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  • Kiki Bustos

What if you went to the gym and your only goal was to leave feeling fucking amazing?

Would you train differently? Would you do it more often, for longer? How would your relationship with exercise change?


Wouldn’t it be nice if when we exercised, we didn’t care about weight loss or muscular gain? What if these concepts simply didn’t exist? What if we were set free from the grips of body image ideals, that fill us with inadequacy, resulting in guilt driven trips to the gym and a sense of obligation, rather than desire to exercise?


This may not even seem conceivable. We are so used to seeing exercise as a form of punishment almost, that the idea of wanting to do it seems ludicrous. People who do get to this point are often seen as an oddity (to put it politely). I truly believe however, that it’s possible for anyone to get to a point where they actually enjoy training. There are just a couple of shifts in mentality and barriers to get over first.


Firstly, environment is key. Unfortunately, most commercial gyms want to make money from you so aren’t too worried about easing your body image insecurities, in fact this is what fuels their profits. We all have them, and they know this. This means gyms are often full of mirrors, and host a perfectionist, body image obsessed culture that is enough to make anyone feel bad or at worst develop a body dimorphic disorder. This culture is driven by the instructors who use motivational cues about your body image to get you working harder. It’s what they teach you on personal training courses. It’s literally in the textbooks. That’s why the idea of exercising with disregard for your body image is quite hard to imagine.


The mental benefits of exercise however, are profound and extensive. Exercise has well-researched, transformative, restorative and regenerative effects on the brain improving, mood, cognitive function and reducing stress. Finding a gym or a sports team where you feel comfortable will really help. If you aren’t able to find somewhere, then just having this awareness will take some of its power away.


Next, you might need to allow for a shift in your self-identity. The way you view yourself has a huge impact on your behaviour. If you’ve never seen yourself as sporty or active, then it can be really hard to shift this perception to allow yourself to become someone who does exercise regularly and enjoy it. Human’s like congruency. We like to think we know who we are, and that our values and actions match up.


If you’ve had bad experiences with exercise during school, toxic gyms or perhaps you’re a woman and therefore conditioned to feel like sports aren’t really for you, then it’s likely that your sense of self has been affected. Exercise may never have been truly accessible to you; therefore your sense of self will have adapted to match it. You may think things like “exercise isn’t for me” or “I’m no good at exercise”. It’s possible however that this isn’t the case and that these are self-limiting beliefs holding you back. Our identity begins forming at a very young age and is deeply personal. Shifting it can be unsettling, but it can open the door to greater things.


I know this because I haven’t always been the person you see today who will happily skip off to an exercise session at any opportunity. I liked sport as a child, however I spent many years struggling with my mental health in my early adulthood not looking after myself and being very self-destructive. Exercise was certainly not a part of my identity. Unfortunately, things got so bad that I had no choice but to change my identity and start looking after myself. It was incredibly hard and took a long time to feel right, but the more I did it the more “me” it felt. Exercise and looking after myself are such a big part of my identity now, that I’m sure most of you wouldn’t actually believe the person I used to be. You may end up losing some people from your life or find yourself surrounded by new people who are more aligned with your shift in identity. This is a good thing.


The last barrier is a shift in mindset away from physical results and on to the immediate mood enhancing effects of exercise. The reason is simple, what can you rely on 100% every single time you train? The BUZZ. Thanks to endorphins. Weight loss and muscular gain fluctuate and take a long time to achieve. Focusing on these alone, will make the whole process of exercising boring, disappointing and short lived. There’s nothing wrong with having these goals, I just believe it may be more liberating, fruitful and sustainable to put these aside and focus on what you can truly rely on. If you are a human being then exercise will produce physiological reactions in your body, that will make you feel good, no matter who you are.


Again, I know this from personal experience. As a teenager I had always dabbled in trying to change my body image through diet and exercise, but it didn’t become a part of my life until the reason for exercising changed. I started exercising again because I was deeply depressed, and a therapist suggested I tried it. It wasn’t easy, because depression inhibits your motivation hugely, however I soon discovered how much it improved my mood and it became the backbone to my recovery. I did end up losing weight and gaining muscle, however I was far happier to have my mental health and my life back. It’s been nearly 5 and a half years since this shift in mentality, and I have never looked back. It’s been a regular part of my life ever since, and it doesn't feel like a chore.


You don’t have to reach a crisis in your metal health in order to make these changes. My circumstances meant that making these changes were easy, in a way. As the alternative, to do nothing and carry on being unwell was so bad. I changed because I had to, but you can change at any point. You can decide to start viewing exercise and yourself in a different light. Your behaviour will then follow, beginning a cycle of positive reinforcement until your new relationship with exercise and identity is achieved.

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