Goodbye diet culture: how to change your fitness perspective

: gym equipment laid out on floor

Goodbye diet culture: how to change your fitness perspective

It’s a sad reality, but for many people, the motivation to move their body is intricately linked to a pressure to look a certain way, be a particular size (almost always smaller and/or leaner), and to fit into society’s so-called norms. These problematic weight- and image-based goals create something called ‘diet culture’, in which certain foods are villainised or celebrated for purely weight-loss reasons. The driving idea is that thinner is always better, and aesthetics more important than actual health and wellbeing.

As a reformed follower of diet culture, take it from me, when we work out only to reach a ‘goal weight’ we’re often doing ourselves much more harm than good. While we might feel like we’re making physical ‘progress’, if the focus is all on the number on the scales or the waistband of your jeans, then the mental and emotional costs can be frighteningly damaging.

While setting such goals can help you get started with exercise, constantly equating success with body mass can be detrimental to your mental health and, ultimately, limit your experiences. After all, there are so many wonderful benefits to working out that go beyond the way we look and have nothing to do with dropping pounds or counting calories.

Sound like you? Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. In another life, I was actively involved in diet culture and saw fitness as a tool, frequently restricting what I ate and working out only to burn calories. It wasn’t until I became a yoga teacher that I realised my mindset was unhealthy, and I became a lot more self-aware of my thoughts, habits and patterns. With plenty of self-love and self-work, I’ve finally shifted my perspective. Luckily, the things I’ve learned along the way are things you can try if you’re struggling with your relationship with exercise.

Let go of weight-based goals

close-up of measuring tape

I never felt happy focused simply on weight during my journey, and I’ve learned that diet culture is to blame for those familiar feelings of unworthiness.

It’s fine to pursue goals around weight loss if your intentions are positive (for example, improving your general health) and you’re working towards them gradually. However, if you find yourself talking negatively about yourself or punishing yourself for not achieving your goals faster, now is the time to be kinder to yourself.

To truly change your attitude toward exercise, you need to learn to let go of weight-based goals in favour of activity-based ones. You could begin your journey with the target of increasing your stamina (being able to run 10km in a particular time, perhaps), or setting a goal to do a certain variety of workouts over a week that release mood-enhancing endorphins – for example, fitting in one swim, one run or cycle, and one yoga class every week. I also love goals that look at health beyond the immediately obvious physical – maybe you’d like to heal and re-energise your digestive system through your movement and food choices.

One of my current objectives is to enhance my breathing capacity, something which has become very compromised throughout Covid times. Shifting my mindset to challenge myself like this has made exercise more enjoyable for me. As I work on my cardio capacity, I love noticing my progress and how it’s a little easier to breathe each week.

Actively practise self-love

Self-love and acceptance of my body shape has been a huge part of my journey. Previously, I was stuck in a place of loathing, following unhealthy habits and constant negative self-talk, eventually breaking down and sharing my insecurities in an Instagram video. It was at this point that I realised how damaging this culture I had become caught up in was to my mental health. It was time to unlearn everything I had believed about my body and finally start trying to love it.

In my yoga classes, I encourage students to celebrate themselves and their bodies by taking up as much space as they require. Every size, every shape, is beautiful and deserving of love. There is so much more to fitness than how we look – when you reframe your mindset to accept this, you realise that exercise is about nourishing your mental and physical health, not about punishing yourself.

Set healthy boundaries

If you’re seeing images on social media that make you feel bad, or if you’re surrounded by people who are constantly talking about weight and dieting, it’s time to set some healthy boundaries. Unfollow accounts that make you feel unworthy, and ask your friends and family to refrain from discussing anything weight-related around you.

Women, especially, can often bond over negative self-talk, but these behaviours aren’t healthy and are learned from diet culture. To keep myself protected, I make it a point to remind my friends not to talk to me about their diets, weight loss or even compliment me on my own body shape when I’m with them.

Setting boundaries like this will help you a lot in the long run and will ultimately support you on your positive fitness journey.

Prioritise fun within fitness

Two women happily flexing their muscles after a workout

It’s easy to get caught up in the thinking that success can only come from doing intense workouts geared towards rapid weight loss. How many times have we heard the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’, for example? While these types of workouts may motivate you and be enjoyable for some, if you personally aren’t feeling this way, stop doing workouts you don’t like and start doing ones that put a smile on your face! This is the ultimate secret to maintaining a long and healthy relationship with working out.

Think outside the box. Instead of just heading out for a run because you feel you have to, why not search online or locally for something a bit different, something that challenges and empowers you, whether it’s Zumba, martial arts, yoga or even joining a frisbee or real-life quidditch team (they exist)! It’s pointless to push yourself to do things that make you feel bad. Making this small change, along with the others suggested above, I hope, will help you feel a lot happier.

Read more about fitness and from Nature’s Truth’s Expert Panel here.

Emily Harding

Emily Harding

Yoga Teacher

Emily Harding, or Instagram's Yeh Yoga, has a passion for teaching a yoga practice that's inclusive and welcoming to all, especially beginners. She's on a mission to keep toxic diet culture out of wellness (and all our lives!) and wants to help dispel yoga and movement myths. With her knowledge as a yoga teacher, Emily Harding will be here to share her experience and advise on how yoga, mindfulness and breathwork, can transform our physical health and mental wellbeing.