When you're an athlete at any level, your body adapts to the sport you play. It harbors the effects of your hard work — your muscles forming to boast time under strain. The more you specialize in a sport, the more your body reflects it.
But if you're recovering from an injury, transitioning away from a sport, just had a baby, gained weight, lost muscle or are just getting older, your body may change. Some people embrace the changes easily. But it's very common for active people and athletes to be frustrated with the changes they experience for a variety of reasons.
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So, how do you cope with your changing body? We talked to two experts who gave insights into how to embrace and appreciate your body at all stages of life.
Why It Can Be Hard to Accept Changes in Your Appearance
A change in weight, strength or mobility may mean changes in your movement patterns, ability to perform at a certain level or appearance.
Melissa Streno, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified mental performance consultant at Lantern Psychology who specializes in sports psychology and body image issues, says these discussions are common with her clients.
"These are athletes who grew up so entrenched and embedded in the sport culture, routine and structure, it becomes a part of their identity," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. When they transition out of their sport or take a break, it can be difficult to adapt to changing expectations of how they are supposed to look, she adds.
It's important to check in with yourself to find out why you are having a difficult time with your body. For some people, it's less about the actual physical changes and more about what those changes represent.
Often, athletes assume their athletic identity without taking time to explore who or what else they are. While you might think it's the number on the scale you're unhappy about, it could be something more. Are you mourning an identity that no longer fits with your current stage of life? Who are you besides an athlete?
"I treat it like a grieving process," Streno says. "There are the [similar] stages of grief like denial, bargaining, anger and acceptance. It's a good framework to use because I think athletes really relate to it in a sense of losing a part of who they are. People describe it as being pushed off a cliff with no support."
However, this can also be an exciting stepping stone for discovering who you are in addition to an athlete, Streno says.
No, You Don't Have to 'Get Back' to Your Former Body
Too often, people will get stuck in a cycle of trying to "get back" to their previous, "fitter" bodies. It might seem like a normal and healthy idea. You want to shed some weight or gain some muscle mass, so what's the harm?
If you find yourself thinking in this way, ask yourself why you want to get back to that body.
"In the society we live in, we're so focused on appearance," Streno says. "That doesn't ever reflect who somebody is at the core. It's important to recognize that you might be choosing to fight for a body that isn't actually where your body wants to naturally be. If you choose to fight, it is going to be miserable, and it's just not sustainable."
Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, an athlete psychotherapist, agrees.
"It ends up being an uphill battle for the rest of your life," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "So really tuning in and asking yourself: 'Who are you doing this for?' is essential. Ask yourself if needing to be in that body type really aligns with your values and the things that drive you."
Others might feel like they are trying to get back to their old body so they can feel better performing in their chosen sport. For example, if someone who is healing after giving birth wants to resume running but finds their new body has new pains, they might yearn for their pre-baby body. While this is totally understandable, it might be more self-compassionate to give yourself a break.
"If your activity is not truly not enjoyable because it doesn't feel good, then find something else to do," Roth-Goldberg says. "Shifting into something that does feel good — even if it's just temporary — will help your body and mind as you get back to whatever it is you truly want to be doing."
How to Accept Your New Body
Accepting your new body is an important step in being at peace with yourself — but that doesn't mean you need to repeat disingenuous positive affirmations about how much you love your body. At the same time, there is no need to berate yourself for falling short of self-imposed standards.
"I like to remind people to talk to themselves like they would talk to a good friend," Roth-Goldberg says. "Meaning, be kind and understanding."
Next, it's important to acknowledge you're experiencing discomfort or a sense of unfamiliarity in your body, and that it is valid. In this stage, it's important to do some fact-checking, too.
Are you actually carrying an unhealthy amount of weight? A doctor or dietitian can help with what you might want to address from a health perspective and assist in redefining how to move and fuel during this new season of your life.
Other questions to ask yourself, Streno says, include:
- What does my body stand for?
- What do I value about my body?
- What does my body let me do?
"The hope is a person gets to the point where they could be OK with their body. They say, 'I don't have to love it all the time, but I have a strong foundation of acceptance," she says of her body neutrality perspective.
When to Seek Help
Fighting against your body's natural weight range can lead to restricting food, overexercising and other harmful behaviors.
"If you take a look at your diet and exercise habits and realize that for years, you've been striving to look a certain way or be a certain weight and you're never happy, you have to understand that it might not ever be enough," Streno says. "And you don't want to compromise your health."
A trained professional who is well-versed in body image concerns can help redefine what "healthy" or "fit" should mean to you. They might also be able to help detangle some other issues that could be contributing to your body image. Streno says she sees people focusing on weight or strength but who are ultimately trying to fill another void in life.
"If there's something else we're desiring, or we're feeling like we're not connected to or attaining something we genuinely want, we use something else that at least gives us that temporary relief," she says.
"The key word is temporary. If you are on this merry-go-round, ask yourself how reaching a certain weight would make you happy. What would it bring to your life?"
If not, she says, ask yourself what else you might be looking for instead, like a different job or a new relationship. "Because usually it's something else that is missing, and you're using your body as a tool to get there."
A mental health professional can help work through body image issues and whatever thinking traps accompany them. Reaching out for help is the first step in getting to a more fulfilled place, no matter what your body looks like.