Experiences we have when we’re young are incredibly formative ― especially when it comes to something like exercise.
Fitness isn’t just physical; it also has a major effect on the mind. If you have a positive outlook on it (or even just a tolerable one), the likelihood is pretty good that exercise will improve your mental health. But if you’ve had negative emotions about working out in the past, chances are that moving your body can cause more stress than you may even think is worth it.
Part of that stems from how you may have thought about exercise when you were young. There are a handful of subtle ways we can be conditioned to hate fitness as kids. Below are just a few of them:
Mandated School Fitness Tests And Curriculum
Requiring students to participate in physical activity and testing their abilities related to it can have an emotional toll.
“I personally didn’t have any interest in exercise as a kid … what was mainly provided at school was very sport-heavy. And if you weren’t gifted at those things, it felt like there wasn’t much else to do,” said Tally Rye, a personal trainer in the U.K. and author of “Train Happy: An Intuitive Exercise Plan for Every Body.”
Take the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a required exam that measured fitness levels. The program was a staple in many schools across the United States for decades. Middle and high school students had to perform activities like a timed mile, pull-ups, a sit and reach for flexibility, sit-ups and more.
(The test was replaced in 2012 with a new assessment that aims to focus on overall health rather than just physical fitness. So at least a new generation of students will be able to focus on the bigger picture of wellness.)
Some states still mandate some version of a fitness test, and some areas even measure students’ body mass index. But grading kids on their physicality can have a psychological impact; some evidence suggests negative experiences with physical education may have an effect on self-esteem.
Pressure To Perform Or Succeed In Team Sports
“I think participating in sports as a child can definitely shape the way kids feel about fitness,” said Lauren Leavell, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in Philadelphia. “I never participated in after-school sports but I did take dance classes. I believe there can be a lot of positive habits formed with movement if the sport or activity is something that is encouraging and positive. For others, these childhood extracurriculars can feel punishing and discourage folks from participating in that type of movement later.”
Playing sports can be a positive experience that instills resilience, but it can also teeter in the wrong direction, depending on the pressure kids are facing. Reports show that many teen athletes struggle with depression. Research has also found that student-athletes can experience high levels of perfectionism and burnout, along with other related mental health issues. That’s why it’s important to have people in place who are aware of this problem and can help young athletes manage these issues.
Media Portraying Exercise As A Way To Get A ‘Perfect’ Body
TV shows, movies, magazines, social media ― take your pick. The images and messaging teens and young adults consume can affect how they feel about themselves and how they interact with the world, especially when it comes to body image.
“Especially as an adolescent and young adult, I always saw fitness as something you do to lose weight,” Rye said. “That’s pretty much all I saw people using it for. I never heard people talking about doing it for enjoyment or any other benefits. My assumption was based on what was in magazines, with exercises showing you how to get Britney Spears’ abs.”
Witnessing A Parent Or Caregiver’s Poor Relationship With Exercise
As kids, we soak up everything we see and hear ― especially when it comes from the people raising us. If a caregiver or parent had a poor relationship with exercise and openly discussed it, you may have similar feelings as an adult.
For example, the belief that exercise is something you “have” to do, not something that is good for you and that you want to do, is a common viewpoint many of us still have today.
“I think, like anything, fitness can be made into a chore,” Leavell said. “If movement is not something that parents speak highly of but kids are forced to do it, there is an underlying feeling that exercise is something you do until you don’t have to anymore.”
Here’s how to have a more positive relationship with exercise as an adult.
This isn’t to say that young people shouldn’t learn about exercise or be put in programs that develop their fitness or sports skills. There are undeniable benefits to doing so, and exercise is crucial to a person’s overall health. The key is creating a healthy relationship with it.
For adults who may have endured some of these negative experiences, that relationship might now be complicated. Years of viewing fitness as punishment can take some time to repair.
Rye said she always advises people to think about what’s actually enjoyable for them. “The question I always ask is, ‘If exercise had no impact on your weight or your appearance, how would you choose to move your body?’” she said. “Most people have never thought about what they actually want to do, they’ve only thought about what they’ve been told is the best thing to do.”
Leavell recommended going slow when you start a new fitness journey and leaning on a support system. “Start small and remember you do not have to stick with one thing,” she said. “If you are really unsure of where to start, try things with your friends. Even if cardio boxing does not sound like your thing, try it out anyway.”
You can also take advantage of the extra options available to you online right now. “Currently, there are so many opportunities online to try teachers from all over the world. It is the perfect time to test something new and not worry about the commitment,” Leavell said.
And continue to remind yourself that physical activity isn’t just for your body ― it’s for your mind, too. “It’s really all about changing the intention behind your workout and saying, ‘what I’m going to do is self-care’ rather than ‘I’m doing this to burn calories or get shredded,’” Rye said. “Really shift to self-care-based reasons.”
Finally, advocate for more positive fitness programs for kids. If you have children of your own, teach them about how to make exercise fun.
Exercise isn’t bad ― the way we learn about it sometimes is.
This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide on the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.
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