I’ll say it: the gym is scary. Teeny girls in short shorts and sports bras, people hulking out with the weights and shirtless Beefcake McGee standing over your shoulder waiting for the squat rack is not what I would describe as welcoming. It’s so easy to get intimidated by the gym — and for a lot of people, it’s not what you need right now. Let’s talk about why.
Today’s social environment places a lot of pressure on both men and women to look a certain way that is at least difficult and at most impossible. Speaking as someone who grew up in the often very toxic world of ballet, I had a really bad relationship with body image and food, and still sometimes do. Recently, I started a fitness challenge to help my friend practice her personal training program and a switch flipped that made me realize that there is a very huge difference between working out because you feel like you have to and working out because you want to.
Working out is not a punishment.
Write that in your diary, make it your desktop background, do whatever you have to, but ingrain that in your head. You cannot treat going to the gym as a punishment for yourself for eating badly or for not working out last week. It’s so important to understand this because the only thing that you will do if you treat your workouts and exercise as punishments is you will make yourself loathe working out, and you will spend your entire sweat session wallowing in guilt.
This is such an important concept that recently the National Association for Sport and Physical Education made a statement about physical exercise being an inappropriate punishment style that was so powerful 29 states made it illegal for schools to use exercise punishment, calling it a form of corporal punishment. If you wouldn’t make a 12-year-old with attitude problems do a few push-ups, then why are you making yourself do pushups for eating spaghetti?
If you have an unhealthy relationship with working out, then you are going to have an unhealthy relationship with your own body. Recovering eating disorder patients are almost always advised not to workout often because those issues with food and body image are going to be substituted for compulsive workouts, the National Eating Disorders Association reports. Even if you’re not thinking about how you need to go to the gym explicitly as punishment, if you’re in the mentality that you need to “burn” off the sandwich you ate or “earn” your chocolate treat later, that’s a problem.
Insider reported that even though you must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, working out only accounts for a small percentage of the calories you burn each day. Next time you’re spiraling about how many calories are in your favorite snack, think about how much energy you need to walk across campus to class, or to walk around at your retail job or even how much energy you need just so that your body can keep functioning and allow you to enjoy your life and do the things you love.
All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t some definite benefits to working out. Beyond the fact that it can help you get stronger and lose weight (although losing weight is an entirely different conversation that is not just about working out), exercise does have clear links to lowering depression and anxiety, and getting moving has been shown to improve self-esteem, according to studies published in the Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Aerobic exercises including dancing, swimming and walking have been some of the most studied on their effects on mental health. The good news here is that dancing, swimming and walking is a far cry from lifting weights at the gym while scary men leer at you from over your shoulder — you can get a feel-good workout right from home or near-home in a method that is fun for you.
The bottom line here is that for those of you who are in a constant cycle of guilt regarding eating and fitness, you’re not alone. Though easier said than done, the best thing you can do is stop stressing. Each and every one of you is beautiful and strong regardless of what you look like, how active you are or what you eat — none of these things define you. Your body does so much for you, so I challenge you to fight to find positivity in your life instead of picking on yourself just for being alive. Next time you go to the gym and see Beefcake lurking, shrug him off and keep doing you.
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Mandy (she/her) is a senior studying journalism and public relations. She spends her free time shopping, writing and hanging with friends.