Raise your hand if you've ever put in extra hours at the gym for an upcoming wedding or beach vacation (we're right there with you, for the record).
Listen, weight loss can be a valid goal, but dropping pounds shouldn't be your only reason for working out. In fact, when we see physical activity as transactional — in other words, we sweat just to burn calories and lose weight — we're heading down a slippery slope as far as our physical and mental health is concerned.
"Associating exercise solely as a means of weight loss is a recipe for disaster," Juhee Jhalani, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Not only does this means-to-an-end mindset create a lot of stress, pressure and unrealistic expectations, it also comes with a built-in deadline: Once you shed the desired weight, you no longer have a reason to continue exercising. That is, until you eventually gain it back and the vicious cycle continues.
This problematic pattern puts you at a greater risk for weight gain as well as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, heart disease and obesity, Jhalani says.
While shifting this mentality may take time, it's totally possible. These six strategies will help you separate weight-loss goals from the exercise equation and put you on a path to a healthier, holistic relationship with working out.
1. Track Health Goals, Not Calories Burned
"The ultimate goal in life is to feel happy and fulfilled, and there is no correlation between happiness and calories," Jhalani says.
Rather than using calories burned as a metric of progress, reevaluate your relationship with success, says Heather C. White, trainer and founder of Trillfit. "Track your success by how you feel, how much stronger you're getting, the status of your mental health, the number of reps you can do and the quality of your sleep," she says.
Jhalani agrees: If you want to be happier, maintain a mood log and a sleep diary. Indeed, there's a positive correlation between physical activity and good sleep, increased energy levels and better mood, she says.
2. Don’t Do Workouts You Don’t Enjoy
Have you ever suffered through a workout you hate just because it burns major calories? This type of approach is not only unhealthy but also unsustainable. Instead, focus on having fun because that's a huge component of sticking to a routine. "Think about what's going to keep you motivated and do that," White says.
One way to stay excited about exercise? "Find activities that align with your passions," Jhalani says. If you're a social person, for example, do group classes (even if it's on Zoom). If you're a solo camper, go for a hike.
"Now more than ever, we must remind ourselves that our lives are unpredictable and short, so live yours fully, just the way you like," Jhalani says.
3. Use Exercise to Relax or Reduce Stress
Sometimes sneaking a sweat session into our busy lives can feel stressful. But if we alter our mindset and instead use our workouts to relieve stress, it can make a huge difference.
"Exercise is the best antidepressant," Jhalani says. That's because physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, which are hormones that reduce the perception of pain and create a positive state in our body, she explains.
So, when you're feeling anxious, agitated or stressed, move your body in any way that feels good to you. Do yoga, put on some tunes and dance or go for a jog and catch a runner's high.
4. Think of Exercise as a Privilege, Not a Chore
While you might lack the motivation to lace up your gym sneakers sometimes (which is totally normal!), exercise shouldn't feel like a job on most days. In fact, think of it as the opposite: a precious hour set aside when you can escape from your crappy day at work and concentrate on your needs.
"Reimagine exercise time as 'me time' when you strengthen your body and center your thoughts," Jhalani says. Try to focus on feeling grateful for having a body that's capable and strong.
And if you find yourself cringing or overwhelmed with the idea of exercising, it might be time to switch up your routine, Jhalani says. Try a new workout, create a fun playlist or listen to an audio book or podcast to keep things fresh.
5. Focus on the Health Benefits of Exercise
When it comes to the advantages of exercise, losing weight is just the tip of the iceberg — the benefits go way beyond fitting into your skinny jeans. If you're stuck on the scale, try to remember all the other ways regular physical activity can lead to big payoffs for your body and mind, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
- Reduces your risk of heart diseases, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, thus increasing your chances of living longer
- Boosts your mental health and mood, helping to manage stress, anxiety and depression
- Strengthens your bones, enhances your balance and reduces your risk of falls as you age
- Improves brain function, sleep and sexual health
And if you're the type who prefers concrete, measurable goals, it may be helpful to visit your primary care provider for a consult and bloodwork.
"Your baseline bloodwork may serve as a motivator to observe any changes that may occur once you start to exercise," Jhalani says.
6. See Exercise as a Lifestyle, Not a Goal
While setting goals can be motivating, your relationship with exercise doesn't need a deadline to be fruitful. Rather than focusing on losing pounds (which is a short-term goal), think about how you can enrich your entire life through wellness, White says.
Jhalani agrees that a "marathon mindset" is a healthier approach. In other words, treat your relationship with exercise as a marathon, not a high-intensity sprint. Be in it for the long haul and heed your body's needs.
"Welcome days and times when you will be highly energetic and able to meet your training goals, but also equally embrace the days when your body may prompt you to go for a long walk or a yoga stretch instead," Jhalani says.