at the mirror, obsessing over each flaw. Rarely do I weigh myself. Usually only at the doctor’s office. I don’t pinch the fat on my body in an attempt to measure and compare it to others, or to how I’d like my body to look someday. Never do I ask friends or family members their opinions about my body. I try hard not to compare my body shape and size to others at all. (Body checking may seem like it will offer relief. However, research shows that it INCREASES body dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression, and feelings of loss of control over shape and weight. Body checking can also increase the harmful effects of an eating disorder!)
- I don’t avoid my body, either. I don’t linger at the mirror, but I do look. It’s hard some days, but I try to put on my rose-colored glasses and see the positive things. Since I only have clothes in my closet that feel good on me, I pay attention to how fantastic I look and feel. If I’m not feeling it that day, I put on a different outfit. I try not to ruminate on the negative thoughts. Not that they don’t come up! But if they do I try to talk compassionately to myself and frame the situation less negatively to avoid feeling shame.
- Most importantly, I try very hard to model all of the above to my kids. We talk A LOT about these topics, and I remind them often that they are so much more than their appearance. I praise them for their character strengths. If we talk about bodies at all (theirs or others’ bodies), I make sure to point out what their bodies DO for them functionally. I remind them that physical movement is important for building strength, for helping them do all the fun stuff they do, like swim, play sports, and learn to skateboard!
- In the end, I remind myself that how much a person exercises and how fit they are is NOT their greatest value. Some people don’t move their bodies as much as others (and often this is due to privilege– having the time, money, and access to safe and accomodating space for exercise), and THAT’S OK TOO! People who don’t exercise aren’t less intelligent, less virtuous, or less worthy of our love and respect.
It’s challenging, but you CAN become your own one-person revolution!
Notice that in my examples above, I said I TRY. Yes, I am a mental health professional and an eating disorder and body image specialist. But I’m also human. I’m influenced by the culture just like everyone else. Sometimes I slip and fall back into old thinking about exercise, eating, and body image. But I don’t do it as often as I used to. The negative chatter isn’t as loud as it once was. And most importantly– I have skills to counter these old thoughts with new ones. Practicing these skills really does make a difference over time.
P.S. I need to add that this information applies to MOST people. However, if you are struggling with an eating disorder, and/or your symptoms include compulsive exercise, you might benefit from decreasing physical activity. Please get assessed by an eating disorder specialist for personalized advice about how exercise can fit into your life in a healthy way for you.
What are you willing to do to be a one-person revolution in your life?
If you need help with your one-person revolution, I’d love to help! For eating disorder therapy in Plano, Texas or Frisco, Texas contact me at 469-850-2420 or email@example.com. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.
My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in north Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.