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Barbara Ganzer and Cheryl Juba
Directors, New England Center for Overcoming Overeating

Despite all the studies, all the research and all the data, the urge to diet still plagues most American woman. Many diet programs now tout "lifestyle changes" but they are really diets in disguise. The focus is still to change your look. Success is still measured in pounds and inches lost; failure by not sticking with the program.

We have "failed" too many times. Deprivation by any other name is still deprivation and diets don't work. As we realize and acknowledge that food is not really the issue, many of us have given up on diets. However, dealing with feelings about our bodies and the effect that has on our self-esteem leaves lingering questions. How do I make peace with my body? Do you really expect me to love it? How do I integrate my self-esteem with who I see in the mirror or perhaps more important, how do I develop a healthy sense of self?

The answer is not a simple one, but one thing is certain. In order to be at peace with your body, you have to be in your body! And to be in your body, you need to recognize its strengths and you need to use it. This is where exercise comes in.

For decades, exercise has been linked to the concept of weight control. The ideal body has gone from slim and trim to slim, strong and fit. Fitness clubs on every corner, exercise machines on sale in the main areas of most shopping malls, books and tapes, TV shows and advertisements for exercise equipment. "In only 20 minutes a day…" For many, exercise has become a part of the whole package. You are expected to diet, work out, burn those calories, change that metabolism, lose those inches and pounds. In short, it's part of the discipline or perhaps more accurately, the punishment for not having the right body. We obey and run out and buy the latest machine; then the treadmills, bicycles and steps sit in the corner and finally get listed in the want ads, at greatly reduced prices.

Is there another side to exercise? Can we make it Friend rather than Drill Sergeant? We believe that you can if you are willing to take some steps to change your perspective.

  1. Revise your definition of exercise.

  2. Find something you really enjoy doing.

  3. Give up the idea that there is a "right" amount of time to spend exercising.

  4. Pay attention to the messages your body gives back to you.

Let's walk through this process…

The first step: Revise our definition of exercise. This means looking beyond the routines, the classes, the twenty minute workouts, to the meaning behind exercise. Webster lists many definitions, among them, "the act of bringing into play or realizing into action" and "something performed or practiced in order to develop, improve or display a specific power or skill." So often we start with the question, "What am I supposed to do? if I'm not doing the suggested twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, the required number of times a week, does it count?" Or we hear,"I really don't enjoy it, it's boring." If we give up on the "supposed to" and see the purpose of exercise as using our bodies to feel pleasure and strength, more choices are available to us.

The second step: Find something you enjoy doing. What feels good to you? There is no doubt that we will stay with what we like far longer that what we feel we "should" be doing. Any movement you do as a punishment for not being the right size will end in failure, just as diets always do.

It may be helpful to remember what kinds of movement you enjoyed as a child or as a young adult. What was really fun? For example, if you loved to swim as a child, that may be a good choice for you now. And, if you give up the "right" way concept, swimming does not necessarily mean laps.

Explore the many, many kinds of movement options. Dancing, biking, walking, yoga, roller blading, tennis, gardening, volleyball are all examples of the range and variety of choices available. It seems we forget just how extensive our choices are.

Remember to explore what gets in your way. One client remembered loving to play tennis. She had not played for several years and over that time had gained weight. She had not returned to tennis because she believed it would mean having to wear a tennis skirt and she was concerned that she would not find one in her current size. Once she realized she could play tennis in clothing that was comfortable for her, she began playing again and loving it. Her belief about the "shoulds" had put her enjoyment on hold.

It is also important to note that what you enjoy can change with age and perspective. When we get caught up with a case of the "shoulds," we miss out on some of our options. For example, we have talked with people who ran track in high school; their experience with running was tied to competition and performance anxiety. However, returning to running as adults, they were able to set different goals in regard to pace, time and distance. The third step: Revise the concept of time. People are always talking about not having the time. If we look at exercise as specific activities that require particular time commitments and are done because "it's good for me," it will always be hard to find time. However, if we take the time to do the first two steps, redefine exercise and find what we like doing, we are then in a good position to do only as much as our bodies need or want. We can experience the pure pleasure of moving our bodies.

The fourth step: Pay attention to your body's message. This goes back to feeling good about our bodies and feeling good about ourselves. As therapists and consultants, we encourage clients to take the first three steps. Once they begin to give up the "shoulds" and find movement that is enjoyable, they begin to notice some additional benefits: increased strength and endurance, increased energy, more time for other pursuits. These pursuits might include new comraderie, new projects, time to reflect, etc. An added bonus is the natural high. Using our bodies to move in a pleasurable way is the best natural defense against the blues.

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