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Why Working Out Should Be About More Than What You See In The Mirror

Ornella Corazza, a professor of addictive behavior at the University of Hertfordshire, says there was more anxiety about body image during the lockdown.
Ornella Corazza, a professor of addictive behavior at the University of Hertfordshire, says there was more anxiety about body image during the lockdown.

Like a lot of folks, I started working out a bunch during the pandemic. I'm talking real jock stuff — swinging and cleaning and pressing hunks of metal. And I started noticing my body change which was cool! I'd never lifted weights before, so this was new to me.

But then I noticed myself noticing my body more often. Suddenly the ever-changing glob of skin and bones that I was seeing in the mirror wasn't changing enough ... my traps weren't big enough, my core not toned enough.

It turns out a lot of people were feeling similarly. "There was a greater anxiety about body image during the lockdown," says Ornella Corazza, professor of addictive behavior at the University of Hertfordshire.

We talked to experts for tips on how to keep comfortable with your body, even as it changes. Here's what they had to say.

Examine your motivations for getting in shape

Instead of focusing on aesthetic changes, consider how exercising can improve your quality of life. Study after study shows exercise is good for your physical health, as well as your mental health. Exercise can help lower your risk of heart disease. Aerobic exercises have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

Maillard Howell is the head of fitness at Reebok and co-owner of Dean CrossFit. When he works with clients, he doesn't promise them they'll be "the most ripped person on the beach" or that they'll get strong enough to qualify for the CrossFit games. Instead, he tells them, "you're going to be able to play with your kids without getting out of breath." The process of "getting into shape" isn't just a physical journey but a mental and emotional one as well, Howell says.

Corazza agrees, adding that "we need to remember that we not only have a body, but we are our body." Our bodies aren't machines. They have other needs, too, she says.

"We need to get in touch with feelings, with sensation ... asking ourselves how we feel," Corazza says.

Keep an eye on your behaviors for any indications that you might be veering into unhealthy territory

Corazza says that seeing fitness as purely a means to get more attractive can lead people to compulsive exercise, disordered eating, depression, and performance-enhancing drugs.

It's normal to shift your behavior as you're working towards or training for a fitness goal, but Corazza says, "the key question is who is in control? Are you in control of your life, or [are] certain behavioral things controlling you?"

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you feel like you have control over your exercise habits, or do they feel compulsive?
  • If you aren't able to exercise, do you feel any kind of withdrawal?
  • Are you repeatedly canceling plans with friends and family in order to exercise?
  • How is your exercise routine impacting your eating behavior or sleeping patterns?
  • Do you feel the need to obscure the amount you exercise?
  • Try not to compare yourself — or your progress — to others

    "Comparison is the thief of joy," says Howell. "Focus on you. Focus on your self-confidence. Focus on your journey."

    It's hard to not get caught up in comparing yourself to others in this age of hyperconnectivity. If you find yourself scrolling through Instagram and constantly comparing your body to other bodies populating your feed, remember that we're all built differently. "We all do different things for a living. I don't have any kids ... You might have four or five kids at home. There's so many variables," says Howell.

    For advice on how to have a healthier relationship with social media overall, check out this Life Kit episode.

    Figure out a way to move your body that doesn't feel like a total chore

    / Catie Dull/NPR

    Exercise can look like a lot of different things — lifting weights and doing circuits, yoga and spin classes.

    "Find a fitness facility that resonates with you," suggests Howell. Gyms and studios often offer free trials. Take advantage of those offers to feel out the vibe of each spot. If a certain class or studio feels aimed at a goal that's not a right fit for you, head over to the next one.

    If the idea of exercise for exercise's sake doesn't work for you, consider more recreational activities, like hiking, rock climbing, or a recreational soccer team.

    When you do find your thing, remember exercise doesn't have to leave you absolutely wrecked for it to "count." Research shows thatjust a little bit counts in big ways. For long-term benefits, consistency is key.

    Set a realistic goal

    / Catie Dull/NPR

    It can be hard to stay motivated. It helps to have something concrete and specific to work towards — something challenging, but achievable.

    If you need help identifying a goal, Howell suggests working with your doctor to figure out what you can do to improve your health. Ask about the different facts and figures on your medical chart, like resting heart rate or blood pressure, he suggests. "What does it mean, and how does it relate to my day-to-day?"

    Once you've set your goal, figure out when you want to accomplish it and work backward from there. Identifying the small steps you can take makes the larger task feel more achievable, which can help keep you motivated.

    On days you're not feeling up to it (rest days aside), Howell says to remember, "Today is important. [Your activity today] doesn't have to be a big thing. Just go in the general direction of [your long term] goal."

    Can't run your miles? Go for a short walk. Feeling sore? Do some stretch work.

    "I know what I do today is going to have an effect no matter how tiny it is," Howell says. "That drop in the pan today is going to help that three-month goal. And that's what keeps me focused."

    The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen with help from David West Jr. Engineering support from Alex Drewenskus. Fact checking by Janet W. Lee

    We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

    If you love Life Kit and want more, subscribe to our newsletter.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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