Shift Your Mindset to Change Your Relationship with Movement

Movement and being active has been coming up a lot in discussion with clients lately. Maybe it’s the almost Summer-like weather we have been experiencing here in North Florida. Like bears coming out of hibernation, many of us crave movement as the Winter begins to subside. 

Although our bodies may crave it, often our minds get in the way. Movement is something no one can argue is beneficial for our health and overall well-being, so why do so many of us struggle to find consistency and joy in moving our bodies? 

What Does it Mean to Have a Relationship with Movement

Diet culture’s messages along with our past experiences form our thoughts and beliefs around moving our bodies and therefore influence our relationship with it. Whether this relationship is positive or negative in turn impacts our willingness and desire to do it.

It may seem unfamiliar to think about having a relationship with movement. But we do. A healthy relationship with movement is like any other you’d have with a significant other or friend. It involves trust, care, patience, kindness, and respect. A healthy relationship with movement is flexible, fits your lifestyle and aligns with your personal values and needs. By making the shifts that follow, it is possible to improve our relationship with movement.

Let Go of the All-or-Nothing Thinking 

Your mental image of “exercise” might involve sweating it out for hours in a gym and that it has to be strenuous and backbreaking. The common mentality is that if this isn’t the way moving our bodies looks, it simply doesn’t “count.” This way of thinking leads so many to think, what’s the point?! It’s hard to feel motivated to exercise when that means something long and exhausting and misery inducing.

Many of us hold an ideal in our minds of what we “should” do to be active and if we don’t live up to that ideal then we might as well do nothing at all. We also have heard so much about how much and how often – so many minutes, x number of times per week – we should move, that if we aren’t living up to that then we think we might as well not even try. 

If you can relate, this all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to physical activity likely isn’t doing you any favors. All-or-nothing thinking is a common trap that limits so many people around movement. The reality is that there are many, many ways to move and that may look different from one person to the next. 

A client recently was insistent that she had not been doing enough to manage her blood sugars. So, she was describing the ways in which she had been moving. With a flippant wave of the hand and dismissive tone she said she had been walking with the dogs for 20 minutes quite a bit. She described it as not really “exercise” walking. I noticed the tone and asked her if she thought this counted or mattered. Her answer was no, not really. The real truth is that the 20-minute walk with the dogs absolutely matters and is beneficial.

Any and all movement matters, counts, and is beneficial. Period. There is a lot of gray area between black and white, all or nothing thinking. When we step outside of the black or white and begin to consider the gray, we create room for individualizing and getting creative with what movement can look like for us. There is no one perfect way to move and not all of us have long stretches of the day that we can devote to moving. Again, ALL movement for ANY length of time counts. 

What We Call It Matters Too

Notice, I haven’t mentioned “exercise” or “working out”, but instead “movement.” It may seem like semantics and insignificant, but how we label moving our bodies and the way we talk about it matters. For many the terms “exercise” and “working out” invoke feelings of intimidation, punishment, no pain-no gain, and misery – not exactly motivating or encouraging. This can be especially true if you are someone who was ever forced to exercise as a young person. 

Merriam-Webster defines exercise as, “energetic movement of the body for the sake of physical fitness.” Movement on the other hand is about using our bodies to not only impact physical health, but also mental and emotional health AND as a form of pleasure, joy and connection to our bodies. 

“Exercise” often feels rigid, required, and punishing. It is typically done in an all-or-nothing way. There is little room to meet yourself where you are on any given day. Rest is often regarded negatively. The concept of “movement”, on the other hand, is a whole different approach. Movement invites in more flexibility and less rigidity. It takes into consideration your preferences and what feels good to your body. It’s a broader, more inclusive, and approachable way of thinking about being active and caring for your body. It is about care, instead of control.

Shifting how we talk about movement can also be supportive. Movement is often framed as something we “have to do” or “should do.” Both having to do something and placing shoulds on ourselves can create psychological barriers and an unwillingness within us. Instead, it can be helpful to shift your mindset to thinking about movement as a privilege and find gratitude and appreciation for your body’s amazing abilities and capabilities right now in your today body, no matter what that looks like or how that compares to anyone else. 

“Making movement more fine-tuned to your wants and needs can make it more approachable and more enjoyable, thus creating the feeling of wanting to do it instead of having to do it.” 

How to Shift Your Mindset

While changing what you call it and how you talk about it can support a mindset shift, pausing to consider what YOU like and what feels good to YOU can also be helpful to shift your thinking. Ultimately movement is about feeling good. Things to consider…

  • What types of movement did you like as a kid (before moving became about burning calories)?
  • Do you like moving inside or outside? 
  • In the water or dry land? 
  • With people or on your own? 
  • With music or without? 
  • Doing sports type activities or not?
  • Sweating or not sweating? 
  • Moving in everyday activity type ways – mowing the lawn, working in the yard, walking the dog, playing with your kids or more structured ways?

Making movement more fine-tuned to your wants and needs can make it more approachable and more enjoyable, thus creating the feeling of wanting to do it instead of having to do it. 

Consider the Many Benefits Beyond Burning Calories

In reframing your perspective on what movement can look like for you, it can also be helpful to consider the many benefits that go way beyond manipulating your body. Finding a purpose beyond burning calories, tracking steps, and “fixing” and changing our bodies – all very external reasons – can be super helpful.

This can be challenging when those have always been the driving forces behind movement, but for many people finding a different why or purpose is at the core of finding consistency and sustainability, as well as more pleasure, joy, and fun with movement. 

Although it may feel a little foreign to break out of the “I move to burn calories and shrink my body” headspace, considering all the many benefits moving our bodies can provide outside of the typical diet culture, weight focused way can help. These are a few of the many…

  • for enjoyment
  • to be outside
  • to spend time with family or friends
  • to relieve stress and improve mental health
  • to aid with depression and anxiety
  • to feel stronger
  • to be more flexible
  • to improve balance
  • to perform better at a sport you enjoy
  • to improve the everyday functioning of our bodies – eg. lifting a bag of groceries or tying your shoes
  • to find community
  • to improve how we feel in and about our bodies
  • to improve health and health markers (regardless of any change in weight) – blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels, and blood sugars
  • to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease (again, regardless of changes in weight)
  • to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • to reduce your risk of colon, breast, uterine, and lung cancer
  • to improve sleep
  • to improve sexual function
  • to prevent falls
  • to strengthen and support bone health

Tapping into these deeper, and in my opinion, far more live-giving and beneficial reasons for moving go far beyond the typical calories-in, calories-out mentality so many of us operate from. Which one of them resonates with and is important to you?

Take Home

If you struggle with finding consistency and sustainability with movement and are tired of the on the wagon, off the wagon cycle, try to shift your mindset. Some take aways to remember…

  1. Begin to notice and ditch all-or-nothing thinking.
  2. Reframe what you call it and how you talk about it.
  3. Consider what you like and what your preferences are around movement.
  4. Consider the many benefits of moving that go far beyond the scale.
  5. All movement matters, counts, and is beneficial for all bodies.

These shifts won’t happen overnight, but forming a more positive relationship with movement is possible.


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