For many, exercise is intrinsically tied to a desire to self improve, working endlessly towards ever-changing body ideals. So what happens when move your body for one purpose only - to feel good?
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Since day dot, we've been sold the idea that bending and breaking to meet ever-changing body ideals is just a part of the female experience.
We’ve come to know exercise as something that sits somewhere on the spectrum between something we ‘have to do,’ and a pivotal step in striving toward the latest version of what we should view as our ‘dream body.’
I’m no stranger to this trap.
Only a few years ago, I discovered my love for pilates.
I loved the way it made me feel, the practice of the mind-to-body connection and how in tune with my body I became.
But although I adored pilates, I’d limit my engagement with it down to a once-a-week treat – not seeing this kind of exercise as a viable part of achieving my body goals, which at the time, I saw as the ultimate motivator to move my body.
But what happens when we strip all of that away?
What are we left with when we pull down the moving targets and take away the aspiration for an unattainable physique? What is our approach to exercise once we unlearn all the expectations?
For me, it was liberating.
Once I started to let enjoyment guide how I engaged with exercise, everything started to change. By leading with gentleness, I now look forward to almost every workout.
Unlearning the notion that exercise should be motivated by physical results was (and still can be) challenging. It required me to actively shift my mindset to an appreciation for my body in its present state and how the movement made me feel, as opposed to how it might ‘improve’ my appearance later on.
Physiotherapist, Pilates Instructor and Educator Mari Yammas believes that moving our bodies powered by this mindset – a mindset charged with gratitude and positivity – can serve as a powerful antidote to the expectations we often succumb to when it comes to exercise.
As a rule, Mari builds all of her work in the exercise space around the notion that women are complete as they are, letting self-acceptance guide her approach.
“I come back to this concept that I'm enough exactly as I am… I'm more than enough because of who I am on the inside, and I'm going to go and move my body to feel good, not to try and make drastic changes,” she said.
A study by Med Sci Sports demonstrated that adopting this positive style of thinking can actually boost motivation to exercise, as well as make you more aware of your improvement.
Mari has long injected this philosophy throughout her practice as a Pilates instructor for Keep it Cleaner, ensuring those guided by her online workouts always feel they are in a safe space where exercise is motivated, first and foremost, by self-acceptance.
Grounded by the notion that we are whole before we go into a workout, she leads by example, using phrases like, ‘you’re going to feel so strong after this,’ ‘thank your body for working so hard,’ and ‘you should be so proud of yourself for getting that done.’
“Filming Keep It Cleaner workouts was a very interesting experience for me because I was looking down the barrel of the camera, knowing that there were women who may not feel confident moving,” she said. “Maybe they're self-conscious, maybe self-esteem becomes a factor at play, maybe this is the first time they've ever done this style of movement…. I just felt a really strong responsibility to speak to them with kindness and to help them foster that in themselves… to speak to their own bodies with a certain kindness.”
As a bonus, Mari added that leading her exercise classes with unwavering kindness towards the participants has had a positive flow-on effect on her own self-esteem. “I wanted to impart that kindness on other people, but as part of the process, I was sort of imparting it on myself as well, which was really nice…. It’s a rewarding experience.”
Undoubtedly, the pressure to use exercise as a tool to meet the latest beauty standards is overwhelming.
Especially because, as Mari puts it, “objectification bleeds into every facet of our being in terms of wanting to look a certain way, particularly when we're thinking about exercise and nutrition.”
In saying that, there are practical tools we can implement to start curating a healthier, more sustainable relationship with movement through this positive mindset shift.
Mari explained how practising a focused appreciation for how exercise makes us feel can have an empowering impact on healing this relationship.
Additionally, rather than directing all of your attention and energy into the physical results your workout may bring, Mari suggested bringing the function of the movement to the front of the mind.
“Making a reference to what people should be feeling like, ‘you should be feeling nice and strong in this area from doing this’ and then linking that to function,” she explained.
“[For example] if you know they like running you might say, ‘you might find that as we build endurance in this muscle group, maybe your running will feel better, maybe going upstairs might feel better, you might feel like you have more endurance to run after the kids or whatever the case may be for a particular person,” she said.
“Relating [the exercise] to function is hopefully going to help incentivise things a little bit more for people, rather than that focusing on looks.”