True Being RD
Emily Marshall 

How I Healed My Relationship with Exercise


I used to dread any form of exercise and never felt coordinated enough to do any type of sports, but I forced myself to do it anyways as a means to control my weight. I told myself I had to burn a certain number of calories before I could stop exercising.  To make up for certain foods I had eaten I would run outside in extreme weather. Sit ups were part of my regular routine because I dreamed of having a flat stomach.  None of it made me feel better about myself. In fact, I was miserable.

Looking back at how I used to exercise I can’t help but feel sad and sorry for myself for going through that. My exercise routine looks so much different than how it used to and I’m so grateful for the journey that has helped me get here. I share my story so that it may help others who feel they are not in a good place with their relationship with themselves and moving their bodies.

Where the Self-Destructive Behavior Began

I started to feel more self-conscious about my body during middle school. It’s actually very common for girls and boys to start to pick up on dieting and extreme exercise behavior around this time. Puberty makes our bodies change in weird ways and peers start to have more influence than parents. Other girls I hung around with were picking apart their bodies and I began to as well. It didn’t help that the magazines I was reading always promoted weight loss and being “fit”. It seemed “normal” to be focusing on restricting certain foods and glorifying exercise all while wishing I had a different body.

My Introduction to Yoga

Eventually this compensatory and extreme relationship with exercise got to be too much.  I was burnt out and stopped having the motivation to exercise. It was also a time that I became more sick with my Crohn’s disease. Months went by that I didn’t exercise at all during my freshman year of college. I had gained weight and didn’t quite feel like myself. I felt more heavy and lethargic. I decided to try out a yoga class as a way to try something new and to help manage my stress. My first experience was amazing-particularly with how I felt afterwards. I felt at peace and energized at the same time. I was hooked. Trying out yoga in a gym setting led me to try out other group exercise classes. I enjoyed the group atmosphere, but the workout routines I found to be intense and quite draining.

As I became more consistent with practicing yoga and trained to become a teacher, I was happy with the benefits I was noticing such as improved strength, flexibility and stress management. However, I was still unhappy with my body. I still didn’t feel like I was “enough”. To a certain extent, I still felt “obligated” to exercise and often forced myself to exercise even if I didn’t want to as a way to control my weight.

What Sparked the Change?

How did I go from unhappiness to more acceptance and self-compassion? Well, to be perfectly honest, I sought professional counseling. It was a life-changer for me. I had never before been able to openly share everything that I kept hidden away inside my mind. It was completely cathartic to have that release. It also helped me re-evaluate my thoughts. Before therapy I was always falling into the negative-thinking trap that escalated my self-defeating way of thinking about myself. This is when I learned how to challenge my negative thoughts and push myself to open up to others more.

How I Learned a New Way to Exercise

In summary, my relationship to exercise has had its ups and downs, it’s on and off periods. I’ve experienced what high intensity exercise feels likes and what no exercise at all for some time feels like. I didn’t particularly like how either of those felt in my body, but I’m grateful that I’ve had the experience to understand that. It wasn’t until I started to work with a Personal Trainer specialized in functional movement training that I found a routine that I’m currently happy with. He taught me exercises to help strengthen areas that I’ve always been weak in. This has helped tremendously with the pain I typically feel in my lower back, knees and sometimes my hips. He also taught me that you can work out at your own pace and it doesn’t always have to be super fast or intense. This was surprising to me coming from a personal trainer! On some days we trained hard and on other days we trained light. It was built into the program he designed for me which took into account how I was feeling that day as well as the understanding that rest is inherently good for the body.

The Right Exercise Routine for Me

This was the missing piece for me. It was the permission to work out at whatever pace I wanted to. I used to feel guilty whenever I didn’t work out “hard enough”, but now I’m grateful just to be able to move my body in a way that feels good. Exercise is way more fun for me now. I make it a priority to exercise when I can at least 2-3 days per week because I’ve noticed a difference in my energy level, my mood, how I handle stress and the pain/stiffness I get in my lower back. If I don’t do this then I notice my stress level starts to rise and I get irked easily (sorry boyfriend!). I’m actually a much better person because of exercise. My routine consists of mainly strength training, yoga and light cardio, but a lot more too. I try to do things that involve being active and ideally outdoors. I love walking, hiking, swimming, and trying new classes like yoga in the park, etc. Sometimes if I find myself not being able to dedicate enough time to my exercise routine, I’ll fit in little bits of movement whenever possible. You’d be surprised what 10 minutes of stretching, elliptical or core exercises can accomplish!

Acknowledging My Privilege

I want to acknowledge the privilege I’ve had through my experience of healing my relationship with exercise. I understand I’ve had an easier time than some people. I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family who has supported me no matter my size. They have never said anything negative about my body. They also demonstrated a healthy relationship with exercise themselves. Also, I had the privilege of being able to afford the education of my yoga teacher training and being able to work with a personal trainer. I recognize that not everyone has the same privilege in their lives and this may make it more challenging to overcome an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Lastly, I understand having a healthier relationship with exercise in a great deal easier for me due to the size of my current body. I feel less pressured by society to adopt an outrageous exercise routine because my body is already considered “socially acceptable”. People in larger bodies typically experience a stigma for their size and this often creates an increased pressure for weight loss. I offer these tips so that it may help anyone who is searching for a new method of moving your body. 

If you’re looking to improve your relationship to exercise, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Discover your WHY for why you WANT to exercise. It has to be something deeper than “to burn calories” or “to lose weight” or “to look good”.
  • Do you experience guilt for skipping exercise, yet also feel that you lack the motivation for exercise? Give yourself permission to not exercise until you absolutely feel ready and actually desire to move your body. It may be challenging to consider this, but in order to rid yourself of the guilt for not exercising, you have to first give yourself permission to rest.
  • Try out different types of exercise and find what’s fun to you! Exercise does not have to be in a gym lifting weights. Exercise can mean joining a bowling or volleyball league, biking to work, taking your dog for a walk, dancing to your favorite song, or playing an active video game.
  • If financially possible, work with a professional to help you learn how to exercise safely and effectively. If you’re unable to afford the help right now, try searching for youtube videos for free videos on how to do certain exercises.
  • Make it social! Bring a friend along to whatever exercise you’re doing and plan a coffee or brunch date afterwards.
  • Don’t get stuck in the “It doesn’t count”  or “it’s not worth it” trap. Everything counts! Cleaning counts, walking counts, 5-10 minutes of deep breathing also counts!
  • Schedule it into your life when possible. Is the idea of having a 30 or 60 minute exercise routine truly important to you? Think about how you can work your schedule around your exercise and do it regularly. Make it a priority because you and your self-care routine matters! 

Feel free to send me a email about which tip you found to be the most helpful with your relationship with exercise!


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